I apologise that this article is too big to be a “blog post.” It sits, rather, in the uncomfortable place of not having a home—too long to be a comfortable blog post but not suitable for long-form, academic publications. This underscores the argument below that we need better (or at least more diverse) literary mediums than are currently available for Christian discourse. One solution to this problem is similar to an academic journal yet built on a different understanding of Christian scholarship and developed on analogy with the rise of independent publishing. Explore this option with me by considering, first, the emergence of independent publishing, then, second, an alternative journal for Christian intellectual discourse.
I have worked in the independent publishing industry for six years now, and I am thoroughly convinced of the value of the tools and opportunities presented by print-on-demand technology and independent publishing tools. Instead of spending thousands of dollars upfront, a would-be author can offer their work to the public for well under a thousand dollars (even free, depending on where you live and the quality of the product desired). The ease of access provided by these services has understandably led to thousands of terrible products, yet it has also opened doors closed by traditional modes of publishing—especially Christian publishing.
When I finished my first manuscript, I spoke with a bookstore manager and publisher I knew to get some tips on getting published. He pulled no punches and gave me an honest but brutal introduction to the world of Christian publishing. Much of what he told me years ago has proven true as I have sought to publish various resources with different publishers in different countries. At the end of the day, a book’s potential within the realm of traditional publishing comes down to marketability. The costs involved in the traditional publishing industry are steep (cover design, editing, typesetting, printing, distribution, marketing, etc.), so this makes sense: if every book were accepted, the traditional publishing house would go out of business in no time. Sometimes an author is marketable, so their manuscripts are welcomed; sometimes the book itself is a perfect fit for a large audience, in style and content, so a return on the investment is expected. Sometimes both are the case. However, many of us are not marketable; we have no previous following, nor are we brimming with charisma. Many books in the areas of theology and church ministry are likewise not marketable: they may say something true, and they may say it well, but if only 100 people would read it, the return is not enough to justify the investment.
The technology for independent publishing means that books that might only reach 100 people can be produced—perhaps a publisher might break even (though some of us judge the investment in non-tangible returns to be worth financial loss).
Setting aside the ability to publish the traditionally unprofitable, cutting out traditional publishing houses means the resulting products will be of lesser quality. Print-on-demand technology has come a long way, so the physical quality of books is not sacrificed, yet most independent publishers cannot afford to hire external editors, so more errors are to be expected in independently published books than traditionally published ones (however, I have read traditionally published books that were worse than many of my own independently published books). The biggest sacrifice in the eyes of many is the loss of the gatekeeper function played by traditional publishing houses.
For those convinced that traditional publishers are a bulwark against heresy or false teaching, perusing the catalogue of the biggest Evangelical publishers in the industry will certainly disavow you of that belief. However, in the name of the bottom line, these publishers are often effective at rooting out books with shoddy arguments or nothing new to say before they are published (at least in theory, I can point you to thousands of books that should never have been published for these very reasons…). Given their track record, we should not trust that books published by traditional publishing houses are quality works, yet the rise of independent publishing means that even what little filtering these publishing houses perform is lost.
The burden falls on us readers to be discerning in what we read (and what we buy; many independently published books are not worth the paper they are printed on: be wary of books that have no ISBN number [often published by “CreateSpace”], especially reprints of classic works). Word of mouth plays a far bigger role in the independent publishing industry than it has recently for big publishing houses; recommendations help us discern if the book is worth our time. Attention to the book’s layout, the cover, and the content gives a fair idea of the amount of effort that has gone into a project, often reflecting its value (though there are exceptions to these rules); book previews on Amazon or Google Books are a great way to test out an independently published book before purchasing it.
Independent publishing allows potential authors to develop their own ideas, receive critical feedback, and (hopefully) edify their audience. The democratisation of publishing is already transforming the book industry: when the printing press was first invented, publications were often developed ad hoc and reflected the author’s thoughts in development, not their final destination. Publishing a book or tract contributed to a conversation, and the dialogue that ensued could edify, challenge, and develop the thinking of the author and reader alike.
Independent publishing seems to be pushing us back in that direction; I do not think this is a bad direction to go in (though I hope we avoid the abuse that often characterised such literature in bygone days). Independent publishing, for Christians, allows us to dialogue on important issues facing the church from our own contexts, tackling issues as they arise, developing themes that may not be marketable but are genuinely helpful, and even pushing against the overriding assumptions of what makes good “academic” or “theological” literature.
Towards an Independent Journal of Christian Ministry
You must be asking at this point, what does all of this have to do with a proposal for a new “journal”? Much indeed. Independent publishing as described above facilitates the theological development of the author and reader across long literary works (books or, perhaps, tracts). Blogs have done something similar in the form of short, informal literature. However, there remains a sphere of publishing that is dominated by traditional forms, namely, Journals.
Within academia, journals provide a key platform for the development of academic ideas, often in ways a book simply cannot do. Not all of us are capable of writing book-length arguments, and the blogging medium is too restricted to communicate much that we would say. Journals facilitate careful, sustained arguments of 6-30 pages, too short to even be a tract but too long for a blog post. A lot can be accomplished in this medium: an approach to a difficult passage in the Bible can be presented without writing a commentary on the whole book; an exposition of a short historical document can be achieved without needing to fill 100 pages with fluff (or without being given the opportunity to contribute to a compiled volume); an answer to a pressing ministerial problem or a critique of a contemporary paradigm can be developed; etc. To put it simply, the “academic” journal is an invaluable medium for Christian discourse. Writing is a useful tool not only for communication but also for developing critical thinking, communication, and interpretive skills; writing is not necessary for pastoral ministry or theology, but it is certainly a muscle worth exercising. The medium of a journal fosters these skills in a way a blog cannot.
Traditional journals are not dominated by concerns for “marketability,” yet the standard of blind peer-review functions in a similar way as traditional publishing houses. Fellow scholars are the judges of whether or not a work is fit for the reader. Because of this process, traditional journals are dominated by the assumptions of the scholarly world at large, often in ways that clash with biblical values (in my opinion). “Objectivity” is prized, so the review process is blind (lest subjective prejudices cloud the matter), and the opinion of those from different presuppositional bases are essential. There is significant merit in seeking the opinion of those who disagree with us, yet it is epistemologically flawed to assume that people with vastly different presuppositional frames are able to judge the merits of a work: a secular scholar will find a genuinely Christian contribution to Biblical studies of little merit, and the reverse will often be the case as well. Moreover, the process of blind review eclipses the all-important question of the author’s character: biblically speaking, who is speaking is as important as what is said. To be genuinely Christian, it is not sufficient for literature to say the right things, it must also come from the right people. Orthodoxy is, as I have argued in my book The Trinity and the Bible, neither a matter of character alone nor belief alone but right belief and right character together. Thus, the possibilities of independent publishing and genuine concerns raised by the processes of traditional journals converge and provide the impetus for a new approach to a Christian journal.
Perhaps you are not yet convinced that traditional journals are a problem, let’s think about this a bit more. For one, academic journals are restricted to “academics.” To publish in these journals, you usually need to have PhD in a related field, be accomplished or recommended by someone who is academically qualified, and speak the academic lingo. Often, you need to pay membership fees to be part of the related association (which often requires a PhD). However, are academics the only ones who could benefit from the medium of a journal? I think not—I am academically qualified but not academically minded, and I know I would benefit from the medium of journals. Pastors and lay theologians will have many insights into pressing issues that require the length of a journal article to develop. Confessional Christians also face significant barriers to publishing in traditional journals. There are often three layers of potential barriers to seeing a work published (in addition to what we have already discussed), there is the editor and two reviewers. Now, I am not interested in removing all barriers (my proposal involves a role for reviewers and editors). Consider what usually happens in this process. If even one of those involved in reviewing an article is methodologically prejudiced against the article, they have the power to prevent it from being put through.
For example, I attempted to publish an article on the role of the kingdom of Satan across the Canon; one reviewer objected to my treatment of Satan biblical-theologically as a narratively consistent entity (the Serpent, the Satan, the Dragon) instead of a historically developed idea that emerged in the 4th century BC. My reading was based on John’s interpretation of Satan as found in Revelation (which I happen to think is consistent with Jesus’ view and the Old Testament picture), so it is at least a possible reading that could be entertained alongside the so-called “historical one.” However, the reliance on canonical interpretation is seen as sub-academic among some Evangelicals, especially those of the historical-grammatical persuasion and those who have responded to the late 20th-century call to be better academics on par with their secular peers (see Mark Noll’s, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind). Much of my literary career has been devoted to arguing for a new form of Christian discourse that is neither academic nor lazy, namely rigorous but genuinely Christian scholarship. By “genuinely Christian,” I have argued for a form of scholarship that takes seriously the Bible’s own claims to be sufficient and clear and seeks to build upon a genuinely Christian epistemology, one that is neither relativistic nor objectivist—a redeemed subjectivism that understands and appreciates the role of the self in the constitution of knowledge but does not abandon itself to solipsism (the belief in the sole reality of the subject; see my book The Gift of Knowledge and my technical works, which employ this form of scholarship). Such Christian discourse cannot exist comfortably within the academic world. So, do we have an alternative?
A Journal for Christian Ministry: A Proposal
To fill the lacuna described above, I propose a journal for non-academic Christian scholarship that is simultaneously rigorous, confessional, and self-consciously biblical. Teleioteti is an appropriate name for this publication, for its purpose is to foster maturity among Christians of all vocations: its goal is to foster serious, godly, and mature intellectual thought about God and his world. Interdisciplinary in the sense that it avoids being pigeon-holed into the constraints of this or that arbitrarily defined academic “discipline,” the Teleioteti Journal for Christian Ministry will be a platform for publishing all things pertaining to Christian ministry—practice, theology, history, philosophy, and biblical studies. I do not propose these labels as disciplines but as organisational categories catching the primary emphasis or perspective of an article (much as library organisational schemes do not propose to define epistemic or disciplinary boundaries but merely facilitate filing and discovery). The primary criteria for judging the acceptability of an article will be accessibility, accuracy, clarity, and contribution; these stand alongside the character of the author. An author will be responsible for producing a copy of their article according to the stylistic criteria to be published when the journal is launched.
Accessible: An article ought to be accessible to a broad range of readers, avoiding unnecessary technical jargon or explaining terms clearly. It is of course impossible to make everything accessible to everyone, but the use of hyper-disciplinary jargon is to be avoided.
Accurate: An article ought to display its sources, do so accurately, and truthfully (and charitably) represent its dialogue partners, especially those with whom it disagrees.
Clear: An article ought to have a clear argument and employ a style that facilitates understanding. Articles ought not to employ pervasive ambiguity disguised as profundity.
and make a contribution: An article ought to make a genuine contribution to the edification of the Church and the glorification of Christ. It ought to honour God in what it says and how it says it and offer a genuine service to God’s people. A contribution does not necessarily mean that an article has to say something entirely new, but it must say something in a new way, perhaps persuasively presenting something from a discipline or book that is generally inaccessible, offering a new line of thought, synthesising the works of others, translating a work from another language, etc. In order to make a contribution to the Church, it must be a work rooted in the Bible and oriented towards the promotion of right faith and doctrine.
Authors are godly men or women, who have attested character and participation in Christian community.
Attested Character: as part of the review process, the article’s proposal must be supported by third parties who will affirm that the author is living in conformity with the Gospel, believing (however imperfectly) in Christ and living that faith out in good works and godliness.
Participation in the Christian community: as it is necessary for those who are in Christ to participate in his body manifest in the local church, an author must be actively part of a local church.
To facilitate this, the journal will employ a system of self-initiated peer review. That is, once an article has been written, its author must seek feedback from at least two peers. These peers must be willing to commend the article in writing once the author has responded to their feedback. The basis of their commendation will be the criteria given above.
In addition to commendations of the article itself, the author must also provide two character references, attesting to their Christian character and participation in the local church. These recommendations may come from those who reviewed the article or others.
A peer is defined as a fellow theologian, whether an elder or pastor, a lay theologian (defined as someone who is actively engaged in written theological discourse, such as book reviews, blogging, lectures or sermons (if written in manuscript form), etc.), a theological student, or a Christian scholar. Serious effort should be made to find reviewers working in a different theological sphere than the author (e.g. if the author is a student, they should seek review from a scholar, lay theologian, or minister; if an author is a minister, they should seek review from a student, scholar, or lay theologian). In addition, effort should be made to find reviewers from different spheres (as a student, seek review from a minister and a lay theologian, not two lay theologians).
Once the author has submitted a manuscript along with references the editor(s) will then judge the fit of the article according to the same criteria and the stated purpose of the journal and either reject it or accept it, contingent on the author’s response to the editor(s)’s feedback.
Once accepted, an article will be published digitally (journal.teleioteti.ca). After a threshold of 400 pages is reached, that set of articles will then be published in hardcopy (perfect bound, paperback).
If you have any thoughts, or if you would be interested in reviewing some articles I have kicking around on metaphysics/ontology, theology, and church history, shoot me a message! If you are interested in participating, keep your eyes peeled for the launch—coming soon at journal.teleioteti.ca.