Sunday, October 14, 2012

Talk Hard (On the Role of the Critic)

Here's an interesting post by Michael Spencer on the role of of the critic. It is a long piece, so I am breaking it up in two parts- The second part will be posted on Tuesday. If you want to read the full text, here is the link.

iMonk Classic: Talk Hard (On the Role of the Critic) by 

Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf, Blake
Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Note from CM: Earlier this week, we published a strong post in the tradition of what I called “prophetic ridicule.” Some folks don’t like that. They take offense. They think it violates the law of love. Years ago, Michael Spencer wrote one of the best defenses concerning the role of the Christian critic that I have read. In the light of questions some have expressed about the nature of last Monday’s article, I thought this might be a timely moment to run it again.
This is a long, thoughtful, carefully argued piece. Please take your time, read it carefully, chew on it, and take it to heart.
In which the iMonk describes and defends the role of the critic in Christianity
In the almost four years that The Internet Monk web site has been posting my thoughts on the door of the world, I’ve received over a thousand letters. Pretty cool. And 95 percent of them have been positive, complimentary and encouraging. Also very cool. So you won’t be surprised that I am going to write about the other 5 percent. My personal insecurity knows no bounds.
The reason I am going to write about this 5 percent, is that the vast majority of these writers have something in common. And it’s not that they disagree with me, or think my politics are rabid, or that I’ve over romanticized Catholicism or failed to solve the mystery of it’s and its.No, the majority of these writers are upset that I am criticizing other Christians.
For purposes of illustration, let’s consider a fictional generic negative response to my criticisms of contemporary “Praise” music.
Mr. Spencer, I just read your essay ________________. I don’t understand why you are criticizing worship music. These musicians love God and they are doing their best to lead people to Him. The Holy Spirit is using these musicians and their songs to encourage Christians all over the world. Many have been saved through this music In fact, my brother’s best friend picked up one of my worship CDs by mistake last week, and now he wants to go to church and hear these songs played by our praise band. Praise the Lord! He may be saved because of this music.
I think you should look into your heart and see if there isn’t a lot of sin, pride and hostility where there ought to be love. The Bible says we shouldn’t judge, but that’s almost all your web site is about! How can you have any joy in the Lord when you are critical about the very things that God is using to bless people? If “Calvinists” like yourself had their way, we would just hear long sermons on predestination all the time. I’m glad that some people are listening to God’s voice and obeying him rather than tearing down the body of Christ.
Sincerely, Colleen.
I don’t fume about these kinds of letters. I know these sorts of people very well. I was fuming at them back in 2000 when I wrote “Singing Praise Choruses With Barbarians At The Gates”because one of my co-workers said I was too opinionated. My point then was the Christian worldview inescapably leads to specific applications in all areas of life. We either follow that worldview and embrace the implications, or we purposely bail out on the truth before it gets us in trouble with other worldviews, some of which want to do terrible things to our children.
These days, I am more reflective about my role in the body of Christ, but no less committed to the value of what I do. While I am a preacher who happens to write, I really believe I am divinely called and gifted to be a critic. A critic operating within the body of Christ and particularly with my own kind: evangelicals. I feel I’m doing God’s work. I can’t thoroughly defend the exegesis, but I think the Biblical concept of “exhortation” contains what I am doing, and I believe there is plenty of Bible that exemplifies it.
Scenes from the Life of the Prophet Elijah, 1517
The entire Prophetic tradition is a kind of criticism. I call the prophets “the cops of the covenant,” because it is their job to show up and write Israel a ticket from time to time. It’s their job to warn and nag, as well as assure and promise. The covenant life is the play God wrote, and the prophets are critics. They criticize ideas, people, worship services, politics and culture. They are not writing for applause, but telling the truth from the highly biased point of view of those who see the world and all that is in it belonging to Yahweh. They use humor, sarcasm, blunt description and highly charged, emotional prose. They are critics in the best, and holiest, sense of the term.
Jesus himself is a critic. Now I won’t be numbskulled enough to say that gives me the right to be a critic, because obviously Jesus has a superior point of view to my own. But it is impossible for me to conclude that, once I know the viewpoint of Jesus on, let’s say, rich and successful religious braggarts, I can’t apply it in my writing. My first responsibility is to live out the truth, of course. But when James warns the rich in church that they are in danger of going to hell, he’s doing it on the basis of the Old Testament prophets and the words and examples of Jesus. He’s not sinning, or being presumptuous or particularly apostolic. He’s being pastoral and, yes, critical.
One passage that particularly influences me is Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. Here Jesus critiques seven churches quite specifically, and uses many of the literary techniques that I value in my own writing and communicating. I would commend John R.W. Stott’s excellent and recently reprinted book, What Christ Thinks Of The Church as a good visit to these chapters.
In August of ’01, I was asked to bring 4 hours of lessons from Genesis 1-11 to a group of about a hundred preachers. I chose to preach on Christ in Genesis 1-11 (disappointing young earth creationists, I’m sure) and, of course, I got in trouble with one man out of the hundred. He said he thought I was trying to be “provocative.” Now you have to remember that my usual audience is 400 middle and high school students and staff at a Christian boarding school, many of whom are so vaccinated against Christianity I need large explosives to get through the walls.
Was I provocative in my choice of illustrations and applications? You bet. And I learned it from Jesus. Anyone want to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye? Was Paul provocative when he criticized Peter publicly for dissing Gentile brothers? And then writing about it to the Galatians? Do I criticize in my applications? Without a doubt, and I learned it from my Bible. (And from Luther)
The Purification of the Temple, El Greco
My suspicion is that some Christians don’t know what to do with my criticisms because criticism, in general, has fallen out badly in recent evangelical life and thought. Our desire to be relevant, winsome, persuasive and influential hasn’t been able to incorporate a healthy place for criticism or the critic. Criticism sometimes makes us feel bad. it makes us nervous. It sometimes tells us we are wrong. Evangelical publications, even the most high profile ones, are usually backwards, embarrassed, sissified or absent in the area of real criticism.
(At this point, it would be good to say that I know a lot of critics are jerks. And without making excuses, I want to say a word in their defense. If we weren’t jerks, we wouldn’t write a lot of what we say. I’ve probably been told 400 times that “you’ve written what I’ve thought, but always was afraid to say.” Well, there is a reason for that, and picking the jerkier among us to be critics is part of how it happens.)
I’d like to suggest some of the reasons the role of criticism has fallen on such hard times among evangelical Christians.
1. We think it’s a sin and unloving to criticize. As my generic letter indicates, there is a strong equation of criticism with sin. Isn’t it wrong to “tear someone down?” Isn’t that what critics do? Just sit around and pass judgment on other people? That’s wrong.
The culprit verse here is Matthew 7:1-5, my nomination for most often quoted, and most universally misunderstood passage in the New Testament
Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
It quickly appears that Jesus is outlawing the “ministry of criticism” without taking a pause for a sip of coffee. This passage, coupled with other New Testament verses encouraging us not to “devour” one another, should have me running for a safe house. But is this passage really what it appears to be?
If Jesus means that we are never to evaluate and draw conclusions based on truth, then the Bible is pretty much a magnificent waste of time. Those who throw out this verse as a universal command to never think or speak to others based on ideas of truth, goodness and beauty have a lot of explaining to do, because the Bible- and the ministry of Jesus- is full of encouragement and example to do just exactly that. I couldn’t preach without making an array of judgments. I couldn’t parent. I couldn’t be a decent and civilized person.
This passage plainly teaches two things.
  • First, it means that you must apply the standard of truth to yourself, and not just use it against others to establish your own righteousness. It’s not that you don’t see the speck, but that you don’t use your knowledge of the speck to convince yourself that it’s a bigger deal than the plank in your own eye. The speck is worth mentioning and removing, but not as a way of masking the wooden beam that’s obscuring and potentially blinding you. So when you judge, the judgment has to be universally, compassionately and proportionally applied.
  • The second point is, in my opinion, that none of us can judge in the way that God judges or as if we were in the all-knowing place of God. Our judgments are human and limited, not divine. The Pharisees acted as if they had a pipeline to God and were speaking the very words of heaven. Jesus severely condemns this, but not as a way to silence all criticism. It is a way to make us aware of the difference between God’s judgments and our own.
Christ and the Adultress, Lotto
The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8 is the perfect application of this passage. Adultery is wrong. But it’s bad behavior in the context of human sin. Hypocritical judgmentalism and self-righteous blindness to the truth of your own sin are not just as bad; they are much worse.
If Matthew 23, that scorching example of Jesus’ inventory of Pharisaical hypocrisy, isn’t an example of criticism, I don’t know what is. If I can live among evangelicals, and read that chapter, and not write about what we have become, there is something wrong with me.
What about loving? Doesn’t love “speak no evil?” Doesn’t love only speak words of positive encouragement? This is the theology of Joel Osteen and his apparent spiritual hero, Robert Schuller, and it is, in the end, cruel and unloving. The scriptures place love at the center of the Christian worldview, and that love works out alongside God’s holiness, justice, truthfulness, mercy, compassion and righteousness. Isolating love from these other qualities of God is idolatry and an abandonment of the Biblical God. We have had enough of the Hallmark Card Trinity. Let’s live and speak as if we belong to the God who crucified his Son to balance love and righteousness in the universe.
Frequently, my ministry brings me in contact with terrible human problems like depression, self-destructive behaviors, eating disorders, sexual abuse and so on. There is a familiar response among those who are the friends of those who suffer with these situations. They believe it is unloving to speak of the problem, and that it is loving to be silent and secretive. This silence is a terrible, sometimes, deadly error, and it says all I need to know about the need for truthful, loving judgment in life.
....To Be Continued

No comments: