While I was a faculty member at Westminster Theological Seminary, a colleague (not in biblical studies) wrote a rather heavy-handed response to a well-known biblical scholar. I felt embarrassed by it, so much so that I wrote the scholar in essence apologizing for the school and assuring him that the biblical studies department did not share this reviewer’s assessment.
He wrote back with much class and pointed out that, unfortunately, sometimes young scholars say things they wind up either regretting, or at least cringing at, for the rest of their careers.
I had a similar experience. As I was completing my doctoral work, I wrote a review of a book that I thought at the time was not very good–an opinion I still hold–but I did it with the sort of self-confidence that only an inexperienced doctoral student could possibly conjure up.
Some months after the review was published, I remember running into the author at an academic meeting and suddenly feeling quite embarrassed at what I had said (or more, how I had said it), and so apologized to him. He was quite gracious–a man more than twice my age at the time–and I felt like a true child who had been caught making fun of the teacher behind his back.
The lesson I learned there, and have tried to live out ever since, is that in reviewing the work of another, imagine him or her sitting right there next to you as you type. I recall Bruce Waltke (one of my professors at WTS) saying that reviewing the work of another is a “pastoral exercise” and the author has to feel “safe” in the reviewer’s hands. That is great advice.
The two instances I describe above are both examples of scholarly immaturity moving toward maturity. Lessons are learned and you move on and become a better scholar and person for it.
Which brings me to the internet.
The problem with the internet is that young scholars are working out these sorts of inevitable maturity issues online, for many hundreds and thousands to see almost instantly, rather than the dozens or a few hundreds who would read reviews in journals over the period of weeks, months, and even years.
I know it’s an almost banal criticism of the internet, but it is true: anyone can get a website or create a podcast. All you need are two properties common to youth and you’re off and running: a bit of energy and self-confidence.
On the internet there is no vetting process and no accountability to those who know the field better. Whatever “safe” distance there might have been in old-fashioned journaled book reviews between the reviewer and the author is magnified on the internet, thus encouraging caving in to the impulse of “quick” thoughts or unfortunate rhetoric–or simply speaking into an issue that hasn’t had the time to gestate properly.
It used to be that young scholars did their growing up a bit more privately. Now we watch that sometimes painful process on a daily basis. Seasoned scholars will continue to do what they always do–respond with grace or best not at all. But younger scholars are leaving a record of their own growth process that might lead to regret, or at least a painful cringe, later on.