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Too Christian or Too Narrow?

February 16, 2009

If there is an entry on "turning the other cheek" in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, those involved with the opus may want to study it.

A major scholarly project -- four volumes, hundreds of authors, 3,000 pages -- is setting off a furor, with Wiley-Blackwell halting sales, charges of anti-Christian bias, and threats of lawsuits. While the publisher unveiled the project this fall and started promoting it, it abruptly halted sales in November. The editor in chief of the encyclopedia has been circulating letters this month accusing Wiley-Blackwell of trying to censor the project because it is too Christian and because some entries are critical of Islam. The publisher in turn is charging that the editorial board for the project was ignored and that there are legitimate quality control issues that required the volumes to be pulled.

The dispute is being portrayed in some circles as a conflict between secular academics and thinkers of faith. A blog posting by one contributor to the encyclopedia is headlined: "Too Christian for Academia? A four-volume encyclopedia gets pulped in the name of political correctness." But the publisher insists that nothing has been destroyed and that the printed copies remain in storage. And some of those who have raised questions about the project are in fact Christian scholars (both in what they study and their faith).

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.

Bernard McGinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School who recently asked to be removed from the editorial board for the encyclopedia because of concerns about portions of the project, said via e-mail that it was "sad that a project that showed considerable promise, has been wounded, perhaps fatally, by the actions of its main editor."

The editor in chief of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization is George Thomas Kurian, an independent scholar who specializes in editing and writing encyclopedias. He is editor or author of such works as A Historical Guide to the U.S. Government (Oxford University Press), Encyclopedia of the World's Nations and Cultures (Facts on File) and several encyclopedias on the Democratic and Republican parties (M.E. Sharpe).

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. "They knew what they were getting," he said. "I am an openly committed Christian." 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.

Wiley-Blackwell officials approached him in November, he said, telling him that they had received complaints from a few people who had seen the book and who disagreed with some of the material. Kurian said that Wiley-Blackwell specifically objected to his discussion of the rise of Islam in North Africa and Spain, and his discussion of what happened to Christian communities as a result of Muslim advances. "Islam wiped out Christianity in some nations," Kurian said. But pointing this out in his introduction to the encyclopedia "didn't sit well with Islamists" who complained.

In an e-mail message he sent to contributors to the volume, Kurian said that Wiley-Blackwell officials have told him that for the encyclopedia to survive, it needs more positive material about Islam, more negative material about Christianity, and many changes that would "strip" the work of its Christianity. The e-mail describes the way complaints reached the publisher by saying: "Then the devil struck in the form of a wrecking crew ... of malcontents" on the editorial board and elsewhere. Kurian said he is exploring a lawsuit on behalf of all of those who contributed to the work, and that he's unwilling to make the kinds of changes the publisher wants.

One of those who alerted Wiley-Blackwell of concerns was McGinn, the Chicago divinity professor on the editorial board, also the author of three entries in the encyclopedia and also one of those identified by Kurian as "malcontents" who were unfairly critical. Via e-mail, McGinn said that after agreeing to be on the board in 2006, he heard nothing from Kurian about the project until he received a copy of Kurian's introduction, which unsettled him.

"The problems with Mr. Kurian’s 'Introduction' can be summarized under four headings. First, there were a good number of outright historical errors, as well as highly dubious statements and judgments. Second, there was misleading, erroneous, and potentially inflammatory language about Islam. Third, there was an almost total neglect of the contributions of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism to important Christian beliefs and values. Finally (and more subjectively, I admit), there was a tone of repetitious and bombastic Christian triumphalism that I thought did not belong in a serious scholarly project written in an era where the major religious traditions are striving for greater mutual understanding. Mr. Kurian would have it that my concern for the sensibilities of Muslims, Jews, and other non-Christians is an example of exaggerated political correctness. On the contrary, I was only trying to follow St. Paul’s good advice: 'Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God' (1 Cor. 10:32)."

Wiley-Blackwell issued a statement in which it denied the "false and damaging accusations" made about the decision to halt sale of the encyclopedia. According to the statement, "serious concerns were raised by contributors" about the introduction Kurian wrote. After Wiley-Blackwell started to look into the concerns, the publisher says it was surprised to find that Kirian had not used editorial board members to help with the project, but had done the work himself. The editorial board members' expertise was needed to assure the publisher's "standards of scholarship," the statement said.

"We acknowledge that we should have been aware of the shortcut Mr. Kurian took in his editorial process sooner, but that does not change our responsibility to rectify the situation now," the statement says. As to charges that the publisher is taking an anti-Christian stand, the statement says that "Wiley (of which Wiley-Blackwell is a part) is not affiliated with any lobby or group, religious or otherwise. We have promoted the freedom of expression and ideas for over 200 years, and we will continue to do so."

Rev. Scott W. Sunquist, a member of the editorial board for the project and associate professor of world Christianity at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said he could not discuss the situation in detail. But he said that the publisher's statement was accurate in that the editorial board members expected to be involved in reviewing entries and were not. He also confirmed that there are concerns about the "accuracy" of some of the material. And he said that it was not true to say that Wiley-Blackwell is anti-Christian.

Kurian said that he never committed to any substantive role for the editorial board. He said that Wiley-Blackwell put together the board "as a showcase of prominent people," and that the objections didn't justify the publisher's actions, which he said are an attack on freedom of expression. "You don't scrap a book because four people don't like it," he said.

Further, Kurian noted that some prominent scholars of religion praised the encyclopedia. In blurbs on the Amazon.com site, Mark Noll, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, said of the work: "George Kurian's thoughtfully conceived Encyclopedia does a fine job with its authoritative articles, sensible bibliographies, and consistently illuminating treatments." Edwin Yamauchi, a professor emeritus of history at Miami University, is quoted as saying: " The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization promises to be an exceedingly valuable reference work, as it is nearly exhaustive in scope, including a wide range of authoritative essays."

Fitzmier, of the American Academy of Religion, said that he was surprised by Kurian's statement that he wanted only people with Christian beliefs to work on the project. Such an approach wouldn't be unusual for a Christian press, he said, but is for a press without a religious affiliation like Wiley-Blackwell. While Wiley-Blackwell publishes many works by scholars of faith, that's not a requirement for writing about religion, he said. (The American Academy of Religion has members who study their own faiths, and those who study other faiths or who apply a strictly secular approach to their research on religion.)

"Secular publishers, non-religious houses, tend to want to have an even playing field," he said. "They expect scholars of religion not to plead special cases."

 

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