Sunday, 29 April 2012
Ever seen authors replying to a publication that reviews one of their books without (presumably) praising it up enough? It’s a messy and petulant business, particularly when books are submitted to journals which invariably subject the content to rigorous review. Perhaps that’s the reason there isn’t a letters page in many of them! It’s a rare feat of accomplishment for a non-fictional publication to please every particular scholar from relevant disciplines who should care sufficiently to take the time and interest to compose a critical assessment of its style and structure. And such approval should hardly be the aim of an author anyway. In my case, it was always better to be upfront about the amateur background to my own book Familiar Strangers. (The ‘Author’s Note’ in the first few pages gets that out of the way without any commitment to a set style of the subsequent narrative. Furthermore, digitized prefatory pages - and the all important Index - can be previewed on Amazon or the print-on-demand website Lulu.com, before potential readers may either decide to part with their recession-clipped cash: or perhaps just google their way to my main blog and get more than most would ever be likely to read, for free, via copies of primary source research materials). If you don’t respect valid criticism, or trust a particular publication to handle your work in a balanced way, then simply don’t send them a review copy and never whinge about the assessment of their reviewer afterwards. Or if you do whinge make sure there’s better reason to do so than still being hungover from a Placebo gig in Liverpool a few days earlier, on a rather rainy Sunday afternoon, for example. At least that general, if not particular, ethos has served to afford a more or less obvious rule of thumb among self-publishers and onlookers alike over the years. In the case of Familiar Strangers – an amateur study which inevitably trespasses on scholarly turf – I have to wonder if the lack of reviews in heavyweight theological journals to date may largely stem from kindly editors not wishing to witness an impudent title (which can only break most of the rules and mores of erudition ever devised) getting too much of a critical kicking despite existing almost entirely within a vacuum of genuine scholarly accomplishment, in the first place. At an ‘everyday intellectual’ level my book has been well received and featured throughout the Christian press; in reviews or spin-off articles on veggie-Christian history. That’s far more than I had hoped to achieve in terms of attempting to reintroduce major denominations to a facet of their largely unexplored and hitherto often unpalatable ethical history. Was it simply disingenuous or arrogant for an unqualified and ad hoc activist to step into such a role without an academic co-writer; or is it even possible to take one’s ‘campaigning hat’ off completely in the course of such a task? I would have thought there should exist innate recollection from Christian newspaper editors, curiosity among scholarly book buyers who care to surf the web, or for that matter, even the most cursory of readers to ask themselves: what sort of an interest in such a topic could really stem from objectivity alone, or remain present in a topical researcher for any length of time? Just about anyone with an ongoing interest in the subject of Christian vegetarianism has had some sort of an involvement with the vegetarian movement these days. However with the right amount of training and editorial discipline, it may well be possible to indulge arguments and devote page-space to pontification which might otherwise be construed as merely 'pushing an agenda'. Hence, the pertinent observation from my reviewer on this occasion, Matthew Barton (a name worth a google in this particular context): “If Gilheany were more transparent about his own standpoint, such arguments could be treated in a manner both more truthful and analytical, without endangering the descriptive content of the history.” I certainly have no quibble over points which strike at naivety on my part in the course of producing a work which could easily have been left to formal PhD students for better or worse. It may sound bitchy but Familiar Strangers could never have been written were existing academic theses (published or otherwise) worth reading to acquire an actual knowledge of the specific subject which they seek to elucidate but more of that in a moment... When I received this month’s edition of Modern Believing (within hours of ordering a copy on Friday evening – how’s that for efficiency) and read through their review (which I’ll confine to brief highlights for copyright reasons) a few times (as it’s clever stuff even without unfortunate jargon such as “proto ahistorical”) – I thought it was largely favourable, accurate and probably well intended in its own necessarily robust way. Until I showed it to a few friends – slept on the matter – then took a fresh look over some of the points which I’ll now address in the second person, Matthew: as you’re among the few long-term academic visitors to my archive blog who has acknowledged its value in some way over the years. As I say, your point about transparency is to be expected given the type of scrutiny that scholarly papers are usually subjected to and the likely expectations of the readership of Modern Believing (subheading: “The Journal of Theological Liberalism”). And I would endorse your criticism without reservation were it not for – and please correct me if I’m mistaken – what appears to be a recurring theme of having routed a dishonest approach to authorship that runs throughout your review. And by that, I have no wish to take issue with your final “caveat that one should hesitate to draw one’s own conclusions from Gilheany’s analysis alone.” The same should surely be true of any book, not least, in my own reading experience, those published by historians of animal rights and vegetarianism who hail from Oxford and Cambridge University backgrounds. Besides, I’ve never made any attempt to blag it as a historian either through my book or related internet projects. There are however, a few review inaccuracies and assertions which I'll (at last) respond to given the type of flavour which tends to linger from your particular level of understanding, Matthew. Firstly, if Christian meat-eaters receive a “pejorative” portrayal in my book (and that may be a fair criticism in the course of 80,000 or so words) then their most incisive criticisms of vegetarian lifestyle, at least, benefit from frequent, exemplary and verbatim representation and indeed form the basis of two entire chapters; where leading critics G.K. Chesterton and Dean Ralph Inge are mostly left to battle it out with contemporaries in their own words. The Chesterton v Henry Salt dispute you acknowledge as valid but claim that coverage of Dean Inge focuses “only on his critics”. Actually, I made it quite clear that the Dean’s position received the ideological assent of iconic vegetarian George Bernard Shaw and that it occurred in the context of their long term friendship. On another matter of context, you regard The Gospel of the Holy Twelve as having been described with “understatement” on my part, of its (most likely forged) origins due to the term “serious scepticism” with which I referred to the assessment of major animal theologians and others to have thus far speculated upon its historical credibility. Until last year there was nothing about the GOTH12 on Wikipedia until I decided to post an explanation and the work has never received particularly informed focus in print to my knowledge. You automatically refer to the 1901 publication as a “revisionist” version of the New Testament (an interpretation which I have maintained since 2005, in the first page & notes to my article on the Order of the Golden Age website) and if I recall correctly, the same presumption (minus any reference to research) was made by one of your supervisors in Theology on the Menu a few years later. My take on any “spiritual validity” which the document may conceivably possess – regardless of what would almost certainly appear to be the fictional authorship of on/off clergyman Rev G.J Ouseley – merits clarification via the actual supposition offered in my book (after lengthy documentation of the work as a meticulous fake): "...in its own wayward sense, The Gospel of the Holy Twelve could even harness the essence of scriptures which have not survived, for whatever reason. If that should be the case, then despite its unfortunate origins the book may still contain a certain measure of spiritual validity.” Hardly the same as presenting Ouseley’s work “without any real attempt at criticism” I would have thought… As to letting more well-worn eschatological examples of veggie-Christian exegesis speak for themselves (p.28 is cited) – there was more than enough pressure on wordcount in the process of providing a factual (yet readable)and concise historical study of a barely-explored subject, without getting unduly distracted by animal theology available elsewhere. Lastly Matthew, you suggest it starkly curious that the Christian Vegetarian Association of the UK receives a condense paragraph towards the end of my book given “Gilheany’s own relationship with the group”. Well in that sense - and check your inbox later this week for a few internal records of some of the rather delicate problems which have afflicted that venture from its conception - I actually attempted to do the group a favour there. When copyediting began on my typescript there was little to write about the CVA UK anyway and your description of them as “the most active Christian vegetarian group in Britain today” belies their almost unique status as a proselytising body and merely begs definition of the term “active!” From my own (rather trying) relationship with the initially-schismatic venture in the past, I know full well without having to read the Administrator’s plea for membership participation in the latest Newsletter (sic) that the CVA UK is usually a one-man band from one year to the next. (Albeit top-heavy with long-term “Patrons” whose actual input has been mostly meagre over the years and laterally, of course “Advisors” have arrived on the rather derelict scene). As far as I could tell towards 2009, the initiative had gone into reverse and it was up to future historians to find something relevant to say about the group. Since that time, the foremost CVA UK campaign ‘Veg4Lent’ has disintegrated along with ‘Christmas for all Creation’ through lack of initiative, input and maybe even advice. Non-secular alternatives are barely available to the handful of activists who have been left to their own minor devices and – in the case of Christmas campaigning – the literature of national animal rights societies. Indeed the CVA UK is historically notable for its aimless neglect of Christmas campaigning alongside the major 'seasonal' enterprises of secular animal rights organisations. In my book, I also mention the nascent ‘Vegetarian Christian Action’ – a bold alliance with the generally non-activist ‘Kindness Unlimited’ which sought to inform environmental Christians about the relationship between meat-eating and global warming. As KU stems from the similarly retired input of its own organiser, Neville Fowler, who became busy with overseas aid project HIPPO when his work took him to Kenya; VCA vanished for want of activist involvement despite being a self-evidently apposite and dynamic concept. Then there’s been the demise of the CVA UK publications ‘Your Say’ and ‘What the Christian Papers Say’ due to one or two contributors (myself in the case of the latter compilation) being unable to provide most of the input, indefinitely, on behalf of an overwhelmingly dormant membership. In fact, I once spent 3 full days contacting major Central and Theological libraries throughout the country in order to establish their regularly shelved religious periodicals and compile a directory for the CVA UK membership (and leadership) to get their act together before my time for the movement became almost entirely devoted to matters of a historical emphasis. And let's not overlook the CVA UK discussion forum, notwithstanding recent attempts to reboot it (and again Matthew, you’ll have an archival CVA UK explanation of the basis for my decision to have nothing to do with their current on-line developments later this week to peruse, dispute or ignore – up to you) which became all but devoid of theological content years ago; let alone strategic or tactical activist debate, or even membership input. In fact, over recent years the postings have mostly comprised exchanges between the moderator and a single member of oriental extraction whom one can only hope is based in the UK (hardly the case with the revamped forum from the few verifiable profiles listed in the vastly inflated membership roll). Maybe that’s enough “missing paragraphs” about the Christian Vegetarian Association of the UK! Hopefully the group shall survive despite itself and looking back over their Newsletters of recent years there were a couple of interesting (if unremarkable in an activist sense) events which may have merited an illustrated accompaniment to the brief mention that I afforded the group in print: namely a talk by an Anglican priest and a stall manned by a retired auxiliary bishop. Such scenes would have served the purpose of rounding-off Familiar Strangers on an upbeat note for the future of 'vegangelicalism' in Britain were it not for their palpably misleading relationship to the actual levels of energy and resources within the organisation as a whole. As with the barely existent (in an activist sense) CVA UK forerunner the Fellowship of Life whose website I largely edit: honesty is far better than exaggeration, or spin, and I have promoted both Veg4Lent and CVA UK in the FoL Announcements section over the years. And of course, a separate and informal alternative to the CVA UK these days allows for “omissions” of developments which might easily interest and inform their membership and the wider veggie-Christian scene: eg the emergence of resources such as my book and archival blog of over 150 carefully-selected items of relevance to the movement since the last edition of the CVA UK Newsletter! I hope the above explanation of my motives for writing a book may serve the interests of “transparency” for future reference, if nothing else. Even if it may amount to more vain and useless hot-air in a single post that much of that emitted through comparatively active Christian-veggie forums in any given year – consider it said. I’ve plenty else to do, read, and write about, besides, these days, let us all be thankful to heaven! In the case of Familiar Strangers: it shall soon be past its ‘sell-by’ date anyway and the sad truth is that there’s barely scope for an updated edition. I look forward to academic discovery of Christian vegetarianism in the future with one small caveat of my own: let it at least serve some sort of originally informative value or perhaps scholars could consider devoting their grants and intellects to the research of something else!