by Rebecca Florence Miller
As nonfiction editors, our vocation is to midwife better ideas into the world. But as we work out that calling, one challenge we face as Christian editors is how to handle questionable theology. What is our obligation—both to our client and to God in that case?
First, do your best to understand what you are getting into before you begin an edit. What is the central argument of the book? Can you read a sample chapter in advance? Often, if your marketing has emphasized that you are a Christian editor, you will find that clients will spot potential conflicts and bring those issues up themselves.
It’s certainly important to know your limits: there are times when a position is so intractable and so far away from what you are comfortable with that you simply won’t be the best person to serve the client. Be willing to say no graciously when that is the case. Use language that focuses on your lack of expertise to best serve them.
However, if you’re willing to take on the edit, don’t let the difference in viewpoint intimidate you. The job of an editor is to be constructively critical. There is something to praise and something to improve in almost every piece of writing. While your client is certainly under no compulsion to accept your critique, it can be a great service to them to have their work assessed from a different perspective. If their argument is strong enough, it will stand up to scrutiny. If there are any holes in their argument, they will want to attend to those before publication.
Oftentimes, being willing to edit ideas you disagree with while treating the client with respect, dignity, and excellence is a beautiful testimony. Sometimes you may have a client who has been hurt by the church; how you treat them can be a healing demonstration of the love of God. It’s not your job to “fix” or convert anybody. It’s only your job to be a faithful Jesus person and to speak the truth to the best of your ability.
As you edit challenging ideas, don’t be defensive or get overly emotionally. Be careful to avoid a condescending tone; do your client the dignity of engaging with their ideas in good faith. They won’t take your critiques seriously unless you take their ideas seriously.
When challenging a theological idea or biblical interpretation, ask thought-provoking questions in your queries. Rather than setting yourself up as an opponent, play devil’s advocate: “Some readers may wonder…” or “How would you respond to a reader who said this other Bible verse refutes your argument?” Let the hypothetical reader be the bad guy. If your author is planning to publish, they will encounter opposing arguments. It is in service to them that you ask them.
Do your work faithfully and then leave it with God. Trust him with your client and their future readers.
Rebecca Florence Miller is the content editor for Ministry Pass and an assistant editor with Truth For Life radio ministry; she has also edited for many clients, including Redemption Press, Baker/Brazos, and InterVarsity Press.
I was once an editor of academic texts for a distance-education university, and un editing texts from the theology faculty I often came across theological views that I disagreed with. But I did not think it was my job as editor to argue with them there, though I might argue with the author if we met over a cup of coffee.
What I did do, however, was query any historical inaccuracies I found. Sometimes questionable theology was premissed on even more questionable history, and I couold argue with that!
I read once that no review should ever offer any criticism you haven’t already heard from your beta readers and editors, so that’s the approach I take with nonfiction.
I also consider whether I’m the target reader for the book. I’ve just finished editing one where the author said I was the target reader, but I suspect they’re writing primarily for members of their denomination, not the Christian world at large. My comments were based on that – X is fine if you’re writing for your denomination, but it needs to be explained in more detail if you’re writing for Christians in general. The author has now decided they’re writing for members of the denomination 🙂