Sin of omission

Publishing | When is a Christian encyclopedia "too Christian" for its own good?

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

George Kurian, editor of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization, is upset. He says executives at Wiley-Blackwell backed out of publishing his project two years in the making because they deemed it "too Christian." Kurian is threatening a class-action lawsuit for breech of contract and has garnered support from 60 of the encyclopedia's 375 contributors.

Wiley-Blackwell admits that its decision to suspend publication came very late in the game-namely, after the encyclopedia's initial printing and November debut at a conference for the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. But the academic publisher maintains that its sole intent is to ensure the highest standards of scholarship. In a statement sent to WORLD from spokesperson Susan Spilka, the company repudiates what it terms "hurtful and damaging accusations."

Nevertheless, such accusations continue swirling in the Christian blogosphere, which has largely echoed Kurian's charge of political correctness run amok. Cries of censorship and anti-Christian bias abound.

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At primary issue is the text's 40-page introduction, which Kurian authored. The language of that opening salvo pricked the sensibilities of two editorial board members, Duke religion professor David Morgan and Bernard McGinn, professor emeritus of historical theology and the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

According to Kurian, the pair of scholars raised questions about balance and tone, setting off alarm bells at Wiley-Blackwell and triggering an order to re-edit the entire encyclopedia with such issues in mind.

Citing the threat of lawsuit, McGinn declined WORLD's request to discuss the matter in detail, but dismissed Kurian's assertions of anti-Christian bias as "vituperative and untrue attacks." Morgan did not return WORLD's request for comment.

Kurian says he stands by every word of the introduction: "I've never been ashamed of the gospel, and I've never been ashamed of anything I write." He says Wiley-Blackwell is simply out to strip the Christianity from a Christian publication, removing orthodox conceptions of the resurrection and virgin birth. The publisher insists all editorial decisions are still pending.

"They want to sanitize the work just to please non-Christian readers," Kurian said. "I told them I could not be a party to that in all conscience. It would distort the work and make it thoroughly not Christian."

But a reading of the text indicates the issue may be more complicated. Much of the language in Kurian's introduction borders on the inflammatory, such as when he compares Mongols and Turks to "locusts" who "wiped out the church in Asia." Elsewhere in the text, the successes of Christianity and Christians are recounted at length with no mention of shortcomings or violence. Wiley-Blackwell executives dubbed that presentation propagandistic.

Kurian, who is Eastern Orthodox, defends it: "We describe the persecutions of Christians under Muslims. And the complaint was made, 'Why don't you describe the persecutions by Christians?' That is the decision we made when we determined the tone and scope of the work. We decided this was an encyclopedia of the Christian worldview. And we are not here to denigrate Christianity. Many other books do. We are presenting the opposite view from the Christian standpoint. There is no point in neutralizing the whole scope of the work by making it what they call more balanced."

Of course, the Christian worldview includes the supposition of human frailty and folly, even among Christians. Why not include such historical realities for the sake of truth? "It's a question of motivation," Kurian insists. "This is a Christian encyclopedia. It has to be on the side of Christians, because that is the purpose of the encyclopedia."

In that vein, Kurian accurately recounts the myriad contributions of the faith to all facets of society-human rights, literacy, law, art. But the absence of Christianity's stains paints a rosy picture unworthy of honest history. Wiley-Blackwell need not dismiss such a text as "too Christian," but rather not Christian enough.


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