A Christian Response to RaviWatch’s ‘Credentials Critique’

Despite the smear campaigns against Ravi Zacharias, his quality contributions to apologetics stand for themselves.

RaviWatch is an anti-evangelical website purporting to be a altruistic whistleblower against Ravi Zacharias—a seasoned Christian apologist, as well as a prolific author and speaker in favor of the Christian faith. This website, written by San Francisco-based lawyer Steve Baughman, is thorough in its documentation, claiming that Ravi’s honorary doctorates are a joke and that his resume is a fraud. (It’s true, Ravi hasn’t earned a doctorate, although he spent stints at Oxford and Cambridge and has been given three honorary doctorates.) But as a Christian publisher, I can say that Baughman is also very short-sighted in his understanding of Christian ministry and publishing. He presents Ravi as a mastermind who has played up his academic profile to gain a wide readership and charm his Ivy League audiences. But that’s simply not how it works.

Publishing Doesn’t Work That Way

In any traditional publishing house, the writer doesn’t have the final say over everything that goes into a book. A prolific writer and speaker such as Ravi Zacharias also isn’t responsible for fact-checking every single line of his book; the publisher is. Publishers and copyeditors frequently make mistakes, and it is very shortsighted to think that every mistake falls on the author just because his name is on the cover. When you read that a mistake was printed in a book, you should think about how many sets of eyes have passed over a book before it goes into publication—author, friends, publishing agent, editor, assistants, copyeditors and reviewers, to name a few. All of these simply want the book to be clear and accessible in its information, and they want the book to sell.

This mitigates (if not eliminates) most of RaviWatch’s claims. A statement in Ravi’s autobiography could easily be clarified or modified without specifically noting it to the author. They probably send a query to him for many changes, but in the end, the editor makes the decisions.

Cherry-picking segments or statements doesn’t constitute a valid criticism; when Ravi says, “My professor in quantum physics was John Polkinghorne,” for instance, it’s understood from context that he is doing free research during a sabbatical, not doing doctoral work in physics.

Granted, these publishers are concerned about the bottom line. They want their authors to appear in the best light. And Ravi isn’t the sole arbiter of his image.

Asia Doesn’t Work That Way

At least India doesn’t.

Baughman points out that Ravi’s “Asian Youth Preacher Award” seems to have only been an Indian event, not an Asia-wide competition. (Given that India itself has far more than a billion inhabitants, speaking a thousand mother tongues, it hardly decreases from the impressiveness of the story.) Indians seem to think of themselves in Asia the way “Americans” think of themselves in North America. It’s quite possible that the competition bore that name “Asian” but primarily included Indian competitors, and had only a few international participants.

Where I grew up, being “Asian” implied that someone was Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese or Korean, because these were the only people from Asia I encountered. Now, I live in the Middle East, where Indians are most frequently known simply as “Asians.” There’s even a mall in the region called “Asian Town” which is actually for South Asians—primarily Indians.

Doctorates Don’t Work That Way

At least not in the church.

A false claim of having a doctorate is a serious crime. But Ravi hasn’t made that claim falsely. In Christian circles, it is understood that many preachers have honorary doctorates. An honorary doctorate isn’t meaningless; it’s meant to confer the honor on people who have made a contribution worthy of the name.

When I joined the church, I found that they used all kinds of titles I had never heard before. Jack is Brother Jack, Pastor Jones is also Presbyter Jones; his wife, Mrs. Jones, is also Sister Jones, and to some people, she’s Sister Pastor. When someone is introduced as Doctor So-and-So in a church, unless he is a professor at a college, I, for one, would understand that he has made a great contribution worthy of the name ‘doctor’; not necessarily that he earned a Ph.D. at a university.

By far, the majority of Ravi’s listeners and readers are Christians, and he speaks at pulpits as often as podiums. So perhaps the greatest difficulty has been that of church members introducing Ravi in the university the same way they would in a pulpit, and the discrepancy or confusion that arises because of that. That’s not Ravi’s fault.

Authority Doesn’t Work That Way

At least not for Christians.

As Christians, we are specifically taught to see the best in people. We are also taught that a doctorate (or a law degree, for that matter) doesn’t make someone an authority on a topic. We believe that authority comes from God, and if Ravi has that authority, no one can take that away from him. We also acknowledge that no amount of post-graduate study can give a person that same authority.

So Ravi is in fact known as a “recognized authority” even if you think it’s for a limited audience. His expertise may be homegrown, with a Bible in one hand and Schopenhauer in the other; to us, it doesn’t make much difference. I haven’t watched his speeches or read his books because of his titles; I watched them because the arguments were powerful, helpful, and delivered with excellence.

Titles Don’t Work That Way

At least not for Indians.

On top of this, in the East, titles are exaggerated in many cultures. Where I live, my classmates would frequently refer to each other as Sheikh, Imam, or Expert, as a form of honor or flattery. Stories about Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia are replete with overuse of titles to reflect your respect for someone in authority. Ravi even mentions in his autobiography that they had to use an honorific when speaking to their own father. So as someone who was socialized in Indian culture, he would not spurn honor from those who kindly offer it.

Introductions Don’t Work That Way

I believe the biggest guilty party here is probably Ravi’s promoters—but they are not the only ones ignorant of the distinctions made in academic circles. Academia is not understood by the general public. I don’t know how many times I have explained to someone that a doctorate is not the same as a masters’ degree, and post-doctoral studies don’t constitute a degree.

I myself have been wrongly introduced many times, and the correct response is never to turn around to your host and say, “Actually, that’s not the type of research I do. Let me explain the difference between the subfields of linguistics.” It would be patronizing and irrelevant, especially in a timed talk in front of an audience.

Christian event-organizers are not fully aware of Ravi’s academic credentials; what they are aware of is his speaking and writing career, which has had a huge impact. His work and writing speaks for itself. He is a recognized authority on philosophical topics in Christian circles, whatever Baughman thinks.

Conclusion: Intersection Points

Baughman has some valid criticisms, and RZIM has accepted those and rejected the rest. Ravi has had a long international career that started in the church, where academic credentials are not necessarily a boon (or a bane). Critics seem oblivious to the mix of cultures—Indian and North American, Christian and skeptic—that Ravi has been bridging during his lifetime. (In a way, Baughman is criticizing these cultures when he criticizes Ravi.)

Ravi represents a crossover between church authority and scientific authority, and it is a volatile mixture. A Christian host would introduce Ravi as a serious philosopher and a recognized authority because to the Christians in the audience that’s what he is. An atheist grad student in philosophy may find out Ravi didn’t achieve a Ph.D. in philosophy, and think, this guy’s a joke; if that’s what he thinks, let him refute Ravi’s arguments—they stand for themselves. The “ad hominem” approach benefits no one.

It is the goal of the Christian to always think the best of someone, including those who oppose us. So Baughman may simply be ignorant of the publishing industry and the Christian church. He may be ignorant that although we all make mistakes, there are Christians who live with integrity and a clean conscience. Is Baughman culpable for acting on his ignorance? About as culpable as a student club president who introduces Ravi as a professor from Oxford or Cambridge.

So who’s guilty of being short-sighted? I am sure many event-organizers, publishers, and editors have been mistaken. Many of us have shared in the misunderstanding of mixing secular and Christian authority because we are not always sure which is which. Ravi has taken on the dangerous life-task of becoming an intersection point between the two. Is he a fraud for trying to present himself as the same person in one arena that he is in the other? I think not.


Image credit: TMDrew

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s