An Unexpected Reply

If you’re like me, you make negative evaluations and judgments about countless things throughout the regular flow of life without a second thought. This bread is too dry. This show is boring. That car is ugly. This song is stupid.

But how different would those comments be if the baker of that bread was listening? The director of the show? The designer of that car? The artist performing the song? Interesting that, for most of us, something about the presence of the person responsible for the thing causes us to be more guarded with our words. I exclude those rare people who have zero filter and will say the most offensive and blunt things to people without batting an eye. Kind of refreshing really, but I’m glad I’m not married to one. But come to think of it, a few of those scattered about is probably quite healthy for any community; politeness often comes at the expense of truth.

I had an experience recently that prompted this little observation. For many years now I have had the practice of writing something about every book I read or re-read. At times it is just a word or two, and other times it grows into a large review or reflection. So after receiving ‘The Everlasting People’ by Dr. Matthew Milliner for Christmas, I proceeded to read it a bit quickly and then jot down a few quick thoughts on goodreads.com. They were not particularly well-organized thoughts – I wanted to get them down while the content was still somewhat fresh in my mind.

Up it went and on with my life. Here is what I wrote:

What an interesting book. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. I love Chesterton, and have read Everlasting Man at least two times. I was not familiar with Matthew Milliner, and I’m not sure how I came across this title, but I put it on my Christmas list and here we are.

I really appreciated the history, the art, the responses from other contributors, and the spirit of the book. I get what Milliner was trying to do, and I am very sympathetic to it. I was moved by many of the stories of what the First Nations people went through and the inexcusable betrayals they repeatedly suffered at the hands of so-called Christians. I was amazed to find that so many of them had embraced Jesus through the missionary activities of various groups. I would really love to learn more about how that happened and what exactly that looked like, and how those groups fared over time. The book touched on such things but not in depth.

I struggled at times to understand if the author saw any danger in syncretism. As a student of missiology, I was surprised to find zero discussion of this, nor of the concept of the different levels of contextualization. For readers like me, who are presumably culturally and theologically more conservative than the author, it would help the persuasiveness and plausibility of the book’s argument to make clear that at least some pagan practices were outside the bounds of what could reasonably be redeemed and repurposed to Christian ends.

Along similar lines, the adoption of phrases made popular by Marxist critical theories, such as “whiteness,” signals a certain political and cultural vision that instantly alienates a good portion of the population. Perhaps this is typical of Wheaton these days, I don’t know. I think the appeal of the book would be stronger without such loaded language.

And then something happened which I never expected: the author himself replied directly to my review! It had never entered my mind that the author might lay eyes upon my hastily written words, let alone take the time to respond. The feeling was something like “Oh! You’re here?!” Imagine standing in front of a painting in a museum for a minute and then shrugging and saying something like, “I don’t get really get it – seems too dark, and the colors aren’t right on that face.” And then getting a tap on the shoulder and receiving a personal reply from the artist herself.

Here is what Dr. Milliner wrote:

I wanted to take a brief moment to thank you Phil (if I may) for this thoughtful review. Allow me to say that I myself have concerns about syncretism as well, as do so many of the Indigenous Christians (past and present). But I have also found fear of syncretism sometimes to be a screen that keeps us from fully engaging. Hence my beginning with the ostensibly “syncretist” Byzantine church of Thessaloniki, but which is really Christian to the core. Is a typical New England church with classical white columns “syncretist” even if it used the vocabulary of pagan architecture? I hope not, so long as Jesus is proclaimed. So it is, I think, with Indigenous culture. As to the pagan practices outside the bounds, I hope you noticed not only my mention of full scale human sacrifice at Cahokia, but also the illustration of said hideous practice to drive home the point. Finally, regarding critical theory, I share some of your concerns. Hence my attempt to avoid it, and to use Indigenous myth instead (appealing not to Marx, but to the Mishepeshu!). So in short, I think we may be closer than you think. Sure, I use Whiteness as a concept, but I hope you sensed I used it differently than is commonly employed by also redeeming Whiteness at the end, by looking at my own (White!) ancestry and seeing the grace of God there to. I’m grateful for this medium so that I can offer this reply to your valid concerns. I hope this clarifies. Thank you for reading!

First of all, how cool is Goodreads that this kind of thing can even happen? Second of all, what a kind and gracious reply. I immediately felt embarrassed that I had not taken the time and effort to really understand the book. Here is what I replied:

Dr. Milliner, thank you for taking the time to read my review and engage with it so thoughtfully.

You make excellent points by pointing out parts of your book that do speak rather directly to my concerns, and although you were too gracious to say it, if I had read the book a bit more carefully I might have noticed that for myself. So to be honest I am a bit embarrassed that the author of a carefully written book read my not-very-carefully-written review. I know that if I had written a book such as this, I would hope for a little more from my readers (even if I dare not expect it!).

But you picked up on a certain posture of hesitancy which you dealt with gently and I think that warrants another more sympathetic reading of your book and a more thorough review that engages more substantially with it. So thanks again and stay tuned for my second swing. 

I have heard Albert Mohler refer to the reading of books as a kind of slow-motion conversation. I like that analogy. An author takes an immense amount of trouble to gather material, research, sketch out, and then make his or her argument on paper. Unlike a blog or any other digitized medium, the printed page has a tangible permanence and presence. The editors and typesetters have done their work. All has been proofread and the cover design is complete. The presses are heated, the ink flows, and the paper is marked. (Try to forget for a moment that the vast majority of our books are now printed in China.)

The process itself is quite romantic, even somewhat magical. For words themselves, if we can but see them again for the first time, are a kind of metaphysical mystery. Thoughts – themselves a mystery to those who study them and try to determine just what they are – incarnated into sounds and then into symbols and then frozen onto a page. I open a book and another person’s thoughts lay before me. When it is a page of verse, it is something more than thoughts.

So I take the reading of books seriously, because the writing of them is serious. And the strange experience of posting a hasty review and receiving a most unexpected reply has only deepened this conviction of mine. But it also sheds light on a phenomenon we have all observed: online discourse is generally much worse than discussion in real life. As the saying goes: don’t read the comments. And this is all the more lamentable when professing Christians give vent to speech that would rightly deserve a frosty silence and a rebuke at the dinner table.

We have far too easily divorced our online words from the stringent commands about our speech that we find all over the Scriptures. Something about the disembodied nature of the digital medium offers a kind of veil that blinds us to the spiritual significance of our words. And so the digital world is not only a far less human place because it is necessarily disembodied, but also because that disembodiment encourages us to dehumanize others as well.

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