Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Talk Hard (On the Role of the Critic)- Part 2

Here is the continuation of Sunday's post on the role of the critic, in the church.

iMonk Classic: Talk Hard (On the Role of the Critic)---Part 2
2. We don’t know how to criticize, so we say it’s wrong. My school has a rule against dancing. It’s been there for most of a century. It’s ridiculous, but it’s (apparently) financially necessary in our subculture. It grows out of a certain kind of post-Elvis knee-jerk fundamentalism that needs to stop things that go on in taverns. (The loss of a good use of a pub among Christians is truly a sad state of affairs.)

So after most a century, it is safe to say that the staff at our school is as ignorant on the subject of dancing as any group of human beings on the planet. We know nothing, and are happy to know nothing. The difference between Celtic folk dancing and the worst kinds of freak dancing are wasted on us. We haven’t danced in so long, and we have cared nothing about dancing for so long, that we simply believe all dancing is wrong. When anyone dances, for whatever reason, we are offended.
Evangelicals have virtually forgotten how to be critical. This shift is there before me every time I read our state Baptist propaganda rag, The Western Recorder.
There was a time in the long ago, that the pages of the Recorder were full of little but hard talk, criticism and debates. Opinions. Lengthy essays taking on opponents and advocating theological and denominational positions. The WR was a Baptist partisan, and proudly so. As time went on, this aspect of the paper began to recede, first into the editorial pages, and finally into oblivion. (This coincides, btw, with the success of Southern Baptists as a whole, their morphing into generic evangelical fundamentalism and the disappearance of discipline in the local church. Draw what conclusions you will.)
Today, the WR runs promo pieces from the denomination, promo pieces from the various entities of the convention, promo pieces from churches, and generic, USA Today type articles on churches with coffee shops. Debate, opinion, criticism? Look for the loonies in the letters to the editors, or in the occasional liberal squeal about some fundamentalist shenanigan. “Criticism” in the WR is now a books column, where two predictably liberal reviewers churn out monotonous descriptions of terrible little books about tiny and tediously generic evangelical concerns.
Is there a CCM magazine that tells the unwashed and unvarnished truth about the product? I won’t retell the story of CCM Magazine running a review that suggested, in short, Carman’s new album of the time was terrible. The fans descended on the editorial offices with tar and torches. Let’s be honest. Christian reviews now mostly just ignore the majority of what is produced, says good things about everybody and frequently reminds us that this is all a ministry. Evangelicals couldn’t take the thought of someone saying Carman was terrible, or even just dull and ordinary. I mean he’s Carman. He has to be anointed, right? Hard edged, biting, truthful reviews? Dennis Miller style fair and unbalanced on the side of real art? No. We don’t do it. We don’t know how.
It is the Internet that now allows sites like Internet Monk to publish the sort of things that The Door Magazine always dared to say, at the risk of losing subscriptions. But it’s apparent- we have a lot of evangelicals that don’t know how to criticize even a reeking phony and Tetzel like Benny Hinn. They don’t know how to call Warren a mediocre author or say the megachurch movement is arrogant and ghettoized.  Worst of all, we’ve become a kingdom of sheepish consumers and we don’t know how to produce critics who will criticize the products we are devouring or the corporate interests that sell us the need to buy them. (All so we can be good Christians, of course.) We’ve become a community that eats out four times a day, but jails any critic who says the food is bad.
When the secular media does our criticism for us, we don’t know what to do with it. I, for one, tend to say thanks. Note this famous review at NRO of the first Left Behind flick. It’s scathing. And true. Why didn’t an evangelical publication write it? Why didn’t Christianity Today or Focus on the Family say it? Because we are selling this garbage to one another and we don’t how to stop. Or whether we want to stop.
In Mark 11, Jesus entered Jerusalem and goes right to the one aspect of Temple life that the leaders had lost the capacity to criticize: the religious flea market that stole from pilgrims by over-charging and defrauding them. Jesus’ actions are unmistakably LONG OVERDUE. Why? Any question about what Jesus would do if he visited the evangelical temple today?
3. Our idea of criticism is it’s either “of God” or it’s “of the devil”. If it’s of God then, of course, you shouldn’t criticize it. This is why evangelical marketers spare no effort to wrap their products — be they personalities, books, methods, art, etc. — in the blanket of divine origination. Once the status of “God-given” is awarded, then the critics are wrong, no matter what we say.
Such all or nothing thinking has an ominous history in Christianity, both in approving what is evil, and in condemning what is good. Have we learned our lesson from those mistakes? Apparently not. Nothing has earned the ire of IM readers like my criticisms of popular television ministries like T.D. Jakes or Rod Parsley, or saying something good about the Roman Catholic Church. These ministries are of God (or of the devil), my readers tell me. End of story. Prosperity Gospel? Rejection of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity? Faith healing? Lying. Profuse sweating? It doesn’t matter. It’s of God. Leper hospitals? St. Francis? Fine scholarship? It’s of the devil. Hate it, if you know what’s good for you.
This kind of black and white evaluation is particularly damaging to any real consideration of the content or quality of art or literature. For example, I find Warren’s Purpose Driven Life to be “mediocre.” Not evil. Not heretical. Not bad. Mediocre. The rejoinder: Warren and his book are “of God.” OK. I would tend to agree, at least as much as I understand Rick Warren from what he says and writes. (In fact, I just discovered he’s a Calvinist. Now, what am I?) But what does that have to do with whether his book is mediocre? Nothing. Can’t Warren be mediocre? If not, why not? Because his church is big? Puhleeze.
Can a song be “of God” and still be terrible? Can a movie be “of God” and be poorly written and poorly acted? These are silly questions, since we all know that if “of God” means intended to honor God, then all kinds of homely results are acceptable. But if by “of God” we mean, “this is from God and can’t be criticized,” then I am going to yell “Manipulation!”
If you want to see this at work, read the product summaries in any current CBD catalog. Whoever writes these blurbs is required to imply — or announce — that the book or CD under consideration is ‘of God, from God, by God” or whatever will make the point and get inside the wobbly minds of the consuming public. This means that it’s not just someone’s opinion about worship, it’s “God’s anointed wisdom for a dynamic worship experience from the most Spirit-filled worship leader in Australia.” And so on. Reading fifty pages of this stuff is dangerous to your sanity. You begin thinking that Yahweh has quit running the universe and gone full-time into publishing and marketing.

The Vision of Ezekiel, 1630
The other side of the coin is just as bad, if not worse. Can Christians possibly watch a movie other than G-rated pre-1970 Disney fare and find anything commendable? Not if you listen to the majority of vocal evangelicals. It’s “of the devil,” and that’s all we really need to hear. In fact, just going into the theater or having the television in your house is dangerous.
I will admit that it’s hard to get people to think in terms of seeing the good that remains in the bad, but it’s really our only authentic option in this fallen world. When we say that something is “of the devil” do we mean it’s from the devil? The devil likes it? It will turn us into Satanists? The devil will get into us if we watch or listen to it? I have to tell you that I can’t bear to imagine my intelligent and sensitive children looking at the whole world of secular art and believing that it is all “of the devil.” Or worse, looking at evangelical “art” and believing it’s “of God” and must be praised. That would be an utter failure to teach them the truth. If I must believe The Omega Code is good because it’s “of God,” then pass the hemlock.
In the classic Arthur Miller play, The Crucible, we get a glimpse into what happens when complex problems are reduced to “God” and “the devil.” Fallible human judges are given the status of infallible authorities. Hysterical and jealous girls are seen as instruments of the devil. Middle ground and more subtle analysis are not allowed. In the end, innocent people die. Terrible things are done, and anyone who doubts is in league with darkness. This is a story about us. Like it or not, it happened because the critics- of preachers, particularly- were silenced.
Evangelicals who reject the legitimate role of criticism do not necessarily run to these extremes, but they pave the way. The critic may not rescue anyone from these errors, but is it really so bad to have those in the body of Christ who think beyond simplistic categories, ask uncomfortable questions and raise more possibilities than we usually consider? Am I buggin’ ya? Then tip me.
4. God can use anything to save people, so we shouldn’t criticize what God can use. Any discussion of criticism in the body of Christ eventually will get to some anecdotal story of God’s use of whatever is under discussion for the salvation of a person, thereby rendering criticism inappropriate. “If one soul was saved…..” The ultimate stamp of God’s approval is His choice to use something as the instrument of bringing a person to faith in Christ. After that is established, we can quit thinking and starting saying amen.
My generic letter, for instance, referred to music that was now creating interest in church on the part of a formerly uninterested young man. If the critic has his/her way, such music wouldn’t be around, and this man wouldn’t be saved. Right?
Of course, this isn’t the case at all. Criticism should never claim to see into the sovereignty of God, because none of us can, and if we could, God would do something different just to play with our minds. What God chooses to use in any way for His purposes is utterly beyond our ability to predict. In fact, God has shown that He delights in bringing people to faith using what we might find foolish or unsophisticated. Men like Spurgeon, for instance, were often influenced and converted by people whose theology was crude, errant and incomplete. God uses bad books, bad sermons and bad preachers all the time. Just ask anyone who thinks I’ve said or written anything good.

Apocalypse 1-4, Grace Cossington Smith
I assume that even as Jesus criticized the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, there was evangelism going on, and some of the converts were solid. Did that nullify the criticism of those churches?
It’s with churches that we have the most problems. The entire Church Growth/Willow Creek/Purpose Driven/Emergent Church phenomenon has put a lot on the table to be evaluated. These churches are numerically prospering, and that numerical prosperity convinces many Christians that any criticism is inappropriate and diabolical. Yet, it is the message and methods of these churches that most need our scrutiny, precisely because their numerical success can obscure serious problems of Biblical faithfulness, content, compromise and theology. These are uncomfortable questions, but they must be asked, and the megas and the smart guys don’t get a pass.
For example, if the largest church in the country says, “No Cross, No Sin, not here!” are we to assume that their numerical success ends the conversation? Or is there a role for the critic in pointing out that a crowd of 25,000 gathered to NOT HEAR the Gospel isn’t really a good thing? Are the ideas in these various movements going to be evaluated, or simply tested by their results? Some of the worst ideas in human history were numerically successful. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate.
Many of my readers will recognize the name of Mike Warnke. Warnke was, at one time, one of the top Christian entertainers and speakers in America; filling stadiums, selling thousands of albums and winning awards and acclaim. Warnke managed the unique role of the first broadly successful evangelical comedian of the “Jesus movement” generation, while at the same time being a successful minister in Charismatic circles based on his best-selling autobiography, The Satan Seller. In that book, Warnke told of his conversion from years as a Satanic high priest and drug lord. From this testimony, Warnke built a ministry that led thousands to faith in Christ and was poised to go to even higher levels of secular prominence.
I heard Warnke many times. He was a breath of fresh air, with his irreverent attitude, story-telling wit and heart-felt messages. There was only one problem. Mike Warnke was a fraud, a liar and a thief. Two writers at Cornerstone magazine, one of the few evangelical Christian publications with any real consistent spine when it comes to tough reporting, “outed” Warnke as a serial liar, fraud and bigamist. Warnke squirmed on the hook, but the Cornerstone crew landed him. Warnke’s ministry was virtually destroyed. (Oh don’t worry, he’s still in business. It’s not that easy.)
Why do I use Warnke as an illustration? Because thousands of evangelicals pelted Cornerstonewith hate mail and whine mail premised on the theme of this discussion: So many were saved under Warnke’s ministry, how could anyone doubt that God was using him to spread the Gospel? In other words, Warnke’s ability to share the Gospel, which he did well, rendered his fraudulent lifestyle and lying autobiography as insignificant, at least to thousands of his fans.
In fact, this familiar line often came to Warnke’s rescue: How many souls has Cornerstone won to Christ? (Actually, quite a few, but I digress.) If you haven’t won as many people as Warnke, you have no right to criticize, said the defenders. Tune in next week for “Yeah, well I DOUBLE DOG dare you!” or “I put a curse on you!”
5. We’re really quite relativistic, and criticism just doesn’t sit well with us. Evangelicals are very odd. Here is a group of people that can get a riot going about any aspect of morality. Should we even watch “Friends”? Can homosexuals date right out there in the open? Should praise and worship bands be sponsored by major car companies? Is it right for Michael York to play the Antichrist when he’s so funny in Austin Powers?
Yet, at the same time that we have our razors out to split hairs on morality, evangelicals just don’t care five cents about the good, the true or the beautiful when it comes to art, literature or music. At that level, they are complete pragmatists. (Lord, have mercy on whoever designed the TBN set.) Has it occurred to anyone that the same Christian worldview that cares so much about sexuality, also might care about art, movies, fiction or poetry? Or the quality and content of anything?

On the Rivers of Babylon, Ulanovsky
In a relativistic culture, the critic is engaging in subversion. Asserting the values of the Biblical worldview can be dangerous- even among people carrying their Bibles. Relativism has the appeal of allowing each one of us to define what is right, good and true “for us.” Challenging that means admitting we might be wrong, and that our resulting choices might be wrong. Do we want to live in a world where we are wrong, and someone might tell us so?
A culture where everyone does what is right in his own eyes is one thing. A church that lives and thinks the same way needs correction. But can fallible, sinful, very human critics really do the job? How can a constructive ministry of exhortation/criticism contribute to an evangelicalism that seems reluctant to own even its own worldview with any enthusiasm?
How the critic works will be important. Most TV watching Americans are familiar with Joan and Melissa Rivers, the self-appointed critics of fashion and style who have turned themselves into celebrity antichrists. The Rivers girls are highly opinionated, but I can’t find a trace of an objective standard in all their outrage. They pretend that the celebrities they pan really are tacky, but how do we — or they — know? What we really watch with the Rivers girls is the entertainment of their own opinions, not a glimpse beyond them to what is really good or true. Christian critics can easily sink to this level of constant, baseless, offendedness, but it’s a parody we must avoid.
A Christian critic does have an objective standard. If he/she is outraged, it needs to reflect the outrage of Jesus. And it helps that Jesus was outraged, and it’s not hard to discover why. God is outraged in the Old Testament at the violations of the covenant and the depths of Israel’s apostasy. A prophetic critic can echo that outrage if it’s clear that God’s Word, not human preference, is what has been violated.
Can criticism be entertaining? There may be aspects of Christian criticism that make us laugh at something in order to help us see the truth more clearly. (Thank God for The Door, and its children Lark News and Holy Observer.) Jesus used humor precisely to make us see spiritual truth. Absurdity ought to often strike us as funny. Fools are presented as comic in Proverbs. But the critic has to be careful not to let the desire for humor obscure the truth. If it leads us to see the truth, humor can be an expression of love. If it brings perspective and helps to see the true significance — or insignificance — of things, then it is a gift. But if it becomes an exercise in ego and ridicule, it can be cruel, and cruelty is never right. Not even in the best of causes.
The best critics in history were not relativists, but had a strong point of view outside themselves; a point of view that includes themselves. Good critics can poke as much fun at themselves as they can any target, and they aren’t reluctant to show the follies of their own tradition. (cf G. K. Chesterton.) It ought to be fun to read a critic, not just for what he/she says about others, but for how they bring themselves and the reader into the picture as well.
Relativism has already made significant inroads into evangelicalism’s ability to define its doctrines. Now relativism threatens to make it difficult for evangelicals to know what’s wrong, because ultimately, relativism kills off the doctors who diagnose disease and says the medicine of reformation is unnecessary.
An old song says “Does anybody really know what time it is?” If we lose the role of the critic by embracing relativism or denying that critical thinking and writing have a place in evangelical culture, then no one will know what time it is, and everyone’s watch will be a little tyranny.
Whatever the risks of letting the critics sometimes bug and irritate us, isn’t the alternative much, much worse?

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