by John Wilson
Matthew Avery Sutton has posted a response to Frederica Mathewes–Green's recent piece in Books & Culture, "Holy Hegemony!" Alas, he doesn't seem to have read her piece very carefully. Apart from that, the dispute points to some larger questions of interest about how academic books are reviewed (and not reviewed).
First some background. Sutton's piece appeared on a blogsite that I've been recommending for some months now, both in this space and elsewhere, Religion in American History. It's a site I'll continue to visit regularly with profit. Matthew Avery Sutton is the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard Univ. Press), a book that comes with praise from the historian Grant Wacker, a member of B&C's editorial board. On the recommendation of several people I respect (including the historian Paul Harvey, one of the founders of the Religion in American History group blog), I recently added Sutton to my list of potential contributors to B&C. We haven't met, but we exchanged emails several months ago when Sutton wrote to say he'd like to contribute to the mag. I mentioned to him then that a review of his book—by Arlene Sánchez–Walsh, a scholar of Pentecostalism, now at Azusa Pacific University—was forthcoming in B&C. That review (quite favorable) is now in proofs for the May/June issue.
Here is how Sutton's response begins:
Jerry Falwell is dead, and James Dobson may be increasingly irrelevant, but the culture wars are still alive and well on the pages of Christianity Today's Books and Culture. This was evident most recently in Frederica Mathewes–Green's ridiculous review of Aaron K. Ketchell's Holy Hills of the Ozarks: Religion and Tourism in Branson, Missouri (Johns Hopkins University Press). She entitles the review "Holy Hegemony." Although she assumes that we all know that this refers to Ketchell's book, it is not so clear once the article begins. Who is really practicing hegemony here? The young scholar publishing his first book and trying to begin a career, or a popular writer and veteran of the evangelical lecture circuit who felt it necessary to write a scathing, distorted review of his book, a review that entirely misses the point?
Let's note to begin with that Sutton gets Mathewes–Green's title wrong. There's an exclamation point ("Holy Hegemony!"), alluding to the formula frequently employed by Robin in dialogue with Batman. (You can find dozens of examples in a few seconds via Google. For example: "Holy Haberdashery, Batman!") We should further note that Christianity Today magazine and Books & Culture are separate publications, both of them published by Christianity Today International. But if you speak of "Christianity Today's Books & Culture" in a sentence making the risible claim that the "culture wars are alive and well" in the pages of B&C, a sentence moreover that gratuitously drags Jerry Falwell and James Dobson into the conversation, you hint at a vast right–wing conspiracy, the orders coming from on high down to me, the editor. In short, this opening paragraph sets the tone for Sutton's response, which is characterized by remarkable sloppiness and inaccuracy, humorlessness, and self–righteous huffing and puffing.
If you have read Mathewes–Green's article, you know she pokes fun at the author of Holy Hills of the Ozarks for interpreting Branson in culture war terms. She's not accusing Aaron Ketchell of "practicing hegemony." But Sutton, tone–deaf, rises to the defense. He gives us Ketchell as a "young author" being bullied by "a popular writer and veteran of the evangelical lecture circuit." I don't know Ketchell's age, but it is entirely irrelevant to this conversation, as it would be if I were to charge Sutton in return with beating up on a grandmother (as Mathewes–Green is, many times over).
The indictment proceeds. Sutton writes:
Mathewes–Green begins her article by poking fun at Branson, explaining that by "11:00 pm … everyone is snug in bed at the Red Roof Inn or the Best Western." Once she establishes that she doesn't take Branson too seriously herself, she opens her tirade against Ketchell. "It's hard for him to see the ways Branson has changed," she writes, because "he finds Branson baffling to start with. He recognizes it as representing one side of a culture war (the other side, it appears) and focuses on that to the exclusion of anything else." She then takes shots at him for his acknowledgements (which is always an easy target for those who can't mount a legitimate challenge at an author's evidence), and tells us that Ketchell is—wait for it—a Catholic(!), implying that he obviously doesn't get Protestants.