How Not to Write a Book Review: A Response to Chip Hardy
I defended my PhD dissertation at Wheaton College on April 19, 2013 – ten years ago next month. I remember the day well. All of us who labor through a PhD both anticipate and dread the day when we will stand before field experts who have been paid to nitpick their way through our work, seeking to uncover even the slightest hint of fallacious logic or ungrounded conclusions. Thankfully, my defense went quite smoothly, and then a couple years later I published my dissertation under the title, Just Deceivers: An Exploration of the Motif of Deception in the Books of Samuel.
When you publish anything, especially a scholarly work, you invite criticism – both positive and negative – from others within your field. In the years since publishing Just Deceivers I have received both affirmation and pushback against the ideas developed in that study. I happily take to heart the constructive feedback, though I can’t say that I’ve read anything to date that makes me doubt the fundamental conclusions I developed in that analysis.
Amidst the various reviews, one in particular has stood out to me. Several years ago, Chip Hardy, Associate Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, reviewed Just Deceivers in Southeastern Theological Review 8 (2017): 85–87. After reading this review years ago I considered writing a response, since I felt that Hardy neither represented my work accurately nor provided fair criticisms of it. Ultimately I decided to let it slide, since I didn’t want to seem defensive, and I realize that most of the world doesn’t pay attention to this stuff anyways.
However, recently the algorithm at Academia.edu sent me an excited email suggesting that I might find this book review interesting, so with the hope that some sort of statute of limitations on knee-jerk reactions has passed after six years, I’ve decided to offer a response to Hardy’s review.
I’ve entitled this response, How Not to Write a Book Review, not to be snarky or ugly, but because I believe that academic excellence requires much more accurate and fair interaction than what Hardy provides in his review. In the end, you can judge whether or not Hardy’s analysis of my work is a good example of how book reviews should be written.
Problem #1: Ignoring my introductory analysis
Hardy begins his review this way:
“To put it simply: lying is debased or, worse, delusional. The same conclusion is found of speaking falsely in Exodus (20:16; 23:1—3) and Leviticus (19:11)” (p. 85).
In this opening sentence Hardy asserts something that I spend 37 pages (pp. 15–52) arguing to be untrue. In chapter 2 of JD I examine every single explicit statement regarding lying and deception in the OT, focusing on the Torah (including the above quoted passages), as well as the Prophets and Wisdom Literature. At the end of that section I conclude that “the OT only condemns deception that causes injustice” (p. 52).
Hardy begins his review as if that analysis doesn’t exist and asserts without argument or evidence a competing claim by proof texting a few passages – passages that I examine in detail and from which I draw a different conclusion in the very work he’s reviewing. Of course, Hardy is free to take issue with my conclusion that neither lying nor deception is unqualifiedly condemned in the OT, but that would require argument, not assertion.
Problem #2: Misrepresenting the objective of my analysis
Right after providing the above assertion as “the ethical norm” in the OT, Hardy says this:
“Providing coherence between these ethical norms and narrative descriptions [of deception] is the central focus of Matthew Newkirk’s book” (p. 85)
Simply put, this is false. Hardy represents my work as if I agree with his opening assertion that “lying is debased or, worse, delusional,” and that the objective of my work is to “provide coherence” between that ethical evaluation of deception – supposedly advocated in the Torah – and biblical narratives that “appear to extol and not reprove deception,” as he says. That is not at all what I’m seeking to do in JD. I am not seeking to harmonize unqualified, deontological prohibitions of deception in the Torah with narratives that “appear to extol” deception.
What I do in JD is analyze how the OT explicitly describes deception from an ethical perspective (in the Torah, Prophets, and Wisdom Literature), conclude that deception is only prohibited when it violates the standards of justice, and then analyze deception narratives in Samuel to see if that same standard of justice is operative in the author’s portrayal of those acts of deception. I conclude that the same standard of justice is operative in Samuel, but this is a very different endeavor than how Hardy represents the nature of my work.
Problem #3: Unfair (?) criticism
After providing a basic summary of JD and offering a kind comment that the work is a “lucid and helpful foray” (p. 86), Hardy spends the latter half of his review summarizing what he calls “several overarching ailments.” I’m not sure what adjective to use to describe Hardy’s criticism in this section. I’ve chosen the word “unfair,” since I think it captures the heart of my concern, though I recognize that “fairness” in such things is not easily agreed upon. After reading his criticisms and my responses, you can judge whether or not his analysis is fair.
“Overarching ailment” #1: It reads like a dissertation
Hardy’s first criticism was unexpected:
“First, the study betrays its origin as a doctoral dissertation” (p. 86)
So the first “overarching ailment” of JD is that it is a doctoral dissertation. Guilty as charged, I suppose, though I struggle to see how writing a dissertation and publishing it as a dissertation (see JD, xii) qualifies as an “overarching ailment.” Every year many, many dissertations are published, many of which are more complex in nature than mine. However, he goes on to give an example of what he means by this criticism:
“As such, the language in places is stilted and affected. For instance: “What is needed is a comprehensive investigation of the motif of deception that extends across both 1 and 2 Samuel” (p. 11). Is this really a need, or merely a somewhat arbitrary textual sampling?” (p. 86)
Here Hardy quotes me as I describe the “need” for a focused analysis of deception in Samuel, and he criticizes my use of the word “need.” Now, in the grand scheme of life, obviously an analysis of deception in Samuel is not a need in the sense that we need air or water to live. The world would have kept moving on if I had never engaged in this study. But in the context of a dissertation, which is by definition seeking to add to the body of knowledge in one’s field, engaging in a hitherto unengaged analysis is filling a scholarly need. This language is not strange or uncommon, though Hardy’s criticism of it is.
After illustrating this “overarching ailment” by my use of the word “need,” he switches and complains that my history of research section is too brief, specifically highlighting that I don’t engage with early Christian or Jewish interpreters (p. 86). I find it odd that this is inserted within a section criticizing JD for reading too much like a dissertation, since having a longer history of research section would have made the book feel more like a dissertation.
That puzzlement notwithstanding, in my estimation this is the only criticism that Hardy offers that has any possible merit. A longer history of research section certainly could have strengthened the work. However, the reality is that in that section I summarize every focused study on the theme of deception in the books of Samuel that was in print at the time of my writing – exactly four journal articles. I also summarize the major views on deception from church history through representative examples, though since I was operating with a 100,000 word limit and therefore had to manage the length of each section in the book, I chose to put most of my effort in the actual biblical analysis rather than lengthen the history of research. Perhaps Hardy would prefer a longer history of research and a shorter exegetical analysis of the actual text I was focusing on, but I do not.
“Overarching ailment” #2: I don’t sufficiently address ancient textual variations
Hardy writes this:
“Second, the author’s literary-synchronic approach fails to deal with the significant and well-known variations amongst the different Samuel texts of the MT, TXX, and Qumran” (p. 86)
This is sort of like complaining that an art critic’s evaluation of a painting failed to deal with the tax and importation issues necessary to bring the painting from its country of origin to the museum where it is housed. Of course, museum curators need to attend to tax and importation issues, but art critics do not. Not everyone has to (or can) do everything.
Simply put, literary-synchronic analysis by definition analyzes the biblical text as we have it. In my section on methodology I specified that I was taking this approach and using “the Hebrew text as represented in BHS” as the object of my study (p. 12). This is well-established methodology in Old Testament narrative studies. How it qualifies as an “overarching ailment” of my work is quite unclear to me.
“Overarching ailment” #3: My conclusions are too far-reaching
In his last paragraph, Hardy states that my conclusions are “too far-reaching” and offers several examples.
Example #1: My interaction with situation ethics is “dismissive”
As his first example of how my conclusions are too far-reaching, Hardy says this:
“On pp. 104—5 Newkirk ventures into situational ethics without explanation, except for a dismissive quotation of the work ofJoseph Fletcher” (p. 86).
First off, Hardy means pp. 204–5.
Second, I don’t “venture into situational ethics without explanation.” Here’s what I write:
“Although this study concludes that a biblical evaluation of deception depends upon the situation in which it is committed, such a view should not be confused with ‘situation ethics‘” (p. 205).
Since there are similarities between what I conclude (the ethical viewpoint of deception depends upon the situation in which it is committed) and the field of “situation ethics,” here I am distinguishing between the two. In order to distinguish my conclusions from situation ethics, I quote the definition of situation ethics by Joseph Fletcher:
“According to Joseph Fletcher, ‘The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside in the situation if love seems better served by doing so‘” (p. 205).
Following this definition, I contrast my conclusions with this ethical perspective:
“In contrast to this, the author of Samuel’s depictions of deception are consistent with the theology of deception found in the explicit statements of the OT, and thus he was not compromising or setting aside the ‘ethical maxims of his community’ by depicting certain deceptions positively” (p. 205).
In other words, situation ethics says that one may “compromise” ethical standards if the situation seems to warrant it. My argument is that the ethical standards of the OT related to deception are contingent upon the situation in which the deception occurs, and therefore the author of Samuel did not need to compromise them. In making these comments I’m not dismissing the work of Joseph Fletcher. I’m saying that, in my estimation, the OT’s ethics of deception are something different.
Example #2: My treatment of the NT is too short
Secondly, Hardy writes:
“Deception in the NT—a monograph-worthy topic itself—is also given only six pages (pp. 198—204)” (p. 86)
As a reminder, the focus of my study was deception in the books of Samuel. Toward the end, after drawing conclusions about how I believe the author of Samuel is depicting those acts of deception, I offer a survey of deception in the remainder of the OT and in the NT and suggest that no biblical passage appears to contradict my basic thesis. I then qualify that suggestion by saying:
“However, since this section has only been a brief survey, a fuller exploration of all these relevant texts is needed either to confirm this thesis more confidently or to qualify it” (p. 204).
I make no claim to have examined the NT as thoroughly or exhaustively as could or should be done. Again, that is outside the scope of my analysis, and as I’ve mentioned, I had a 100,000 word limit. However, I don’t think it’s fair to say that, because I give a brief survey of the NT, suggest that based on that brief survey the foregoing analysis appears to hold, and note that a fuller exploration is needed to confirm or qualify that conclusion, that my conclusions related to the NT are “too far-reaching.”
It seems that for Hardy to be satisfied, I would either have to write a monograph-length analysis of deception in the NT or ignore the NT entirely. The former, of course, is unfeasible, and if I were to do the latter, I expect I would be criticized for ignoring the NT the same way Hardy criticized me for not summarizing early Christian and Jewish interpretation. So I offered a brief summary and qualified my provisional conclusion – but Hardy criticized that as well.
Example #3: I don’t refer to NT didactic standards or the church’s teaching
Hardy’s last criticism is as follows:
“Further, Christian dogmatic and doctrinal conclusions, such as “not all lying and deception is wrong” (p. 104), should require a detailed discussion, yet this assertion is made without any reference to NT didactic standards or the church’s teaching” (p. 86).
Again, for the careful reader: Hardy means p. 204. But to the criticism itself, it is simply false that I don’t reference NT didactic standards; I survey these throughout pp. 200–4. And although Hardy doesn’t specify what he means by “the church’s teaching,” I do survey various views of the ethics of deception in church history in my (brief!) history of research section. So while he may not be satisfied with the length of those treatments (again, this is an OT dissertation with a 100,000 word limit), it is not true that I draw conclusions “without any reference” to these other areas of inquiry.
At the end of his review, Hardy says this:
“While the desire to make the study applicable is admirable, the execution is too hasty to be a significant resource for the broader discussion of the ethical norms of falsehood.” (pp. 86–87)
I find it ironic that in a book review that ignores my introductory analysis, misrepresents the objective of my analysis, criticizes the work for simply being a dissertation, reflects a lack of awareness of norms in the field of biblical narratology, and cites incorrect page numbers on multiple occasions, Hardy claims that my execution is too hasty.
Most unfortunate, perhaps, is the fact that nowhere does Hardy ever engage with the actual arguments of JD. He is heavy on complaining about what he thinks I should have written, but conspicuously silent concerning what I actually wrote. This is a shame, because that’s ultimately what is significant about any book, particularly a doctoral dissertation: the actual argument presented. So when reading a book review, one would hope to get some critical interaction over the thesis of the book. But we are left with nothing.
For these various reasons, in my opinion, this is an example of how not to write a book review.