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The Torching of Earthen Vessels: A Reply to Frank Turk

July 9th, 2012 | 7 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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.


Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.