The Torching of Earthen Vessels: A Reply to Frank Turk

It’s oddly fitting that while we were examining whether and how patriotism is compatible with Christianity on the Fourth of July, Frank Turk of the Pyromaniacs was torching my book.

“Torching,” for those who are keeping score at home, is a figure of speech.  At least I am pretty sure it is.  Judging by the review itself, I wouldn’t be half surprised to learn he actually pulled out the gas and matches.  In short, he really did not like it.

Here’s a little backstory:  I had dinner with Frank a few weeks back and it was a spirited and friendly conversation that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I like Frank a lot:  he’s like the curmudgeonly uncle who comes over for Thanksgiving and buries a few intellectual gems inside a whole lot of snark.  We don’t often agree, but I’m still willing to listen.  So when he told me he hated the book, I suggested rather pointedly that he should say so online.  Frank has been around a long time and has skewered a lot of people.  To come under the knife is something of a rite of passage and it makes me just a little bit proud.

Or at least it might have, had Frank demonstrated that he’d even read it.  But taking only the review itself, there’s only scant evidence for that.

Frank has, I gather, three complaints that he wishes to lodge against the book.  The first is that it is not the book he expected, the book that evangelicals need.  As he puts it:

His intellectual fire power is so great, I was really hoping that he would, in a manner of speaking, split the atom of apologetics in a popular style so that the resulting blast would have taken out all the trite babbling which passes for spiritual writing on the subject.  I was hoping for a practical theological mushroom cloud which would rattle the popular discussion.

Now ignore Frank’s silly overestimation of my own ability, because it really is quite laughable (or terrifying–I could go either way).  The thing to take away, kids, is that there is no reviewer quite so dangerous as the disappointed reviewer.  The sort of expectations that Frank had for the book turned out to be too high.  Okay, then.  So?  The sensible thing to do with a book once it fails to live up to your over-inflated hopes is to evaluate it on its own terms, to see the goods that are there and learn to appreciate them as such.  That Frank clearly failed to do, at least judging by his review.

But allow me to add this:  I said when I set out that I had hoped the work would help an evangelical conversation about the theology of the body eventually emerge, but that if it didn’t that someone else would fill in the gap.  In fact, I have sometimes half-heartedly joked that the fact I was allowed to write the book to begin with is itself an indictment of the evangelical theological world.  That conversation hasn’t yet emerged and it’s clear my book won’t be its catalyst.  But when Frank suggests he is writing the review in order to goad “someone else to try and write it until we get it right,” well, I’ll join him in that effort.  Nothing would make me happier than a work on the subject I could give out besides my own.

Let’s move on.  Frank’s second complaint is that I’ve allegedly committed a gross inconsistency by critiquing evangelicals and their relationship to the secular culture in the second chapter and then praising evangelicals for the same in the seventh.  The offending sentence in the seventh chapter is this:  “If there were a sexual arms race, evangelicals would be winning.”  As Frank puts it, “To say that we are somehow a superpower in the sexual arms race when one has already establish how inept we are at engaging unbelievers is, frankly, just sloppy.”

Here I can only presume that Frank had grown so tired of the book that he simply gave up reading.  And I’ll take some of the blame for that.  When readers fail to understand, it ought to make the author pause and consider whether things have come off as well as he imagines.  So I’m open to having dropped this particular ball.

But Frank’s critique here is akin to me simply quoting this line from his review and then moving on:  “[Matt’s] a bright fellow who has a deep liberal education, and he writes like someone who is really there, really in the middle of the intellectual playing field when he’s blogging.”  It would be so misleading it might even be funny.

So let me simply quote myself, from all of one page later (122):

“For all [evangelicals’] efforts to recover the goodness of pleasure, our understanding of human sexuality still does not go very deep.  The loud arguments within evangelicalism that pleasure is good border on defensively shouting, “Hey, we’ve got pleasure too!” in a world that cares about little else. Evangelicals can and should win the pleasure war, but not on the same terms as the world.  And judging by our literature and manner of life, we are closer to treating sexual pleasure as an idol than we have ever been to treating it as a curse.”

And there you have it, folks, precisely the sort of critique of the evangelical mentality about sex that Frank was looking for and that is perfectly consonant with chapter two (a point on the side of the book’s internal unity, he said).   What’s more, that’s the sort of critique that I’ve been making in various places for at least the past year.   Disappointment has a way of going around, I suppose, because I was frankly hoping that Frank would have taken it upon himself to actually engage the substance of the book.  But at this single point of contact, he so so badly misreads me that I don’t quite know what else to say in response.

Frank’s final concern, of course, is probably to blame for why he read that all so badly:  he finds the book boring, pedantic, a little too academic for his tastes.  He thinks it reads like a term paper and even goes so far as to call into question my belief in “the thesis of Earthen Vessels,” which I take to be that the gospel offers good news for human bodies.

It is true that the book came off more academic than I was hoping, largely because the enormous gravity of the subjects that I dealt with impelled me at every turn to show as much of my work as my editor would allow.  I could have buried my sources, let my prose go, and turned in a very different book.  It might have sold better and perhaps Frank would have gotten quite a bit less sleep.

But I didn’t.  And if Frank wants to suggest that somehow my failure indicates an unsteady grasp on the gospel, well, he’s looking for evidence in the wrong places.   But from what I can tell, St. Paul would have had a tough time getting Romans through his framework, because the lifting is very heavy and the moments of jubilous exaltation are relatively few.  I might even say they come on balance about as often as they do in Earthen Vessels.  

So the point about the writing, well, I understand.  Really, I do.  I did not write the book as well as I had wanted, as well as I could have.  Three more edits would have improved the book considerably, smoothed over some of its rough edges and made it a bit more accessible.  Much like the human body, the thing is rather imperfect and may take some sitting with in order to appreciate.  But the real question is whether there is anything worth sitting there for, whether there are any treasures buried beneath the imperfect prose and excessive quotations.  That is a question that Frank Turk does not answer because it is a question he does not seem to be interested in.   I still have the vanity to believe there is, but then I have written the book so I know how to read it.  And so it is a question, it seems, that you can only answer for yourself.

 

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  • Kevin White

    I want to offer a little friendly pushback as a non-combatant. I don’t think it is entirely fair to Frank Turk to claim that he accused you of having a weak grasp on the gospel or disbelieving your thesis. In fact, after reading your response, I felt impelled to re-read his review in case my memory was addled by driving 1000 miles in the surrounding days, and I had forgotten a few terribles.

    In fact, the paragraph in Turk’s review where he talks about the Gospel and style would be lacking in both power and point if it did not take it as a given that you fully affirm both the gospel and the thesis of your book. He didn’t do anything as simplistic or unfounded as accusing you of disbelieving either, but of writing in a style that, in his view, did not match either your thesis or the spirit of the gospel. That said, your reply certainly does address his broader complaints about the book’s style.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Kevin,

      The pushback is welcome. What do you make of this sentence: “If in fact one believed the thesis of Earthen Vessels, you would think he would write in a little more convicting and actionable way.”

      My suggestion is that the point raises doubts about my conviction about the gospel, as it implies that those who are so convicted would write in the way he expects. There are lots of options, of course, when the style doesn’t match up with our expectations about how people write. One of those is to suggest that the problem is in the author. And that is the path that I think Frank (unfortunately) takes.

      What am I missing?

      Matt

      • Kevin White

        Well, first, I don’t take that sentence was especially well-written or clear. (See Turk, I do think you are a menace! I really do!) The use of “one” in the conditional clause paired with “you” and “he” in the main clause leaves a few possibilities. If “one” is linked to “you”, ie if the whole sentence is written with an indefinitely subject but with awkwardly mixed pronouns, then it means “if you believe Matt’s thesis, you would expect him to write more good.” If “one” is linked to “he”, which would be even more awkward of a pronoun garble, then Turk would be saying “If Matt really meant it, then why didn’t he write good?”

        In context, I favor the first construction. Turk just spent a whole paragraph talking about what style is consistent with the true nature of the gospel, it makes sense then to add in consistency of style with the thesis of the book. It would not make sense, in the middle of a review that strive to be at once flattering to you and Frank Turkishly cruel (not a jab, he stinking says it!) to the book, to throw such a nasty ad hominem at you as to say that you don’t get the gospel and are insincere in your writing.

        So I don’t think he says you lack conviction, but that you do not effectively convey or demonstrate conviction in your writing in this case. An important distinction, and hard to communicate effectively when pronoun confusion and (at the risk of mind-reading you in a blog thread) hurt feelings are in the mix.

        • Kevin White

          Not “I don’t take”, but “I don’t think”. An apt typo, perhaps.

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

            Kevin,

            I appreciate the attempt to clarify. Allow me to clarify my own stance: I don’t think that he has engaged in an ad hominem directly. I don’t think he has suggested that I don’t believe the gospel. I think he has raised a question about whether I, in fact, do. I won’t lie: I do find that mildly offensive and uncharitable.

            But I think the presupposition that people who really get the gospel write [x] sort of books is where the problem lies, and it seems to be a presupposition of even your attempt to rescue the line.

            But then, here we go talking about all this in a thread where Frank could chime in and clarify if he wanted. I’ll be happy to retract the reading and update the post with an apology, should I need to.

            Best,

            Matt

          • Kevin White

            Matt,

            I do not at all see how it follows from anything Frank wrote in his post that he accuses you of disbelieving the gospel or implies anything along those lines. And if he did, it would be more than mildly offensive.

            I don’t think I was advancing the presupposition that you suggest. I do think I differ somewhat with Turk on the matter of style fitting subject matter–there is more flexibility based on goals and audience. But I think (1) there is a distinction between saying “style x is most compatible with belief y” and saying “if you don’t use style x, you don’t hold belief y”, and (2) that Turk was honoring that distinction.

            May I humbly suggest that you are taking the wrong offense at his statement. You should be offended at the suggestion that a semi-academic style cannot convey conviction or applicability. Ie, that your style is inherently incompatible with your subject. Instead, you are deducing a an attack on your convictions in the midst of an attack on your sensibilities.

            But yes, Frank Turk is reading this and can defend himself. I’ll defer further defense of Turk to Turk, and only be defensive of myself from here. ;)

          • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

            Kevin,

            We’ve gone past the point of helpfulness here, but let me again clarify my above line and how I interpret Frank. I don’t think he says either of the two options you identify: “”style x is most compatible with belief y” and saying “if you don’t use style x, you don’t hold belief y.” I think that line suggests something like, “if you don’t use style x, we have reason to believe you don’t believe y.” That’s “calling it into question,” which I take as different than the assertion that.

            And in some sense, I think my offense *is* rooted in the counter-suggestion that his principle is a false one. If someone doesn’t use style x, then all that means is…they don’t use style x, for good or ill.

            Best,

            Matt

          • Kevin White

            Matt,

            Yeah, we are at an impasse. Push it too much farther, and we’ll wind up slap-fighting and shouting “poltroon!” Which would be embarrassing.

            Kevin

  • http://teampyro.blogspot.com Frank Turk

    First, the review is 1500 words or 3.5 pages single-spaced. In that space, I think I adequately covered my admiration for Matt who, let’s face it, is definitely smarter than the average Wheaton-educated bear. I think it’s funny that suddenly this young fellow who can talk about the roots of Greco-Roman philosophical categories in the book of Romans over burgers wants to mitigate my admiration for him when it turns out that admiring him means I’m going to expect more from him and his books than the average liberal arts major. However, if he wants to admit that he’s just an average guy who can write average books, who am I to run him over for it?

    Here’s the nutshell of my complaint:

    [QUOTE]
    Let me say this plainly: we need a great book that addresses the problem that our Christianity is both kitschy and removed from the real world; we need a great book that talks about the connection between creation and incarnation in the spiritual life of man which doles out Christian theology and wisdom; we need a working creed which we can use to teach people that being good neighbors is actually a foundational mode of Gospel proclamation — especially in this world where people think they can be friends across the virtual divide without ever seeing each other; we need an apologetic that covers both tattoos and sex without retreating to mores and modes of social discourse from the 19th century; we need to understand the church as a body full of bodies. In short: we needed the book Matt set out to write.

    Unfortunately, he never wrote the book we needed. He wrote the book I received — which advertised the menu above in the table of contents, but delivered a lunch in a sack rather than five courses and a satisfying dessert.
    [/QUOTE]

    My problem is not that Matt was wrong. He is not at all wrong. My problem is that he wrote a book that, for all its foot-noted evidence and linear reasoning, is as useful toward addressing the problem as a letter opener is for harvesting pine trees. If the letter opener will be a formidable weapon against envelopes and fliers which will be made from the pine trees, why not take it out in the woods and clear an acre or two with it?

    For the poor, dainty letter opener the task is simply too expansive. He may be a cutting tool, but he’s meant for a more meager work than clearing the forest. He’s meant merely to clear off the desk.

    Matt is addressing an issue which, let’s face it, is a culture issue that is not merely a matter of separating the bills from the junk mail. It needs a book which, if it really does believe that our bodies matter, speaks to us like we are alive and not merely sorting our files. It ought to feel like lumberjacking in the wild and not like we ought to be afraid to raise our voices because the library is a dour and serious place.

    My complaint is that this book is not at all sturdy enough to tacking the problem. It doesn’t drive anyone from “is” to “ought,” and that’s a shame.

  • http://teampyro.blogspot.com Frank Turk

    Also, just to cut this off at the pass: Yes. I agree. I am a menace who must be stopped.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “Disappointment has a way of going around, I suppose, because I was frankly hoping that Frank would have taken it upon himself to actually engage the substance of the book. But at this single point of contact, he so so badly misreads me that I don’t quite know what else to say in response.

    If it’s any consolation, Frank Turk has done this before. Or in other words, you’re not alone in being badly misread by Frank Turk.

  • http://www.loneprairie.net Julie

    Of course, I had to up and buy the book.

    Well played.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Hahaha. Epic win! I’d love to hear what you thought of it when you’re done….good, bad, or both.

  • Don

    Recently I was on a road trip across the country that brought me through Denver. People have always call Denver “the mile high city”, bringing to mind images of a grand, shining place out of reach by all but the most robust settlers. To the casual listener, a city built one mile high sounds like an incredible feat. It should include people dragging stones, and pavement, and dynamite up the face of a mountain, blowing off the top, and building an epic metropolis by grit and determination.

    As I approached it from Wyoming, I started getting really pissed about that monicker. Denver is *technically* one mile above sea level if you measure it in exactly the right place, but it’s only by a significant effort of local boosterism that it should be known popularly as “the mile high city”. In fact Denver only seems high at all if you approach it from the west and travel up the Rockies to get there. If you’re traveling from the east (as those who settled in Colorado were) getting there involves a pretty prosaic romp over rolling plains. There are dozens of cities built higher than Denver. I traveled down almost a thousand feet from Cheyenne to get there.

    In fact if anything, far from living up to its image of a Herculean show of man’s strength, Denver should call itself “the city that really wussed out” since the earliest settlers got to the foothills of some really difficult terrain and decided to call it a day.

    I must have gone on about my dissatisfaction with Denver for at least 20 minutes before pausing to take a breath. My traveling companion took the silence as an opportunity to point out to me that the sun was setting over the Rockies. It was spectacular.

    Getting angry at a thing for not being what you wanted it to be can be a pretty pointless exercise.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Don,

      Thanks for the comment and great to hear from you.

      If you came anywhere near St. Louis on this journey and didn’t pop in and say hello than you and I are no longer friends. Just FYI.

      Matt

      • Don

        In that case we remain friends, Matt. You would have been hit up for a dinner or a couch to stay on if I had.

  • Tim

    I just I have to agree with Frank.

    Upon reading what your book was about and the reviews, it didn’t seem to have anything significant or profound or compelling enough to make it to my ‘must read’ list.

    We need books that have strong convictions that make a compelling case for Christ to convince people to believe as he is making his repeal through us – 2 Corinthians 5:20.

    This is truly about life and death, to not realize that is to not truly believe in Christ. But don’t stop either. Write another book, for the workers are few, the harvest is great and without a preacher many more will parish.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Tim,

      I’m very curious: how do you manage to “agree with Frank” about a book you have not read? Doesn’t that seem a bit…odd?

      Matt

  • http://lawreligionculturereview.blogspot.com Richard

    Matthew,
    I have to say I’m impressed how you handled the criticism of your book. Very gracious and charitable.
    Congrats on the book!
    Best regards,
    Richard

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Richard! The kind feedback is much appreciated (and it’s just always great to have you show up in the comments–makes it feel like old times!). : )

      Hope you are well!

      Best,

      Matt

  • Matt

    Matt, your book is on my soon-to-read reading list, will let you know what I think. As a Catholic very active in ecumenical circles, I find the Theology of the Body to be the premeire tool for ecumenism, IMHO. This particular blog entry reminds me of something from Christopher West’s brand new book (Fill These Hearts, Random House, 2013):

    For the mystic, the true pleasures of the world are a welcome but only
    dim foreshadowing of the ecstasy that awaits him in the life to come. He
    can live within that “ache” (what the mystical tradition calls “the
    wound of love”) because of his living hope that his “soul shall be
    satisfied as with a banquet” (Ps. 63:5), a banquet that lasts forever
    and will fulfill every desire beyond all earthly imaginings. The truth
    is, we’re all called to be “mystics”. And that means we’re all called to
    enter into the “great mystery” of Christ and his mad love affair with
    us. (p. 34)

    I’d be interested to know what you think of these Evangelical sermons on Theology of the Body, that I frequently recommend to non-Catholic friends:

    http://www.churchrez.org/sermon/theology-of-the-body-for-men-part-i/

    http://www.churchrez.org/sermon/theology-of-the-body-for-men-part-ii

    http://www.churchrez.org/sermon/theology-of-the-body-for-men-part-iii

    http://www.churchrez.org/sermon/why-your-body-matters/

    http://www.jmtour.com/personal-topics/audio-files/series-scriptural-sexual-ethics/

    http://www.truroanglican.com/rectors-forum (about 20 different talks given by the pastor and his wife on TOB)

    pax tibi,
    Matt C.