Wiley-Blackwell, a major academic press, was set to release its four-volume Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization this month. According to the encyclopedia’s editor, George Thomas Kurian, the set had been copy-edited, fact-checked, proofread, publisher-approved, printed, bound, and formally launched (to high praise) at the recent American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference. But protests from a small group of scholars associated with the project have led the press to postpone publication, recall all copies already distributed, and destroy the existing print run. The scholars’ complaint? The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, they have reportedly argued, is “too Christian.” “They also object to historical references to the persecution and massacres of Christians by Muslims,” Kurian says, “but at the same time want references favorable to Islam.”
Political correctness in academic publishing is nothing new, but it would be unusual, to say the least, for ideological pressure to lead a publisher to reverse itself so late in the process, especially given the significant financial losses involved in pulping a print run of a gigantic four-volume encyclopedia. As Kurian puts it, “This is probably the first instance of mass book-burning in the 21st century.”
Last week, Kurian e-mailed a memo to his nearly 400 contributors informing them of Wiley-Blackwell’s decision, and of his intention of pursuing on their behalf a class-action breach-of-contract lawsuit. Kurian’s memo was soon distributed on the e-mail list of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and is getting attention in the blogosphere. (Full disclosure: I am one of the contributors to the encyclopedia; to my knowledge, no complaints were raised about anything I wrote.)
The memo also claims that the “words or passages [the critics] want deleted” include “Antichrist,” “BC/AD (as chronological markers),” “Virgin Birth,” “Resurrection,” and “Evangelism.” “To make the treatment ‘more balanced,’” the memo says, the critics “also want the insertion of material denigrating Christianity in some form or fashion.”
Kurian reports that critics objected to contributions from a number of established scholars, some from prominent academic departments and widely published in mainstream journals and academic presses–their work was deemed too theologically conservative and orthodox.
A representative of Wiley-Blackwell has sent an e-mail of his own to the encyclopedia’s contributors, insisting that Kurian’s charges are “completely without foundation.” The press’s actions, the representative claims, stem simply from a concern for “standards of appropriate scholarship.” This concern has led it to decide that the work’s articles require further review before publication. The publisher has not explained why its academic standards did not prevent it from granting final editorial approval and printing the encyclopedia. To paraphrase John Kerry, it would seem that Wiley-Blackwell was for publication before it was against it.
– Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism.