We live in a culture that, as Shauna Niequist recently pointed out, constantly invites us to evaluate, rate, and judge our experiences. And yet, paradoxically—and perhaps especially in Christian circles—we seem to be growing more sensitive over expressing criticism.

There are cards in every hotel room and on every restaurant table; e-mails from eBay and Etsy; opportunities for us to comment on every cat video and act of Congress. In the same cultural moment in which millions enjoy tuning into reality TV for Simon Cowell-like slap-downs, "critic" has become a bad word, connoting a figure like Anton Ego, the misanthropic food critic from Disney/Pixar's Ratatouille who takes perverse pleasure in eviscerating chefs' best culinary efforts.

At its best, though, criticism seeks to expand the reader or viewer's understanding of the primary work—whether a book, an album, a film, or a blog post. Good criticism is deeply considered and well-crafted. As blogger Andrew Sullivan wrote: "A great critic can help us to figure out what is going on [in a piece of work] and to appreciate it in a richer way." Think of it as expository preaching for non-sacred texts.

Say what you will about the supposed tolerance of post-modernity, but it requires as much gumption as ever to publicly challenge, critique, or question the book or blog everyone loves at the moment. Why be such a hater?, people demand, sometimes trotting out the line that I use on my own kids, as did my mother before me: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

When, at a conference last year, Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, walked into a session I attended, and I had an impulse to hide my nametag in case she glanced across the small room. Months earlier, I'd written one of the only negative reviews of her book, which had incited dozens of angry comments from fans accusing me of all manner of vices, including jealousy, ignorance, arrogance, and hard-heartedness toward spiritual things.

Until I published the review, I didn't realize the extent of Voskamp's popularity. I'd seen the book on the bestseller list in the New York Times and, at that time, was interested in the practice of gratitude as a way of combating my lifelong struggle with anxiety and discontentment. I began the book eagerly, hopefully, and attentively. Disappointed, I read it a second time, to make sure my evaluations were not based on cursory reading or hastily formed impressions.

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And then I wrote my review, as honestly and thoughtfully and carefully as I could, outlining what I felt was the book's promise and what I felt were its pitfalls. It was not, on balance, a positive review. Still, I was surprised—and, yes, a little hurt—by the backlash, much of it ad hominem, in the comments.

Since then, fellow readers and writers—especially those who are both Christian and female—have expressed to me their hesitation to express opinions that dissent from the general consensus on whatever book or blog is currently receiving adulation.

For Christians, criticism becomes even more fraught. While many of us think nothing of railing against this or that cultural trend that we perceive as overtly ungodly, when it comes to speaking or writing about the work of other Christians, the situation is much more complicated.

Fellow Christian book reviewers have told me that they have been accused of all kinds of un-Christian motives (gossip! infighting!) in the wake of less-than-positive reviews of other Christians' books. Not infrequently, it's suggested that we book reviewers are acting unbiblically by not first bringing our criticisms to the authors in private as per Matthew chapter 18, or that we are simply thwarting "God's work" by pointing out weaknesses or flaws in books that God seems to be "using for good" in people's lives.

The unstated understanding is that criticism is just not nice, and that what Christians (perhaps especially Christian women) are to be is nice.

But I believe criticism—practiced well, by critics, not by every person with an Internet connection and an opinion they've the urge to share—may in fact be the opposite of "hating on" someone else's creative efforts. Writing several years ago in the New York Times, Dwight Garner noted:

Criticism […] doesn't necessarily mean heaping scorn. It means making fine distinctions. It means talking about ideas, aesthetics and morality as if these things matter (and they do). It's at base an act of love.

And, far from being a derivative activity--rotten tomatoes thrown from the sideline at those doing the real work--criticism can actually be a creative task all on its own. As LaVonne Neff—a Christian author and highly experienced book reviewer—recently told me:

A good reviewer spends as much time fashioning her sentences as did the author whom she's reviewing—and in some cases, one suspects, the reviewer spends even more time than the author did.

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Whenever I write—but especially when I'm writing about someone else's work, and especially if I am going to be critical of that work, I think carefully on Proverbs 18:2—"A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion." Have I taken care to understand as fully as I can before expressing my opinion, or am I jumping into a conversation to which I've been only half-listening?

Criticism serves a vital function in church, in society, and, yes, in the Christian blogosphere: Iron sharpens iron neither when we praise favorite writers unreservedly nor when we pounce upon them viciously, but good criticism has a sharpening quality, forcing us to refine initial impressions and hastily-formed conclusions.

The body of Christ is strengthened by those, who, like the Bereans, think deeply about what they read and hear as if all these things—ideas, beliefs, and the means by which we express them—matter to God.

Which they do.

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