All posts by Adam Langridge

Sean Leneghan, The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience: An Exploration of Person, Mind and Body in Sydney’s Club Culture (Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011)

Lambert Academic Publishing (LAP) is a subsidiary of VDM Verlag, a German publisher with an opaque relation to Amazon.  I periodically look up my own dissertation topic on Google Books, and a few years ago one search in particular returned twice the number of titles than I had previously ever received.  I found that the new titles were Wikipedia articles “published” by an imprint of VDM; VDM will send you a copy of Wikipedia entries in print for a fee.  There is nothing illegal about this, but it is perplexing.  When doing literature reviews, naïve researchers will order from VDM to be thorough, not realizing that the “books” are available for free online and may be of negligible academic worth.  VDM specializes in cannibalizing the academic publishing process, and LAP is a manifestation of a strategy intended to exploit a weakness of this process.


LAP will send a recent B.A., M.A. or Ph.D. recipient an email saying that the company is interested in publishing his or her work, a dream come true for a novice academic.  The resulting “book” is published on-demand, meaning that a copy is created and shipped only on request.  LAP receives the publishing rights to the book without the upfront costs, and the aspiring academic, presumably on the job market or looking at graduate school, gets a precious book publication line on his or her C.V.  If someone orders the book—and the fact that the title gets an ISBN and will therefore appear in literature review searches ensures that there will be at least a few orders—LAP prints a copy and collects a fee, and the author gets a royalty cheque.  Everyone is happy.  The problem is that LAP neither reviews nor edits its titles, and publishes regardless of quality.  The result is that the assurances that once came with publication collapse, and the academic book market becomes flooded with all sorts of texts.  Apart from it being an integral part of an academic’s résumé, publishing could become meaningless.


LAP, VDM and publishers with similar business models defend themselves by saying that they provide a valuable archiving service.  Wikipedia articles are fluid things, which are thermometers of the contemporary understanding of a topic.  If a researcher wants to know what was thought about a topic, let’s say George W. Bush, at a particular time, let’s say between 911 and the invasion of Iraq, then VDM’s articles would be useful.  And with LAP, their titles have been approved by thesis advisory committees, which were ostensibly to have ensured that the work constituted a genuine contribution to an academic field and that the writing met high standards.  LAP saves these contributions from being lost forever.  If the thesis is not worth publishing, then why was it approved?     


While LAP offers a clever dare to academia (admit that you pass garbage, and we’ll admit that we publish it), and while what they do is legal, their business model is questionable.  At bottom they are vanity press looking to profit by taking advantage of the naïve and desperate. 


The reason I looked at LAP while preparing to review of The Varieties of Ecstasy Experience is that my initial reaction to the book was concern that it was able to earn its author a doctorate, let alone to be published by an “academic” press. 


The methodological claim of the author is that those who reduce ecstasy to a chemical and the effects it has on the brain miss an essential aspect of the drug, which is the experience of those who use it.  The experience is an intentional object constituted by a group, so only interviews with a variety of users could convey a sense of the drug’s meaning.  Unfortunately, this is where methodology ends. 


The interviews are almost exclusively conducted with the author’s fellow graduate students and friends, and rather than a rigorous account of the ecstasy experience, what is given is weekend partying stories loosely organized into a narrative running from entry to the rave scene to exit owing to boredom.  On the back sleeve, this is called a “processual morphology.”  The conclusion is that ecstasy use in Sydney, Australia is about “narcissistic hedonism” (215).  In other words, the author and his mates went to raves and got “fucked” (a definition of “fucked” is kindly provided in the book’s glossary) on ecstasy on weekends to get their rocks off.  Eventually they became bored with it and stopped.  Here’s an excerpt to give a sense of the typical interview:


 I know that when the feeling does come on, it is an instant reaction; like if anyone has ever spewed off pills, like you don’t go “Oh, I think I’m going to spewarrr…”-it just comes out. Pills are more like projectile vomit.  It’s like ARRRGRR.  A tiny little bit of spew as well, it’s frothy and disgusting.  Like I always plan for it and I never ever, spew on fucking anyone or, or I don’t spew in fucking sinks, or on the dance floor. (126) [I checked and   there are no glossary entries for “spewarrr” and “ARRRGRR”.]


It’s true that there is more to drug use than chemical effects on brains and that a serious phenomenological study of the ecstasy experience is needed, but I recommend sticking with physicalist accounts if you’re after an understanding of ecstasy use, rather than pay $112 for 200 pages of that.  Frankly, no amount of phenomenology jargon could make the six-degrees-of-separation association made by Leneghan with his work and Husserl’s (31) anything but delusional. 


The backdoor to a Ph.D. is wide-open somewhere in Sydney, which is an unfortunate situation that “innovative” publishing companies like LAP now exist to exploit.


William C. Prevette, Child, Church and Compassion: Towards Child Theology in Romania (Oxford: Regnum, 2012)

Faced with a deteriorating economic situation during communist rule, Romanian couples increasingly decided against having children to avoid the financial burden. Ceaucescu attempted to reverse the ensuing population decline by banning abortion and imposing heavy taxes on the childless. A pattern emerged. Couples would have as many kids as possible to avoid the tax. But with inadequate means for their support, tens of thousands of children per annum (p. 68) were abandoned, left to rot in a clandestine system of medical facilities or to a brutal life on the streets. The growing crisis was kept under wraps until Ceau?escu’s execution in 1989; when its scope became general knowledge, Western humanitarian aid agencies, with little understanding of the cultural, political, and ethnic sensitivities in Romania, rushed to provide help. A subset of these agencies, evangelical Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs after NGOs), saw a further, spiritual need in the fall of communism. They entered Romania both to respond to children in crisis and to spread the Gospel.


While the bulk of Child, Church and Compassion analyzes the relationships between FBOs and local Romanian evangelical churches in cooperative efforts to respond to the Romanian child crisis, neither FBO/church relations nor children is what the book is about. (So, if you’re after an account of the Romanian child crisis, keep looking.) It is, rather, a work of child theology and what I’ll call—to distinguish it from other forms of holism—“missiological holism” that uses the Romanian child crisis as a backdrop.


Child theology takes the child to be an indicator or pointer to the Kingdom of God. By placing the child “in the midst” (from Matthew 18, it’s a slogan for the movement) of theological consideration, practitioners gain a perspective from which to do theology. Note well, however, that while child theology gives the child a central place, its goal is an understanding of the Kingdom. It is not primarily directed to the child; it is directed at the Kingdom through the child.


Missiological holism is intended to counteract dualism. Mission can fail in one of two directions: it can be “vertically” (p. 263) oriented towards eternal salvation, an approach that tends to ignore material, psychological, and social needs, resulting in instances of “transactionalism” (p. 222), the economic exchange of conversion for aid; or, it can be “horizontally” (p. 264) focused on material, psychological and social needs, while neglecting the religious dimension of mission, sometimes resulting in “managerial missiology” (p. 39), no different from atheist interventions. The claim of missiological holism is that the proper disposition is one that attends to both the vertical and horizontal dimensions in unison.


Evangelical churches, isolated from larger Romanian society and the global Christian community during the communist era, tended to be insular and “vertical.” Pastors were perplexed about why at-risk children should be their concern, were resistant to sharing scarce resources with those outside of the community of believers, and were distrustful of other organizations. FBOs, on the other hand, tended to be “horizontal.” They incorporated the methods of the social sciences, operated in the same way as secular humanitarian aid agencies (NGOs), and focussed on providing interventions directly to individual at-risk children. Because of their opposing prejudices, the initial meeting of FBOs and churches was typified by misunderstanding, mistrust, and misallocation of resources. Only those FBOs and churches that embraced the tensions at play had a measure of success in overcoming them.  


From the analysis of FBO/church relations, two conclusions are given. The first is that mission should not aim at the unilateral transformation of those in need, but at the dialectical transforming of all involved. A holistic approach does indeed attend to the child’s spiritual and bodily needs, but it also involves the metamorphosis of the family, the local church, the broader community, the intervener, and the aid agency. The second is that sin and failure are permanent features of work with children in crisis, and should be expected mission outcomes. What this indicates is that the Kingdom of God likewise includes sin and failure—it encompasses a fallen world.


Theological matters aside, Bill Prevette, the book’s author, is a missionary and child advocate, who has spent the last thirty years helping children in crisis in North America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. He is on faculty at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, and is a board member of several international Faith-Based Organizations. Child, Church and Compassion is his Ph.D. dissertation. It is the result of a field-research project carried out from 2002-2008, while Dr. Prevette was working directly with FBOs, local churches and at-risk children in Romania. The book is an excellent account of complex frontline missionary work that only someone with years of practicing in situ, and with the particular connections its author has, could give. Although it is set in an idiosyncratic time and place, the book’s key insights are generalizable. It contains a myriad of useful bits of practical wisdom that would be of benefit to novice missionaries and humanitarian aid workers.


As mentioned, the book was written as a dissertation. The problem is that it reads like one. Chapter 4, for instance, discusses research methods in great detail, which may be an important thing to do in a dissertation, but seems out of place in this book. Moreover, a few grammar and syntax errors are to be expected in a work of this length. But there are numerous and persistent mistakes throughout, many of which are egregious (see the title of Chapter 6 for an example). Editorial scrutiny should have remade the dissertation into something more of a book and eliminated most of the simple mistakes prior to publication.