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On Representing the Views of Others

July 14, 2017

The following exhortation about representing the views of others is primarily directed to students and younger scholars.  One of the aims I’ve striven for over the 40+ years of my scholarly work has been to represent the views of other scholars fairly, and especially those views with which I take issue.

I owe a good deal of my concern in this matter to my PhD supervisor, Eldon J. Epp.  In the interview in which I approached him about commencing PhD work, I remember him emphasizing one thing:  I didn’t have to agree with his views, but he wouldn’t tolerate the misrepresentation of the views of those whom I might engage in my research.  And one of the deepest satisfactions for me over the ensuing 40+ years is that I can’t recall an accusation that I distorted or treated unfairly another scholar’s views in my publications.

But I’ve had to work at this, for the temptation to exaggerate or caricature views that you disagree with is very real, and no one is immune to it.  Especially in my early years of scholarly work when I was still “learning the ropes,” one measure I took was this:  When I wrote a review of a book, I’d send the review typescript to the book’s author with a note that the review was forthcoming in a given journal.  I’d typically write that, although I couldn’t expect the author to agree with my critique, I hoped that the author would recognize his/her views as I stated them.  It was a discipline:  If I hesitated about handing the review to the book’s author, then I should consider whether there was something in the review that was excessive or unfair.

Over the years since then, when I’ve focused on the work of a particular (living) scholar, I’ve typically sent my critique or engagement to him/her before submitting it for publication, inviting that scholar to point out any significant misrepresentation of him/her.  For example, my chapter on “Q” in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, is a close engagement with some of Kloppenborg’s well-known work on that topic.  So, I sent the draft of the chapter to him, asking him to help me avoid any misunderstanding or misrepresentation of his views.  Gentleman that he is, John dutifully read the chapter carefully, and assured me that it was an accurate description of his views (though he didn’t necessarily subscribe to my own).

In another instance, I recall inviting Adela Yarbro Collins to comment on my engagement with one of her views.  In that case she felt that I hadn’t represented her view fairly.  So, I modified what I wrote to take account of her complaint.

So, I’ve not been magically free from the danger of misrepresentation of others.  That’s why I’ve taken these steps to avoid it in publications.  And my advice to students and younger scholars is to take a similar approach.  I often told my PhD students that it wasn’t necessary or wise to exaggerate or distort the views of others in order to make their own case for their views.  It wasn’t necessary to run down the work of previous scholars in order to justify their own work.  All that was needed was to demonstrate some further contribution that their own work made to the subject, whether correcting, or supplementing, or reinforcing, or extending our understanding of it.

Critique, sometimes sharp critique, of scholarly failure to take account of evidence, of prejudice and insufficiently examined assumptions, etc., all this is fair scholarly discourse.  But, given the highly critical nature of scholarly discourse, there is all the more reason to aim for fairness and accuracy.

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  1. Tim permalink

    Excellent advice. In graduate school, one of my professors advised me never to write something about another scholar (and/or his/her views) that I would be uncomfortable saying aloud if that person was in the same room with me. I’ve tried to apply that principle for gauging the tone of my critiques, and it has saved me from more than one blunder.

  2. Ryan permalink

    If only you could influence anyone posting on Facebook or any social media – keep it civil and engage the person’s ideas.

  3. Bryant Williams III permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    I appreciate the tone of this post and how accurate you represent the idea of what I call “intellectual honesty.” I try myself to make sure that quote the entire paragraph of the individual I am quoting, if necessary, to make sure that I have not taken the person out of context. Whether right or wrong one must give credit or condemnation where credit or condemnation is due whether the person is on my side of the argument or not.

  4. Tom Shepherd permalink

    Larry, good advice. I tell my students that the first step in critical thinking is to be able to summarize what the other person is saying to their satisfaction.

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