How to Offer Criticism: Part Two
In an attempt to encourage healthy, honest dialog, and fruitful criticism in the Christian community, I am offering five thoughts on how to criticize well. In the first installment, we looked at the need to understand the argument (of view) of those we criticize. Today, we will focus on the need to be charitable in understanding that view. This is closely related to part one, but I wanted to separate it out to make the point clear.
#2 Critique Fairly and Charitably
First, when offering criticism it is important to give the most charitable reading of a person's views-- even when you critique them. Yes, even if we think that person is wrong, we need to be charitable. This doesn't mean we avoid saying the hard things, or do not confront the error, but it does mean that we work hard to not simply paint someone's view in the worst possible light. Too often, we critique the worst of someone else's view with the best of their own.
Practically, this means that we allow the other person's points to remain in the context of their view. Too often, some strip words out of context in order to make a point the other person is not making, or that should even be inferred by their words. I would say that if something is unclear, it is better to interpret it in light of where they have been clear. It's a basic hermeneutic principle of Scripture called "the analogy of Scripture," where we interpret unclear passages in light of what is clear. This should also be how we read other people's writings as well.
So, if they are unclear, or haven't been as clear as they should be in a particular area, we should take it in light of the whole of their contributions and do so in the most charitable way. We can (and should) point out that they have not been clear, but be fair about what they mean.
Too often, I have seen a sentence, a tweet, or a quote in an interview used to discount everything else someone has to say. Regrettably, it seems some look for these "gotcha" moments without showing the grace to look at the whole. A better way to criticize would be to say that "this sentence" was problematic or "this idea" was unclear. Instead, it is often taken out of context, which hurts the person being criticized (and makes the critic seem unreasonable and lacking in charity).
Secondarily, when we read something that can be taken in more than one direction, it's important for us to ask, "how should we take it?" Too often we bring our own biases to the text/argument and what we read in is, "Well, I always knew that he thought that, and this proves it," when really that's not what the author intended at all. A fair criticism means that we consider what that person meant as he was seeking to communicate it. Now, to be clear, we do not respond to what they meant, but what they said-- but I am referring to the need to be fair when what they said can be seen in more than one way.
To establish how we should take another's words it helps to understand the issues involved in the discussion. For example, one prominent apologist, when commenting on the emerging church, decided to critique Brian McLaren's book on the basis of its title (alone). The book, Everything Must Change, according to this apologist (you would know his name), pointed out what was wrong with Brian--he wanted to "change everything." While I believe Brian does want to change more than what is advisable (or scripturally permissible as I see it), the title of his book pointed to the fact that Christianity in Africa failed to produce societal change. African Christianity had "won" the people, yet the people still lived in a way contrary to the teachings of Scripture. Christian television dominated the airwaves, and yet Christian lifestyle didn't emerge or change the context. Thus, in this apologist's criticism, he scored an easy (or cheap) point, but in the process clearly indicated he didn't know the topic at hand. He judged a book by it's title-- and there was much in that book in need of robust critique, not a flippant comment.
This happens much more often than it should. Sometimes it's so bad it becomes funny. For example, recently I heard that Thom Rainer was part (a secret agent, if you will) of the Emergent Church Movement. Now, you may not like Thom Rainer, and some days I am not a big fan ;-) but to claim he is part of Emergent simply says you don't know what you're talking about. So ignorantly blurting a divisive comment may gather followers and passion, but it doesn't advance the work of Christ.
In one sense this all boils down to following the "Golden Rule." You should treat others as you wish to be treated. Would you like your words to be misrepresented-- intentionally or unintentionally-- because someone takes them out of their immediate context or out of the larger context in which the debate rests? Be charitable with the words of others, as you would like them to be with your own.
In the King James Version, 1 Corinthians 13 calls us to "charity" over and over. That's the right thing because it is the loving thing. It is just basic Christian decency.
It is much easier to blurt out a criticism than to do it with Christ-honoring charity. Part of loving the Word and valuing doctrine is to criticize when you see it twisted or even misunderstood. But,, when we do it with charity, it models Christ and is better than being a "clanging gong." Granted, it's harder but it is worth the effort.
Now, I should say, I do not think that a charitable review has to be a favorable one. Some things are worthy of criticism-- and my point is to do it in a Christ-honoring way. That seems to be the view of some-- you simply cannot criticize someone and do so lovingly. But, I think that is incorrect. Some of the better Rob Bell critiques have been charitable and critical. For that matter, I have tried to do so in regards to the Emergent Church Movement. But, for far too many (and there are prominent examples), the critique is valued more than charity or clarity.
Feel free to critique my critique of critiques. Where am I wrong? Or, you can also agree. I think criticism is valuable and important, but I think far too much of it is poorly done. Your thoughts?