Inviting the foul

Kevin DeYoung has got himself into social media hot water over his review of Beth Allison Barr’s book “The making of Biblical Womanhood.”  You can read Kevin’s review here. You’ll see that he shares a lot of similar concerns to the ones I expressed in my review here.

Why has he got into hot water on social media? Well, the accusation is that by focusing in on Barr’s historical scholarship that he has sought to discredit her and demean her, that in effect the review is ad-hominem, an attack on the person rather than her arguments.  Peculiarly, a lot of the responses seem themselves pretty personal towards De Young or anyone who is sympathetic to his review.

Barr herself has shot back with this tweet as well as one showing her PhD certificate.

So has De Young allowed his bias to get in the way, is his review just another example of the patriarchy trying to suppress women?  Is it a case of demanding to see qualifications and when a woman provides them then to rubbish them.

I don’t think so and here’s why.  I think that Barr and her defenders have missed the point.  You see, having a qualification and even a track record does not mean that you will always get everything right just a shaving a lot of footnotes and endnotes doesn’t prove your scholarship it just gives some protection against plagiarism. 

The problem for reviewers of books of this kind is that the author sets things up in such a personalised way, so much of the argument is “you must listen to me because my qualifications and my experience qualify me to speak”. This is the debating equivalent of Jack Grealish, Harry Kane or Raheem Sterling shielding the ball and inviting the foul.  But just as in football, this creates a risk of fouling, it is still possible for the referee to spot that the tackler has gone for and taken the ball cleanly.

Look again at DeYoung’s review. He sets out the nature of the book and observes that the argument revolves around two things, Barr’s personal experience and her historical scholarship. I have two quibbles here with his review. First of all, I think he does play down Barr’s experience of an abusive relationship which sounds like much, much more than a “scary boyfriend” and secondly I think a bit more thought is needed about why Barr constantly references her qualifications. I agree that stylistically and persuasively the constant intrusion of “as a history professor” isn’t great, it jars and for me it reduced the readability and persuasiveness of the book. However, it is worth asking why she felt the need to keep doing so.  I think there is something in the assertion made by a number of people that there is greater pressure on female academics to prove their credentials in a way that wouldn’t be expected of men.

Having said that, De Young’s point, as was mine, is that as the author sets out her stall as an historian, it is the historical scholarship that needs to be judged and checked.  Both of us have argued that in this area there are serious short comings. That’s not an ad-hominem attack. Nor is it discrediting Barr.  Professors are fallible and can get things wrong. I think Barr got her methodology wrong here and De Young thinks she got some specific things wrong in terms of history.  Seeking to discredit her and to attack the person instead of the argument would have required us to go through everything Barr has ever written including her PHD thesis and question whether or not she deserved to be a professor. We don’t do that in life, it is generally seen as not fair play and also a bit of a waste of time. We take on trust that people have a good track record in terms of their scholarship.

Rather than an ad-hominem attack here, we’ve seen the ad-hominem defence. It’s not that people have chosen to have a go at Barr for who she is. Rather, she and her defenders have made the story all about her. It is not possible to disagree with her without offending her person. This is the kind of tactic we see increasingly in identity politics.  Indeed, further what we see is that the victim defence is played. It’s not just that Barr is a scholar that makes her unassailable, it is that she is female and therefore the victim. Men are not permitted to have an opinion on her work because they are her oppressors.

What this does is it closes down conversation. Indeed, one might ask whether a conversation was sought in the first place. Is a book like this designed to persuade people like me who have picked up something from a position we currently disagree with? Or is its aim to reinforce a worldview for those who already accept it? I fear the latter, in fact Beth confirms so much here

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Whilst such a tactic might help in the world, I wonder if that is healthy within the church. But there again, it seems that issues are being escalated to first importance so that those who disagree are seen as heretics, part of a cult and therefore not brothers and sisters in Christ.  Furthermore, notice that to return to our footballing analogy, there is no interest in even trying to get the ball. It is clear that the man is the target. Kevin DeYoung is the target. Whether or not he was seeking to demean or discredit Barr, her supporters, endorsed by her certainly wish to discredit and destroy him.

And furthermore, it is a nonsensical and deliberate lie. You see, to stand out and say I hold to the Bible’s teaching on men, women and sexuality is not the easy route these days. It puts a target on your back, it results in your academic credibility being questioned. For whatever is claimed by Barr and friends, it has long been the case that to own up to being conservative evangelical is considered intellectual and professional suicide. Even within church life, my own experience is that at times if I’d said “Oh I’ll just let this or that issue go” (including complementarianism) then pastoring would have been a much easier ride to date. Barr and her friends know that.

I raise this not merely because of its implications for the conversion between complementarians and egalitarians but because I think we can all fall into this kind of behaviour. It’s so easy to demand an audience based on my identity, experience, training, to flash our qualifications, to remind people that we are pastors or that we have experience in such and such an area.  Inviting the foul may be a clever tactic in football and debating but is it really an appropriate method in God’s family?

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