Friday, August 8, 2008

Scholarly Smack-Talk at its Finest

One of my favorite things to come across in theological writing is what some of my Bible nerd friends and I have dubbed "scholarly smack-talk." Most of you who have done much reading in the field know exactly what I'm referring to, as there is a long history of this.

Theological smack talk in general is no new enterprise. Pick up any of the older theologians and you will find some pretty potent polemicizing. While many have exercised their gifts in this field, my humble opinion is that Martin Luther was its true master. Here was a man who clearly had probably never even heard the phrase "pulling punches," at least where theology was concerned. I recommend his essay, "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" for a fine example.

Now, no one can get away with that kind of rhetoric in scholarly circles today. But far from eliminating the enterprise, this unwritten code of academic theology has only led to the development of the art form. What makes truly great scholarly smack-talk now is the ability to at once maintain the requisite academic tone and style while engaging in bold deprecation of some work in question. The result is not just the slamming of someone else's work, but the truly witty slamming of someone else's work. You know that you have just read good scholarly smack-talk when you can imagine the scholar who wrote it momentarily looking up from his computer to laugh in wry self-delight.

So here are a few of my favorite examples of the modern form, starting with a modern master, D. A. Carson. Consider these two gems, the first of which I found at Michael Bird's blog from Carson's review of Roland Boer's Rescuing the Bible:

"This book, a fascinating mix of dogmatic left-wing self-righteousness combined with rich and scathing condescension toward all who are even a tad less left than the author, is rich in unintended irony."

See what I mean?

My personal favorite from Carson though is from an endnote in his The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, where he comments on Gilbert Bilezikian's attack on the doctrine of functional subordination in the trinity:

"It is difficult to find many articles that so richly combine exegetical errors, historical misconceptions, and purple prose in so finely honed a synthesis. But I do utterly agree with his final appeal not to 'mess with the Trinity' in support of a contemporary agenda." (86)

Not only is the first sentence hilarious, but the second is clearly a backhanded slam at Bilizekian's apparent self-contradiction, since Carson thinks Bilizekian himself is messing with the Trinity in support of egalitarianism.

Next, In Jesus Under Fire, Craig Blomberg quotes John Meier, who here argues against the Jesus Seminar's understanding of Jesus as a simple spinner of proverbs on the grounds that such a Jesus would never have garnered enough controversy to be crucified:

"A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st-century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field- such a Jesus would threaten no one, just as the university professors who create him threaten no one." (Jesus Under Fire, 21, which gives an endnote to Meier's bibliographic information)

Finally, I love Alvin Plantinga's review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion in Christianity Today. I will only quote my favorite short paragraph, but frankly the whole first five or so paragraphs are well worth the read (you can get it here) if only for the sake of a good laugh. One gets the feeling that Plantinga is not impressed with Dawkins:

"Now despite the fact that this book is mainly philosophy, Dawkins is not a philosopher (he's a biologist). Even taking this into account, however, much of the philosophy he purveys is at best jejune. You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class. This, combined with the arrogant, smarter-than-thou tone of the book, can be annoying. I shall put irritation aside, however and do my best to take Dawkins' main argument seriously."

I know I am not the only one who has come across scholarly smack-talk, so any other examples you can muster would be much appreciated.


c.c. said...

i must be nerdier than i thought, because i actually laughed aloud at this post and enjoyed it immensely.

one of my favorite examples is directed at no one and everyone, though the author probably has more than a few exegetes in mind - Moises Silva's introduction to God, Language, and Scripture. he imagines a future scenario in which English is a dead language and 28th-century Swahili-speaking archaeologists find a fragment of what appears to be a chick-lit novel, and proceed to "exegete" it within an inch of its life.

Anonymous said...

Well, there's this one from your man Calvin in speaking of those who oppose his take on election and damnation:

"These observations would be amply sufficient for the pious and modest, and such as remember that they are men. But because many are the species of blasphemy which these virulent dogs utter against God, we shall, as far as the case admits, give an answer to each ."

Virulent dogs? Now that's talkin' smack!

Carrie Allen said...

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