For those Presbyterians who are following the portrayal in the popular press of the publication by Westminster John Knox of David Ray Griffin’s Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11, I’d commend Bill Tammeus’ commentary “Christian Publishers, Beware” in today’s Kansas City Star. Tammeus is the Star’s Faith columnist, a Presbyterian, and a rather astute observer of religion and public life. (His Typepad blog is called Faith Matters)
Tammeus’ money quote:
But the book, which I’ve now read, does not measure up. In fact it’s just a mess. It’s a volume of spurious scholarship by an emeritus philosophy professor who says the Bush administration planned and orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks to further its goal of world domination by America.
The book’s many failings call into question the decision to publish it. Indeed, the controversy over that decision prompted the Presbyterian Publishing Corp., which oversees Westminster John Knox, to issue a statement saying the denomination does not endorse the book.
And while that’s true, it’s also true that the decision to print this poisonous book may have done damage to the idea that religious publishing houses should sponsor books by authors who offer credible, if often harsh, critiques of the world.
Griffin, however, tries to tie his discussion of empire in biblical times to his idea that the American empire, as he calls it, is “evil” and “even demonic.” Again, it’s scholarship indentured to serve polemical purposes.
The Bush administration deserves much criticism of its post-9/11 actions and policies. But it was a baffling error of judgment for the publishing arm of my denomination to release a volume caught up in unsubstantiated, wild-eyed accusations. It now will be more difficult for books containing legitimate critical religious scholarship to be seen as serious.
The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation continues to push this book hard. I’m not sure why, really. Its on the front of their main webpage today as their featured book. Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in the academic community. I value the free exchange of ideas, and think we really really need to protect it and even defend the existence of unpopular books of scholarship, or those that we disagree with. The light of day, the power of reason and argument, is strong enough to withstand even this screed.
So if Tammeus is right, its a shame. Religious communities, and others who are contibuting to the public discourse, should trust their ability to provide strong critique, even of books that they decide to publish. So Tammeus’ concern that “it now will be more difficult for books containing legitimate critical religious scholarship to be seen as serious” to me speaks much more about our comfort at doing the hard work of critique and differentiation between good scholarship and bad scholarship, whether it is religious scholarship or secular.
And I think that this point needs to be considered in the quite justified critiques of the PPC to publish Griffin’s loony argument. Ultimately, I’ll support this texts publication by the PPC, because the argument needs to be made to be refuted. This is their argument for why they published it: that it is scholarship that deserves a public hearing. (I’m not sure from these statements whether they think the arguments are boneheaded or spurious, or if they actually think they have good merit). The fact of the matter is that the consipracy theory is out there, and it needs to be exposed to the light of day to be debunked. I wouldn’t have decided to publish it, but ultimately I don’t mind that a publishing house sharing the name Presbyterian has done so, though it has many quite hot under the collar (and there’s a long history behind that, to be sure: see good posts here, here, here and here).
Books are books; I worry about the currency of the ideas, who holds them and what purchase they have in the wider world. I’d much rather have more books with controversial thought than fewer books with the same thought. Orthodoxy, if it is robust and rooted in the grace and truth of God, can withstand this and other texts. We might even be stronger after doing so…
What I don’t get is why the PPC is pushing this as its featured book. Its one thing to publish a text that is boneheaded. Its another to push it hard as the beacon of the publishing house’s works. That is just plain stupid.