Holy Hegemony, Part III

Editor's note: Pete Townshend sang of Going Mobile, but here we're going all Meta- on you.

Part I of this blog discussion between Matt Sutton and John Wilson is
here, featuring Matt's problems with a critical review of the book Holy Hills of the Ozarks in Books and Culture; Part II, John Wilson's response to Matt's defense of the book in question and takedown of the review, may be found here.

Now on to Round III, Matt's response to John Wilson's criticisms of Matt's original critique. Ed Blum also has responded, that's coming up next. As they sing in the film The Apostle, "let the church roll on!"

John Wilson's War
by Matt Sutton

Let me begin with a warning—for those of you who have better things to do with your time than read two scholars picking fights with each other about two other scholars (which is probably all of you), don’t read any further. While common sense and my wife tell me not to respond to John Wilson’s blog about my blog, I cannot help myself. So, since Frederica Mathewes-Green misrepresented Ketchell, and I apparently misrepresented Mathewes-Green, and Wilson has misrepresented me, what’s the harm in taking the misrepresentation one step further? Someone still needs to misrepresent Wilson.

Here are Wilson’s criticisms of my blog post:

1) Wilson writes: “Let's note to begin with that Sutton gets Mathewes-Green's title wrong. There's an exclamation point ("Holy Hegemony!"), alluding to the formula frequently employed by Robin in dialogue with Batman.”

Indeed, I missed the exclamation point. Holy Punctuation Batman! While I was quite aware of the allusion to Robin, Wilson’s response ignores my larger point. Who is really practicing hegemony here? The men and women of Branson, Ketchell, or Mathewes-Green?

2) Wilson: “But if you speak of ‘Christianity Today's Books & Culture’ in a sentence making the risible claim that the ‘culture wars are alive and well’ in the pages of B&C, a sentence moreover that gratuitously drags Jerry Falwell and James Dobson into the conversation, you hint at a vast right-wing conspiracy, the orders coming from on high down to me, the editor.”

Wow—a vast right-wing conspiracy organized by John Wilson. The thought never crossed my mind. All I was saying is that on the pages of B&C Mathewes-Green wrote a bad review that reads out-of-date culture-war paradigms into a book that had little to do with the culture wars.

3) Wilson: “In short, this opening paragraph sets the tone for Sutton's response, which is characterized by remarkable sloppiness and inaccuracy, humorlessness, and self-righteous huffing and puffing.”

Maybe. Or maybe Wilson is indeed part of a vast right-wing conspiracy that has mastered the art of the personal attack. :) (A smiley face in case my meager attempt at humor is read as culture-war mongering, humorlessness, or self-righteous huffing and puffing.)

4) Wilson: “I didn't remember any reference in Mathewes-Green's article to Ketchell's acknowledgments.”

I stand corrected. This was indeed sloppiness on my part. The issue at hand, which Wilson conveniently leaves out of this section of his blog (and you would too if you were part of the vast right-wing conspiracy) is Mathewes-Green’s raising of Ketchell’s childhood Catholicism. Ketchell mentioned this in his introduction, not his acknowledgments. That does not change the fact that it is irrelevant to Ketchell’s argument. Either Ketchell recognizes that something material can also be sacred, or he doesn't (and the book demonstrates that he very much does).

5) Wilson: “Blum took Sutton's assertions at face value—evidently he didn't bother to read the article himself—and added a bit of moralizing of his own.”

Forgive me Ed for leading you astray.

6) Wilson: “I started to wonder as I read if Sutton was under the misapprehension that Mathewes-Green is an evangelical.”

I wasn’t. And I don’t care. Unlike Mathewes-Green and Wilson, I hoped to keep this discussion in the realm of ideas, not personal religious commitments.

7) Wilson, regarding Mathewes-Green’s criticism of Ketchell’s writing style: “Indeed, one wishes that the editor for this book at John Hopkins University Press—one of the foremost university presses in the country—had read Ketchell even half as attentively as Mathewes-Green did.”

I agree. The copy editors at Hopkins dropped the ball, and Ketchell’s writing could have been sharper. Nevertheless Mathewes-Green could have made this point without belittling Ketchell across multiple paragraphs of her review.

In sum, what Wilson has ignored in his blog is the point of my criticism of Mathewes-Green’s review. He can take his shots at me, as Mathewes-Green took her shots at Ketchell, but these have nothing to do with the fact that Mathewes-Green, in her effort to position Holy Hills as on the wrong side of the culture wars, completely missed Ketchell’s argument. Holy Hills is an important book that, mixed metaphors aside, makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on American religion.


John G. Turner said…
On the one hand, it's fun to read a vigorous debate.

On the other, I have to say that the debate is of limited use to those of us who haven't read Ketchell's book (perhaps with the benefit of inspiring people to read the book -- I'm hoping for some controversy re: my book to increase sales -- Matt, can you help?). I haven't gotten to the the M-G review either.

The fact that I haven't read the most recent B&C yet doesn't reflect a lack of enthusiasm. I am a B&C groupie but am suffering from new baby-induced sleep deprivation. One of the things I like about B&C -- in fact, very much like about B&C -- is that the review includes a great variety of opinion, both politically and theologically. Two of my favorite things to read on a regular basis are B&C and the NYT Book Review, and it often occurs to me that the former includes a much greater diversity of thought. Heck, a publication that regularly includes offerings from Eugene McCarraher by definition cannot be part of a right-wing culture war.

And in my own small attempt at peacemaking, I don't think Matt believes that B&C or John Wilson are part of a vast right-wing conspiracy (though perhaps it sounded that way in the initial post). He was, fairly or unfairly, alleging that the individual review viewed Holy Hills through that lens. I'll have to read the book and the review before chiming in on the substantive issues.
Randall said…
This has made me wonder about the appropriateness of critiquing writing style in a book review. I've occasionally brought up the matter in reviews. I tend to feel just a tad guilty about it. Maybe I think that the author under review or someone else will point out passive voice or split infinitives, unidentified antecedents, etc in my work.

It's also tied in to the anxieties of being a junior scholar.
Edward J Blum said…
We should critique writing style, I think, when either the writing is very good or very poor. Sure, this can be very subjective but it is an important form of evaluation. We do this to our students - grade on their prose in general and specific. And let's face it, some write with more eloquence than others (and appeal to certain audiences). We did, for instance, have a blog discussion earlier about who the best writers were ... and there was disagreement, but nonetheless we evaluated.
John G. Turner said…
I agree with Ed, and I also think it's an important part of a review because one of the most important functions of a review is to help potential readers decide whether to purchase / read the book. The quality of the writing is an important part of that determination, at least for me.
MarkSprinkle said…
And now John Wilson has posted his response to this response, to which I say, (you guessed it) "Amen!"

Specifically, I think Wilson does a service (even if no-one actually cares about the book in question anymore) by continuing the dialogue, and by (gasp!) saying that Matt Sutton makes the right point in saying he (Wilson) missed the point of the book. While even high-minded blogs may seem, at first, to foster intelligent conversation, all too often they merely enable a few quick responses (be they kind or unkind) before everyone moves on to the next thing. Real, productive conversation requires enough commitment to the topic and one's interlocutor to work through the initial statements and positionings to reach the listening and hearing stage, even if the original disagreement only grows more clear and precise through the exchange, rather than melting away in an Obamanesque transcendence of division. It need not go on forever, but a multi-part conversation like this is just good practice for being scholars in the old "public intellectual" vein--something we continue to need in academia as much as everywhere else. So, now, to Matt Sutton I say, "Your turn. . . again"
Carolyn Mackie said…
I read M-G’s review this afternoon and then stumbled upon this delightful little controversy!

Since I haven’t read the book, I cannot comment on whether the original review provides an accurate representation of Ketchell’s work. However, I was surprised at Matt Sutton reading M-G’s review as an “effort to position Holy Hills as on the wrong side of the culture wars.” Matthewes-Green’s concern throughout is not whether Holy Hills or even Ketchell lands on one side of a “culture war” or another, but rather if he has properly understood both Branson and its religious milieu.

I believe M-G’s critique of Ketchell’s writing at the end of her review is not just a nit-picky desire to criticize his work but shows a similar desire for clarity and accurate understanding. She is concerned throughout by his use of certain terms (such as Manichean), and the mixed metaphors she cites are yet more examples (albeit less important) of a lack of attention to word usage.