Got news? Quiet book shredding fit

shredded-paper-image350As a rule, people on the academic left tend to become angry or disturbed when books get shredded. Throw in questions about academic freedom and religion and you have a combination that can inspire the spilling of seas of ink. However, it seems that this may not be the case if certain kinds of books are shredded.

Thus, we end up reading about yet another major news story in the context of a "conservative news" outlet, that would be National Review Online, rather than being able to get the facts from a branch of the mainstream press.

What's the story? Here is how Edward Feser sets the stage:

Wiley-Blackwell, a major academic press, was set to release its four-volume Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization this month. According to the encyclopedia's editor, George Thomas Kurian, the set had been copy-edited, fact-checked, proofread, publisher-approved, printed, bound, and formally launched (to high praise) at the recent American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference. But protests from a small group of scholars associated with the project have led the press to postpone publication, recall all copies already distributed, and destroy the existing print run. The scholars' complaint? The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, they have reportedly argued, is "too Christian." "They also object to historical references to the persecution and massacres of Christians by Muslims," Kurian says, "but at the same time want references favorable to Islam."

The key words, of course, are "reportedly argued."

Then there is the crucial fact that Feser is a participant in the ECC project, which he openly notes in the article. Here is another key piece of the picture -- hard facts from the age in which people can simply click "forward" and send controversial memos here and there in a matter of seconds:

As Kurian puts it, "This is probably the first instance of mass book-burning in the 21st century." Last week, Kurian e-mailed a memo to his nearly 400 contributors informing them of Wiley-Blackwell's decision, and of his intention of pursuing on their behalf a class-action breach-of-contract lawsuit. Kurian's memo was soon distributed on the e-mail list of the Society of Christian Philosophers. ...

The memo also claims that the "words or passages [the critics] want deleted" include "Antichrist," "BC/AD (as chronological markers)," "Virgin Birth," "Resurrection," and "Evangelism." "To make the treatment 'more balanced,'" the memo says, the critics "also want the insertion of material denigrating Christianity in some form or fashion."

The publishers, as you would expect, say all of this is nonsense. Meanwhile, looming in the background is the fact that the company had already approved the scholarship between the covers, PUBLISHED IT and then spent money to promote it.

However, do you trust a "conservative" news source to tell this story? Do you trust hearing about this story from a writer who is, in fact, a participant in the story that he is covering?

The memo is a hard news hook, no doubt about it. There is a story here.

Thank goodness, I can pass along the information that another version of the story has shown up at the Inside Higher Ed website, written by Scott Jaschik. Here's a key paragraph:

As word of the dispute has reached some leaders in religious studies, many have said that they are baffled and concerned by how such a significant project could implode in this way. A scholarly encyclopedia of this scope is a major commitment for a publisher and the authors involved -- and this one may be kaput after all the time and money sunk into printing, but before widespread distribution. "What puzzles me the most is how this could have gotten so far before Wiley decided to pull it," said John R. Fitzmier, executive director of the American Academy of Religion.

1405157623What happened? I am sure that GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked to discover that this is really a red pews vs. blue pews story, with the key figure being the editor of the series -- independent scholar George Thomas Kurian. Also, it is not surprising that conflicts between Christianity and Islam are central to the disputed material.

Be prepared for lots of scare quotes, too.

Kurian describes himself as a Christian. And he said in an interview that he recruited only people "with some measure of Christian belief" to write the entries in the encyclopedia. He said that while some parts of the encyclopedia would deal with facts that would appear the same to a Christian or non-Christian, topics such as the virgin birth of Jesus would "seem absurd" to non-Christians and so needed to be read and written about "with Christian eyes." In terms of his approach, Kurian said that "there are differences between so-called liberal Christians," who are "Christians in name only and who say you can do anything you want" and "committed Christians" like himself. He said that he favored the latter group.

Kurian said that he was open with his publishers about his approach. ... Further, he noted that prior to the printing of the book, Wiley-Blackwell copy editors and fact checkers did their standard reviews of all of the material, so there was no reason to be surprised by what was in the book.

And so forth and so on.

My point is that this is a perfect example of a story that needs mainstream coverage, from the start. Otherwise, if gets defined in terms of the dueling, "European" style, advocacy press approaches of people who may or may not have axes to grind.

But this could be a Catch-22. To write that story, mainstream journalists would have to wade into a tense, complicated story -- one that would almost certainly cause great offense to traditional Christians and traditional Muslims. Checkmate?

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