I have a confession: I love reading book reviews. When I open a new issue of a scholarly journal, normally the first thing I do is check out the reviews. When I read serious Christian periodicals such as First Things or Renewing Minds or The City, the reviews are often my favorite parts. I am a fan of Books and Culture, which is a semi-scholarly periodical consisting of virtually nothing but book review essays. I have served as a book review editor for two scholarly journals, The Journal of Baptist Studies (2007-2012) and Themelios (2010-present), in part because it allows me to pair up good reviewers with worthwhile books. I also enjoy writing book reviews and review essays for scholarly journals, serious Christian periodicals and even blogs.
One of the problems with book reviews is that authors rarely have the chance to respond to critical comments. And when they do respond, many authors are, well, petty. (Of course, many reviewers are also petty.) However, from time to time we have the chance to see some good dialogue related to a book. This is the case the past two days with Matthew Barrett’s review of Michael Bird’s recent book Evangelical Theology and Bird’s response to Barrett’s review. Barrett, who reviewed Bird’s book for The Gospel Coalition, has a couple of nice things to say about Bird’s general approach before offering a barrage of criticism, mostly related to Bird’s method and soteriology. When I read the review, I thought to myself that Barrett had offered a pretty severe review (obligatory pleasantries aside) of a book written by a significant scholar with a popular blog and a wicked sharp wit. The possibilities for carnage seemed to abound.
However, instead of complaining about Barrett’s review, Bird thoughtfully engages most of Barrett’s criticisms. That is not to say that Bird concedes any of Barrett’s points; he does not. Barrett and Bird define what it means to be “Reformed” differently, which is a not uncommon occurrence among scholars in different fields (biblical studies and systematic theology) who are writing for the interwebs. I have no doubt that many folks will agree with Barrett: Bird is not really Reformed (by which they mean orthodox). I also have no doubt that many folks will resonate with Bird: much of what passes for Reformed theology is more about a system than it is sound exegesis (eeeeevil neo-scholasticism). I’m not so much concerned with the debate itself as I am pleased to see this sort of interaction between scholars around a book review.
Barrett is a pretty epic book reviewer who is serious about defending his understanding of Calvinism, and Bird is a prolific blogger who seems to enjoy being a bit contrarian, so the cards were right, as it were, for this sort of interaction to occur online over Evangelical Theology. However, I hope that the internet provides us with opportunities to see other scholars in other fields interact similarly over other issues (anything–anything besides Reformed theology). The internet was made for this sort of thing.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I own Evangelical Theology, but have not read it yet. Thus, I don’t have an opinion either way about Bird’s book, since I haven’t looked at it myself. I’m just a guy who loves book reviews and have enjoyed watching this discussion transpire over the past couple of days.