It's uncertain when, or if, the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization will reach bookstore shelves, but the delayed release of the four-volume work fueled debate about possible suppression of Christian academics by secular publishers.
Scholarly publisher Wiley-Blackwell's decision to withdraw the encyclopedia after it was printed and debuted at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in November ignited the controversy.
Project editor George T. Kurian e-mailed the encyclopedia's nearly 400 contributors in February and called the decision "probably the first instance of mass book-burning in the 21st century." According to Kurian, president of the Encyclopedia Society and editor of 60 reference works, the encyclopedia was delayed because four critics called it "too Christian, too orthodox, too anti-secular, and too anti-Muslim, and not politically correct enough for being used in universities."
Kurian said changes requested by Wiley — including the removal of terms such as b.c./a.d., Virgin Birth, and Resurrection — were "the most blatant form of censorship in the history of religious publishing."
Wiley said a lapse in the project's editorial process was revealed after some contributors and editors raised concerns about the encyclopedia's content. After the book was printed, the publishing company learned the editorial board Kurian selected had not reviewed the work. The delay was made to give the board time to review it.
The publishing company said it erred in not being aware of Kurian's "shortcut" in the editorial process.
"It is indeed unfortunate that the content review by the editorial board is taking place late, but that does not negate the need to do so to ensure the quality of the work's scholarship," said spokesperson Susan Spilka. She said a decision hasn't been made about existing copies of the encyclopedia stored in Wiley's distribution facilities.
Wiley hasn't responded to Kurian's claims of anti-Christian censorship because it is the job of the editorial board to do so, said Spilka. "They are better qualified to evaluate the work and determine if revisions are necessary," she said.
Hunter Baker, a politics professor at Houston Baptist University who is familiar with the challenges Christians face in academic publishing, said Wiley's explanation is not convincing.
"You would not wait for the scholarly review until you've already printed several volumes," Baker said. "All of these issues are things that should have been worked out prior to publication. The train was already out of the station."
Prominent evangelical scholars had endorsed the encyclopedia. Mark Noll, history professor at the University of Notre Dame, had praised the book as "thoughtfully conceived." Edwin Yamauchi, history professor emeritus at Miami University, deemed it an "exceedingly valuable reference work" However, both said the basis of their reviews were only the table of contents and a handful of entries sent by Kurian.
Yamauchi said that whether or not the concerns about Kurian's book are justified, the publisher's actions were unusual. "It's rather extraordinary for a publisher to have printed a book and then withdraw it from sale," he said.
Bernard McGinn, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School, was on the encyclopedia's editorial board but asked to be removed. He said he doesn't believe Wiley's actions are a form of censorship.
"They are only trying to be sure that their imprint is on a high-quality publication," he said.
McGinn wrote three entries in the encyclopedia and gave Kurian advice on the project, including names of possible contributors. However, Kurian did not consult with him beyond the planning stage, he said.
McGinn read Kurian's introduction and said its tone of "bombastic Christian triumphalism" was "unacceptable" for a "serious encyclopedia." Of particular concern was "misleading, erroneous, and potentially inflammatory language about Islam."
In a passage about the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Kurian wrote, "The original Christian homelands of Christians in North Africa and the Middle East were stolen by Muslims who unleashed one of the most brutal massacres characteristic of their faith and race. The Mongols and the Turks followed, like locusts, and wiped out the church in Asia."
Kurian said he wrote the introduction as a historian, not as a theologian.
"My duty as a historian is to recite the facts," he said."There is no need to whitewash Arab persecutions and massacres just because they are unpleasant facts. The Holocaust was a fact; you do not expect Jewish historians to overlook the Holocaust just to please the Germans. … We are not living in an Orwellian world where crimes against humanity are permitted but no one is permitted to speak about them."
Objectivity is the key to writing and publishing books of faith, whether for Christian or secular publishers, said Dan Reid, senior editor for reference and academic books at InterVarsity Press. He recalled his own experience editing the Dictionary of Christianity in America.
"To the best of my ability, I wanted objective scholarship," said Reid. The approach paid off, he said, as the book was praised by Christian and secular audiences.
It is uncertain if the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization will be embraced in a similar way, given the criticism about its objectivity.
However, Spilka and Baker both agree this is a rare situation.
"I don't view this as an epidemic problem," Baker said. "Academic presses do publish outspoken Christian scholars. It is not uncommon for Christian scholars to publish with the finest university presses in the world."
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