The Making of Biblical Critique Impossible

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Background

Surely Denny Burk must have known what he was getting into when he waded into the controversy over Beth Allison Barr’s book, The Making of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Kevin Deyoung wrote a lengthy review for Themelios last August, shortly after the book’s release; writing at The London Lyceum, Jordan Steffaniak added his thoughts to the conversation this past December. Other reviews have been written and can be easily found. Those two in particular, however, represent the best kind of careful and respectful engagement with an author’s ideas. Nevertheless, careful and respectful engagement with ideas did not exactly characterize the reaction to those reviews.

Those facts set the stage for Burk’s short article at his website drawing attention to how Barr responded to a review of her book that criticized the way she used the example of the “Saint Paula.” Her social media response was not to engage the criticism, but to accuse Burk and others of trying to “smear” her. The clear implication of her response is that her critics are misrepresenting her.

Perhaps concerned (rightly) that he would be accused of taking Barr’s words out of context, Burk had initially posted pictures of two pages from Barr’s book.  An update to Burk’s article reads as follows:

UPDATE #1: I just received an email from Barr’s publisher asking me to remove the two images of pp. 78-79 from this post. The publisher also asked that I remove one of my tweets with the same two images. I thought that sharing them was within “fair use” guidelines, but her publisher says that is not the case. So I’ve deleted them and apologize for the error on my part. The relevant excerpts are still printed above. Also, Amazon has an image of page 79 on their site, so you can still see it there if you are interested. Or you can just order the book and read it!

What is fair use?

According to Harvard University’s Office of General Counsel, “Fair use is the right to use a copyrighted work under certain conditions without permission of the copyright owner.” Protecting the rights of authors, some will remember, is one of the limited powers granted to Congress in the United States Constitution. The doctrine of fair use is meant to insure that copyright law actually does promote the progress of science and art, rather than unnecessarily restrict it.

Whether something qualifies as fair use comes down to four factors: “(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and; (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.”

It’s impossible to know for sure without seeing the email from the publisher, but it seems likely that they based their claim about fair use primarily on the third factor, i.e., posting full pages was too much “use” to qualify as “fair.” As the Harvard article points out, however, it’s not a simple a matter of counting the number of words or pages, but the connection “between the purpose of the fair use and the portion of the copyrighted work taken” must also be considered. In other words, you have to ask why a particular portion of a copyright work was used.

Burk’s review was fair and so were his pictures

Burk couldn’t have known with absolute certainty that he would be accused of misrepresentation, but in hindsight such a worry would have been entirely reasonable. So while in another situation it might not have been fair use to post pictures of entire pages, an attempt to avoid accusations of misrepresentation cannot be ignored in the analysis. Burk’s argument that Barr’s use of Paula as an example was a bad one (or at least badly done) requires the full context. He claims that Paula is not an example to be followed by Christian women and makes his case as to why.

Reading the passage in question, one certainly could be left with the impression that Barr has romanticized the accounts of medieval women (Paula among them) who broke free of marriage and the patriarchy. The fact that Paula left her children crying is mentioned, but is passed over as almost irrelevant. To Barr, it seems, the abandonment of Paula’s children (adults though they may have been at the time) requires mention in passing, but almost no further commentary (critical or otherwise). If Paula is being held up as an example of what Christian women can and should be, Barr should be expected to deal directly with the fact that by Paula separated herself from her family.

Servants and Heralds has obtained copies of the pages in question and posts them here for the purpose of: (1) our own critique and (2) for the additional purpose of letting the reader decide whether Burk took Barr out of context or represented her argument fairly.

Interestingly, in their haste to swoop down on Denny Burk (and presumably threaten him with a lawsuit), the publishing company has done quite a disservice to their author because of the fourth factor in the fair use analysis. If posting two pages from an entire book (for the sole purpose of offering critique and putting the critique in context) is going to have such a detrimental effect “upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work,” then what does that say about the value of the book in the first place? Do the publishers think so little of Barr’s writing and scholarship that the ability of potential readers to preview two pages is enough to make them skip buying the book altogether?

So what?

At this point, a reader might be tempted to ask why any of this matters. Why should anyone care that one author’s publishing company got another author to take down some pictures from his website?

By now, it should be plain that authors like Barr who have been at the forefront of the “manhood and womanhood” debate over the past several years frequently deflect criticisms of their work by claiming that their words have been taken out of context. Even when critique is offered in gentle words and respectful tones (see reviews above), there never seems to be much (if any) meaningful engagement in the realm of ideas. Reviewers like Deyoung and Steffaniak and Burk are, instead, met with howls of indignation that they have misstated the argument or taken words out of context or that they simply would never have made these critiques in the first place if the author had been a man. Such attempts to avoid criticism must stop.

The issues about which Barr and others have written are important issues. Presumably Barr would not have gone to the trouble of writing an entire book if she did not think so. If what she and others truly want (as they sometimes say) is a thoughtful reconsideration of what the Bible tells men as men and women as women (or whether the Bible has anything to say about that at all) then they must be prepared to actually have that conversation and to have it fairly and honestly.

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