[Writing on the train on the way down to London; having to get up every five minutes to close the door to stop a massive breeze.]
My post Lament over a Gospel Harmony, based on a post from Danny Zacharias on Deinde, generated a couple of comments, the first from "Jim" objecting to the term "vanity publishing" and the second from Wieland Willker objecting to the disparagement of Gospel harmonies. In response to Jim, I would note that my preferred term, and the one I used in the post, is "privately published", a term that I explained by noting that some use the more disparaging term "vanity publishing". Let me be clear here. There is nothing necessarily problematic about privately published work. Sometimes it is, quite simply, the most appropriate, the cheapest, the most cost-effective way to get something out. Most of what is published on the internet, including by established academics, is in a sense privately published -- it is not run through a peer-review process or anything else. It's simply put out there for the world to take or leave as they please. This blog is like that. In some ways the net has decreased the need for disseminating ideas by privately printed work, but the latter still often has an important place too. My dad, for example, writes on Lewis Carroll and children's literature and often finds the most appropriate means of getting his material out to those who want to read it, is to arrange publication himself. It's the same process as those who in the music industry sell CDs at gigs or via the net -- it's often more cost effective, more efficient, more direct and one retains much more control over one's product.
But in the context of my post on the topic, I was commenting on Danny's lament that this is the kind of book that gets into the "pop.christian" book shops where superior books find it more difficult to find their way to the average Church-goer. I was commenting that one should probably not be too concerned in a case like this because the book in question is privately published and it is a particular difficulty, usually, to get privately published material into book shops. That's not the function of the best privately published material, which is rather dissemination via networks of friends and the potentially interested. And it needs to be added, I think, that the publication of academic books by established publishers is often an indicator that the quality of the book in question is superior to a similar book published privately. The reason is straightforward and is nothing to do with "intellectual eggheads" or prejudice. It is, rather, because the book produced by the established publisher will have been through a peer-review process in which it is subjected to rigorous academic scrutiny by experts in the field. And it is a tough business. Much of my time is spent reviewing manuscripts for publication, and it is a demanding, if necessary, job. I would also add that if you publish with Brill, you are highly unlikely to get paid at all, let alone "paid before a single copy sells".
And so to the question of Gospel harmonies. Wieland Willker wonders why it is that they get disparaged by scholars. What is wrong with them? I think that an important point wants making here: it depends on what the function of the Gospel Harmony in question is. If the function is literary, artistic, devotional, dramatic, there often remains a role for the Gospel Harmony. I have myself written in defence of the use of harmony in The Passion of the Christ, complaining about those scholars who have overreacted to its use of harmonizing, criticizing this work of art as if it were an undergraduate essay on the historical Jesus (see "The Power of the Passion of the Christ: Reacting and Over-reacting to Gibson's Artistic Vision" in Jesus and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Chapter 3, based on an earlier blog post, The harmonizing tradition in Jesus films). But herein lies the important point -- treating an artistic work as if it is an academic one is problematic. Harmonizing does not have a role to play in serious academic work on the Gospels, unless one wishes to argue that the major advances in critical work on the Gospels are wrong-headed. One may wish to argue that but I cannot myself imagine how such an argument could be successfully mounted. Certainly it will not do, if one wishes to be taken seriously, to ignore such work. At the very least it needs to be engaged.
In other words, it is a question of context. When my kids take part in their nativity play this Christmas, I would be an utter nerd if I were to go to the person organizing it to complain about its having harmonized the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But when I lectured to my first year undergraduates a fortnight ago on Matthew 1-2, it would have been irresponsible for me to be involved in uncritical harmonizing.