Timothy Michael Law wants RBL to be great. By “great” he means that he wants RBL to reconsider its practices, in terms of both choosing books to review and choosing reviewers. I agree with Law’s basic point – book reviews are often one of the most egregious forms of scholarship in terms of misrepresentation and sloppy argumentation. I can definitely place my support behind a call for revising book review practices.
And yet, I am puzzled by the specifics of Law’s critique. He begins by saying, “there is no excuse for allowing reviewers who have not a single shred of evidence to show expertise in the book they are reviewing.” In principle I agree with this. RBL, and every other journal, ought to be careful in choosing who reviews which book. But then for an example he says this: “the RBL allowed a pastor who holds a D.Min. to write a review of Tom Bolin’s book,” and then goes on to say that he can’t possibly list all the reasons why the review is of poor quality.
Here’s the thing – this is not a careful critique of the review, but instead is a dismissal based on what Law deems to be inferior credentials. How does this fit into what Law is calling for, namely fair reviews? This is not fair to the reviewer, in that it does not engage the reviewer’s argument at all.* Instead, it simply dismisses the review based on the reviewer’s pedigree and vocation.
Further, if you read the description of the series in which Bolin’s book is published, one wonders why you wouldn’t ask a pastor to review it. Here’s Liturgical Press’ description:
Comprehensive and understandable, the New Collegeville Bible Commentary brings expert insight into the Old and New Testament to Bible study participants, teachers, students, preachers, and all readers of the Bible. Filled with fresh scholarship, the series provides vital background that helps bring the text alive.
These commentaries are intended for lay readers and preachers. Given the intended audience, shouldn’t the reviewer be able to analyze its success in speaking to said audience? And who better to assess whether or not a commentary can speak to the person in the pew than a pastor?
Again, I have no problem with Law and others calling for reform in reviewing practices. In principle I also don’t have any problem with Law critiquing this particular review, if he does so by actually engaging the review. But he doesn’t, and this example seems to me to undermine the entire point he is making. If you’re going to review something, then review the arguments and contents. That stands for reviewing books and for reviewing book reviews. Academic contributions shouldn’t be judged on your vocation or degree, but on the quality of your work. We shouldn’t resort to dismissal via credentials.
*Full disclosure here – I have not read Bolin’s book or the NICOT volume upon which Cook bases much of his critique. That’s beside the point, though. If there are problems with the review, then critique it, don’t just dismiss it because the reviewer is “a pastor with a D.Min.”