A suicide-inducing review

While browsing through Amazon looking for books relevant to my Global Christianity course, I came across Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity, whose page includes one of the most horrifyingly negative reviews I’ve ever seen:

Where is the cradle of Christianity—Europe or Africa? After teaching historical and systematic theology, Oden is surprisingly just discovering what other scholars have argued for some time: that the earliest contours of Christianity can be easily traced to Africa. After all, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Plotinus and Augustine—to name only a few early Christian thinkers—were Africans. In this tiresome and repetitious book, Oden belabors the already well-established notion that Christianity’s roots can be found in Africa. He does draw helpfully on his work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series to demonstrate that the intellectual contours of Christianity—academics, exegesis, dogmatics, ecumenics, monasticism, philosophy, and dialectics—developed in Africa. However, Peter Brown (Augustine of Hippo) and other writers have clearly recognized this contribution, and Oden’s naïve and hyperbolic book is more embarrassing than enlightening. Oden’s study is most suited to those who are entirely new to the debate and who will benefit from resources such as a time line of early African Christianity and a reading list for further investigation of the subject.

Note the reversal of the traditional “a couple token negative points in a basically positive review” — and how extremely faint the praise is even in that context (a timeline and a list of other books!). Brown’s Augustine of Hippo is a particularly artful choice of an example of a previous work that makes the same point, since it’s one of the most widely read scholarly works in theological studies — and more broadly, nearly every word is carefully calculated to belittle.

Also note that this is not some crank Amazon reviewer, but Publisher’s Weekly.

I’m usually inclined to be skeptical of over-the-top positive reviews, but this is definitely a time when I feel like Oden’s book can’t possibly be that bad and this reviewer must have it out for him for some reason.

UPDATE: I believe this clip my have served as something of a template for the reviewer:

22 Responses to “A suicide-inducing review”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    A nice touch, though: apparently he thinks Plotinus was a Christian thinker. If you’re going for an all-out humiliation review, you should probably avoid errors like that.

  2. Hank Says:

    I’ve read it. The book isn’t that god awful, but it is clearly not written for scholars in the field. It strikes me that Oden was writing his book not for the western academic, but for the common African Christian believer/student to use as a jumping point for further reading and reflection. While serving as a missionary in eastern Africa, I lent this book to a couple of fellow pastors/seminary students, and they just ate it up. They, as Africans, had no idea that Africa had played such a large role in the development of Christianity.

    This reviewer, as wonderfully nasty as he/she may be, seems to think that the only person who would want to read such a book would be a white, western academic. How stupidly mistaken.

  3. Alex Says:

    Apparently in the Middle Ages there was a whole discourse of damning writers with faint praise, particularly those considered minor heretics. This fits quite well into the paradigm here – even the praise compounds the damning by being so minor.

  4. Chris Rodkey Says:

    Let’s remember that Oden made more than a few enemies in his academic career. His book on theological education is one of the most irresponsible, if not unprofessional, works I’ve ever seen on the subject.

    At Drew, when he retired, we invited him to give a talk to the doctoral students–as is tradition to retiring professors, and he never returned several emails. When I asked someone I was just told “he would probably rather speak to a friendly audience.”

    When I was doing my dissertation research I came across some articles he wrote during the death of God controversy. He was supportive, called them all prophets, etc. It seems that as soon as it became apparent that the proper place for the “white guy” in theology was with evangelicalism, he went there. It’s more complicated than that, I am sure, but just from looking at the progression of literature that’s kind of what it looked like. He’s now on this big Africa project.

  5. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=18787 this is still my high-water mark for negative reviews. It even slams the book for an inadequate index.

  6. ben Says:

    The author of that review claims, falsely, that “peculiar” “necessarily carries the connotation of ‘abnormal’, ‘strange’, ‘puzzling’, ‘outlandish’, etc.”. It certainly can carry that connotation.

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    This review of a friend of mine’s (award-winning, I might add) thesis on the Pericope Adulterae is pretty stunning.

    Highlights include: a paragraph of pedantically pointing out misspellings; derisive remarks about a couple of section titles; and a swipe at the the “maudlin” acknowledgments page — where, I might add, the author dedicates the book to his newborn son.

    It is sublime when a bad review reflects worse on the reviewer than the book itself.

  8. ken oakes Says:

    Someone needs to do a typology of book reviews: the public-shaming of a newbie, freshman year style; the syncophantic kowtowing towards the older scholar; the fifth grade book-report complete with ‘if you want to know the ending…’; the use of the review for the display of one’s own prowess; the angry review (my personal favorite); etc.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Holy shit, the reviewer Brad links may be mentally ill.

  10. Ben Myers Says:

    Whoa Brad, that’s an incredible review. It starts to feel a little creepy when you detect traces of a rather intimate, stalker-like knowledge of the author: e.g. the reference to the precise timing of the book’s publication in relation to the journal article; same with the almost-loving attention to headings and sub-headings.

    It’s like having your book reviewed by the local blogging troll who fantasises night and day about (doing cruel things to) you.

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    I asked my friend if he’d had any horrible exchange w/ the reviewer, and he said that he hadn’t. The only rationale he could come up with — beyond the possibility that the guy really just legitimately hated the book, of course — was that Chris was (rather mildly) critical of him in the book.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    For the record, I think “The Literacy Landscape” is a fine section heading — not a work of genius, certainly, but servicable and definitely not “ugly.”

  13. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’ve actually been meaning to upload this review for quite some time, even since I first learned of it back in April. I’m happy your post finally gave me cause to do so.

  14. Ben Myers Says:

    And anyone who prefers “interpretative” over “interpretive” is obviously a person of doubtful character. They should be strictly ignored at all times.

  15. Jeremy Says:

    Jesus Christ. I can’t believe the guy criticizes his personal tributes as embarrassing and overblown. How exactly did he decide they were overblown? If dedicating a work to your newborn son is overblown then I have no idea who would rightfully earn a tribue according to the reviewer.

    That reminds me of those conservatives who have been obsessing over the supposed anchor babies. Some commentator on Fox said the immigrants didn’t even love their children but merely wanted children to make money for them. How could they possibly make that judgment?

  16. Andy Says:

    It’s shocking that the review Brad refers to was published.

    I love it though when you can notice an increase in the occurrence of “(sic)” as the reviewer gets more and more bothered. Some of those are inexplicable…

  17. Brad Johnson Says:

    I’ve been told that a fair number of people in the field wrote the reviews editor to complain. For whatever that is worth.

  18. Chris Rodkey Says:

    Didn’t the JAAR offer an apology for a book review once, not too long ago?

    The author of the review Brad posted has a page here: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/trs/staff/keith_elliott.htm . When I first came across this via google, I was like, “It’s Larry David!” Reading the review with the theme from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” helps.

  19. Brad Johnson Says:

    I remember the JAAR apologizing for reviewing a book that proved to be a work of plagiarism. Is that the one?

    Hilarious picture of Keith Elliott, too. I passed that comment along to my friend who suffered the review.

  20. christopher Says:

    I’ve never understood why some people act so unprofessionally in professional writings. It’s fine to write a critical review, but making a mountain out of a molehill is silly. If one cannot separate writing a review and writing a response to criticisms of one’s own project, one probably shouldn’t write the review. I think Ken gets it right that book reviews like the one Brad linked sounds more like the pettiness from high school that adults claim to have grown past.

  21. Hill Says:

    I’m saving this review in order to strategically deploy direct quotes from it, without attribution, in future comment threads.

  22. Chris Rodkey Says:

    It’s almost as if the reviewer is making a criticism of published dissertations. Couldn’t most of his complaints–misspellings, dedications to newborns, chapters being published elsewhere, book taking the form of a dissertation, non-original cover art–be complaints for just about any published dissertation?

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