On Responding To Criticism

In general, I make it a point to engage very lightly with negative things that people say about my writing; recently I posted on Facebook that I’d given up reading comments for Lent (and maybe forever). As one of my writer friends has said, it’s not especially conducive to good mental health—or to writerly self-confidence—to remain constantly informed of other people’s opinions of your writing. Still, to write for other people should be more than a one-sided conversation, and reviews and comments are an important part of that conversation. While I try very hard not to engage comments on blog posts that are clearly written in a hasty moment after an even hastier reading (skimming), I am troubled by the review of my book by Adam Day at The Gospel Coalition website, and, given the context of the review (a very popular evangelical website) I’d like to respond here in what I hope will be a measured way.

Screen shot 2013-03-06 at 4.53.54 PM

Adam’s main beef seems to be that the book’s ‘biblical’ chops are inadequate, a criticism he repeats several times throughout the review:

“Overall, the book is heavy on anecdotes and light on biblical content. There’s little sustained interaction with the biblical text, making it seem like Scripture serves as a mere proof-text for many of the stories she recounts.”

“I wish she would have more deeply engaged the biblical text…”

I’m so puzzled by this criticism that I scarcely know how to address it. My book is indeed heavy on stories. It’s certainly not a work of exegesis, but the charge of “light on biblical content” is absurd. Biblical concepts and concerns shape each chapter, and there are Bible references on nearly every page.

Stone’s book would have benefited immensely if she’d answered the question she asks: Why did God make creatures that must eat?

I think I did. You’ll find that on page 32:

“Jesus as Bread of Heaven is spiritual truth but also living metaphor.

We eat every day—several times, if we are so lucky;

without food, we die. We can no more make food grow than we

can make rain fall. We are, as Wendell Berry writes, “living from

mystery,” dependent on forces we can’t control and processes we

can’t fully understand. A physical reality—our bodily dependence

on food and, in turn, on the sustaining hand of the Creator

who designed the earth to bring forth food—daily reminds us of

a spiritual reality: our dependence on Christ. Thus every meal is

sacramental: a tangible, tasty reminder of Christ’s sacrificial

love, especially when we take a moment before eating to consider

the potato casserole or Pad Thai (or whatever!) as God’s

sustaining love made edible.”

Adam goes on to say that if I’d really engaged Scripture, I would see that

“food reveals to us God’s provision for our daily need, our need for humility since we recognize we depend on him (Deut. 8:3), and the importance of trusting him. Food points to something greater than itself. Indeed, the fact we depend for life on something outside ourselves should direct our gaze to the Lord who sustains life.”

Ahem. Do you see why I’m scratching my head?

And then there’s this:

Additionally, Stone could benefit from balance. She doesn’t mention the place of moderation in eating. In her attempt to focus on enjoying food, she neglects dealing with deeper concepts like fasting and feasting and stewardship of our bodies.

“Fasting and feasting and stewardship” are“deeper concepts” than “enjoying food”? The concept of joyful eating, to a reader paying any attention at all, is that it encompasses these concepts as well as “enjoying food.” Page 159:

“As we’ve seen thus far, eating with joy is more than simply

sitting down and enjoying your food (although that’s a big part

of it!). Eating with joy means accepting food as God’s gift—

“God’s love made edible,” as Norman Wirzba put it. It means

choosing food, as far as we are able, that affirms a flourishing

life for the land, for the animals and for the people that bring us

our food. It means eating food with others in ways that lead to

our mutual health and flourishing. And it means embracing our

creativity as people made in the image of the Creator God to

prepare food in ways that celebrate God’s gift while bringing enjoyment

to all our senses.”

And as to the charge of not engaging fasting and feasting, page 166:

“The words simplicity and celebration—or, if you like, “ferial” (ordinary)

and “festal” (feast day)—are helpful in shaping a practice

of joyful eating day to day, week to week, year by year. The alternating

rhythms of feast days and ordinary days belong to the

church year and to cultures that still follow traditional and seasonal

patterns of eating, but this is a cycle that most of us have all

but lost.”

Adam concludes the article by repeating the tired charge of “not biblical enough” and ends with this:

Most of all, I wish she would have celebrated the most important aspect of joyful eating—fellowship with God.

Again, head-scratching. The idea food is a conduit of God’s gracious and daily sustenance—“God’s love made edible”—is repeated so often throughout the book that it’s embarrassing.

So I’d like to ask: What’s really going on here? Did Adam Day read my book carefully at all?

I’d have appreciated if the book review editor at The Gospel Coalition had done a little fact-checking before posting such a review that so lightly engages the actual substance of the book while criticizing so heavily and so inaccurately.

What do you think?

32 thoughts on “On Responding To Criticism

  1. Did he even read your book?? If he was looking for a heavy exegetical on eating, he was looking in the wrong place and expecting your book to fit into an entirely different genre. But avoiding biblical text? No. What a weird charge. This is why I avoid TGC posts anymore.

  2. It seems pretty obvious that he didn’t read the book. It’s like someone reviewing Star Wars and saying, “I wish there would have been some lightsabers in it.”

  3. He doesn’t like that you’re using Catholic words instead of Calvinist words because words like Eucharist aren’t as “Biblical” as predestination. Maybe you said something that doesn’t sound sufficiently in love with capitalism and that’s got him rattled. I’ve ordered your book to preview for a food justice class we’re going to do at our church this spring. I don’t want us to talk about hunger without talking about the need to live eucharistically, because the underlying question behind world hunger is whether we have made God’s garden into a plantation.

  4. Rachel—this is indeed a “measured” response. Well done! We all know what happens when writers take aim at each other. I admire your restraint. Your defense looks pretty tight. It seems clear that he didn’t read the book carefully. Perhaps he was overswayed by the word “Joy’ in the title, assuming (wrongly) that the work would be “lighter” fare? Perhaps he was wanting a book like Wirzba’s most recent, A Theology of Eating? I don’t know of course. But it is SO disappointing when a reviewer just plain old gets it wrong. (My memoir, Surviving the Island of Grace, landed a review in the Seattle Times with this headline: “Alaskan Memoir Falls Short.” His critique: the book wasn’t personal enough, even though it detailed a very hard marriage, a miscarriage in a boat, etc.) Sigh. It’s a disappointing part of the writing experience, that people will read us wrong, sometimes all wrong. But your book is beautiful, full of rich content, and I will do all I can to spread its goodness abroad!!

  5. Some people only read what they want to see or see what they want to read. He must have gone over the book through a pre-constructed lens. Or not at all. One of those…
    Don’t be discouraged. I am about halfway through the book and I really appreciate your insightful and devotional approach. Your chapter on eating disorders has been especially convicting but edifying. Our world needs your words! Refuse to be silenced!

  6. With all due respect to “The Gospel Coalition” I find this line frequently used in TGC & other reviews (Challies, etc.) : “I wish … would have more deeply engaged the biblical text…” which to me smacks of “I’m smarter (i.e., more godly) than this person; therefore, God cannot use their writing b/c it was not theologically nailed down on all corners (or even PROPERLY Reformed–{{gasp!!!}}).” How do we even tie our shoes w/o these reviewers showing us the proper way to do it???

    BTW, I am a pastor, solidly reformed in my theology, but I sometimes “wish” these guys would stop being so pharisaical in their reviews–especially if they don’t TRULY read the book.

  7. Having been to a seminary popular with TGC, I learned the hard way that the charge not biblical enough can never be answered until you agree with their interpretation.

  8. This makes me so upset on your behalf. I’m only a couple of chapters in and I have been surprised by the amount of engagement with Biblical text — so much so that I even made a comment about it to my husband. This guy did a skim job. Maybe he felt that a review of a book written by a woman about food was beneath him, no matter how theologically sound or Bible-based. Your work is needed BECAUSE people like this have such a loud voice in evangelicalism right now. Anyways. Cort Gatliff up higher in the comments puts it best. “Haters gonna hate. Do your thing girl don’t stop.”

  9. I had to chuckle after I read the review then read your excerpt, which said almost exactly the same thing (eerily so), that the reviewer said he “wished” you would have said. I think the appropriate response it to respond carefully and graciously, as you’ve done here, and then to laugh. Because truthfully, it’s just too absurd not to. I can’t wait to read the book and get more than just the bits and pieces I’ve been reading online!

  10. Yours is not the only book which seems to have received the skim treatment by the Gospel Coalition.

    I find many things about this terribly disappointing, not least the club-ish, superior, we-are-defenders-of-orthodoxy-tone that is sent off in so many ways by this group.

    I appreciate the awesome kingdom building things members of the Gospel Coalition do… It’s a shame that certain attitudes continue to permeate through the way they treat other believers. And it’s even more of a shame those in the club swallow it whole.

    It is a club defined by hyper vigilance over language and style, as well as borders on secondary theological doctrines. And these biases lead to skim reading, building characatures and more highly dismissive practices that do not engage the actual content of what is written.

    Rachel I think you write beautifully. I have not read your book, but read every post of your blog since I began following you. This was an excellent reply to something that would have been extremely hurtful, and your let your beautiful words speak truth to an unfair attack.

    I hope you will take courage and be encouraged.

  11. Well he surprised us all from what I read here and I felt he really did not read your book and that he skimmed through it. He missed a good book and it couldn’t have been written any better. Keep up the good work and the Lord will be pleased as well as your readers.

  12. Ms. Stone,
    I’ve often been disappointed in TGC’s book review section.
    Mr. Day’s own description of himself at the bottom of his blog post says “His interest in the subject at hand has been born out of an academic study of a theology of food/eating and the experience of enjoying good food.”
    That means his view of food is myopic in nature. He is only interested in a “Theology of food.” That usually means that any book that is not written by a scholar, for a scholar will fall short. Hence his claim that you are “heavy on anecdotes.” Anything beyond scripture and exegesis is not necessary the academic world. Your attempt to write a book that reaches a much wider audience than a doctoral dissertation is commendable. Keep doing your valuable kingdom work!

  13. Rachel, I have to say I had not heard of your book before today and one positive thing that may come out of that weird review and the comment link of yours that led me here is that now I’m very interested in reading it. I do have a question. Adam Day asserts that you don’t mention the place of moderation in eating. I struggle with anxiety eating and I’m convicted that the way I eat at times is not honoring God and may even be sinful. I am interested in reading a book that helps me get these issues in control in a Godly way. Would you disagree with Mr. Day that moderation in eating is not addressed in your book? It doesn’t really matter to me, it sounds like a great book either way and I look forward to reading it. Best wishes to you!

    1. Brenda, there’s a section where I talked about my own anxiety eating: a very specific private snarfing of energy bars, (of all things!) that I learned to let go by focusing on eating in community with others, which I think is how we’re made to eat and enjoy our food. A meal with Jesus transformed people; meals together were the hallmark of the early church; meals together today bring healing in very specific ways to people suffering from eating disorders, and I think they provide protective benefit to all of us. Thanks for asking. Peace to you.

  14. Don’t let them get to you. At its heart TGC is an apologetics organization, which means they are geared toward exposing how the “other” is inadequate in some way. That they do it with an air of superiority is one of their main rhetorical tactics. As far as I am concerned, the more they post reviews and articles like this, the more those tactics are exposed.

  15. A brilliant response to a rather inept review. I am in agreement with your supporters here, which of course will come as no surprise. I especially appreciate Mr. Fawbush’s comments, as a fellow pastor of a decidedly Augustinian bent who has grown quite weary of the Doctrine Police.

    I have to say that Mr. Day’s review reminded me afresh of why I stopped going to our local denominational pastor’s meetings years ago. One can stomach only so much of this baptized in lemon juice, holier-than-thou heresy-hunting in a lifetime. “Excuse me, but can I have my orthodoxy with a little grace and joy, please..?” Bad coffee, no gluten-free snacks, and enough negativity to give Pollyanna suicidal ideation. No, thank you!

    You keep on keeping on. This world is filled with people whose approval you don’t really want.

      1. Any time, my dear. You know, I’m loving the support you’re getting here, but still quitepuzzled over the dearth of customer reviews on Amazon.com. C’mon guys, the best response to this TGC hack job is obvious! I don’t know a soul who buys things on the basis of TGC; nearly EVERYONE I know uses Amazon, including the reviews.

  16. The very first thing to see is that any group that names itself “The Gospel Coalition” and yet excludes some who proclaim the gospel has either a serious case of arrogance and/or ignorance in that they just use words in ways that do not mean what they think they mean.

    The second thing to see is that such a group that cannot even name itself properly bestows awards on others when they disagree with them in such an incompeternt fashion as they did, so consider yourself awarded.

  17. Rachel, your response is a model of grace and wisdom for others to follow. Perhaps it can be sent to TGC so they will see how a member of the body of Christ is supposed to deal in an irenic Christ-like way with those who oppose her?

    As Aubry said in the first comment on this page, I tend to avoid TGC. Their good stuff is buried under their all-too-frequent missteps, exemplified in their review of your book. Rather sad state of affairs.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  18. TGC’s irresponsible review (and growing reputation for dishing out this sort of thing) says far more about their agenda than the contents of your book, Rachel. You have responded admirably, but TGC has demonstrated minimal willingness to dialogue with those they have swiftly dismissed. Do not be intimidated by TGC’s conflation of essentials and non-essentials. Despite their diligent efforts to convince us otherwise, they don’t have a corner on evangelicalism, much less the Gospel of Christ.

  19. Buying a copy of your book right now…and to Leslie, in case she comes back, I recently read your book, which was riveting because of how intensely personal it was!

    My take on TGC is that it’s not one entity, though it certainly can come across that way. Yes, it’s Reformed, to a fault, but it’s organizers are not on the same page theologically in some pretty major ways, though not foundational (of course I’d argue that for all three traditions of Christianity). This post makes some important “in-house” distinctions amongst their members (though it doesn’t mention TGC):

    http://vanguardchurch.blogspot.com/2009/04/john-piper-and-tim-keller.html

    The ones in the first camp since to have a louder voice on TGC than the ones in the second (which is more representative of my view and the kind of church I belong to).

  20. Ok, so we have 30 positive comments here, and only 4 customer reviews on Amazon.com. What’s wrong with this picture, guys..?

    The best response to a bad review like Mr.Day’s is pretty darn obvious…

Please Join the Conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s