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March 23, 2011

How to Offer Criticism: Part One

Rob Bell's newest book has generated a lot of controversy and received some appropriate criticism. I'm appreciative of those who have taken the time to thoughtfully and honestly critique Bell's views. But, not everyone show such wisdom-- in this case or in many others.

Criticism can be healthy and helpful, but sometimes criticism fails to be either for a number of reasons. What follows are a series of posts I have been meaning to publish on the blog, but have been sitting on while I give attention to other conversations. So these posts are not in reaction to the controversy and criticism surrounding Bell's book, but to the ineffective criticism I often see taking place among God's people.

I sometimes feel like the internet is little more than a petri dish where criticism is cultivated like bacteria. It just seems to grow and multiply without any helpful order. I've mentioned on a few occasions, but it's always good to repeat it, that criticism needs to be tempered by a careful look at the ninth commandment. (If you don't know the ninth, then you should remedy that problem now.) There seems to be a consistent pattern of bearing false witness against brothers and sisters in Christ in the name of truth. I think the irony is clear. When you don't use the truth in order to defend the truth, you actually hinder the integrity of the truth at work among Christians. So what's the alternative?

I think the alternative is to recognize that criticism is not necessarily a bad thing (as some of the criticism of Rob Bell has demonstrated). I have been criticized on many occasions, and on some of those occasions I have actually found the critics to be correct. In such cases it has led me to more clearly articulate my views or to perhaps change the way I do things.

But perhaps the question is, what is the best way to critique another? In the interest of healthy dialog and fruitful correction I would like to offer five principles of healthy criticism throughout the week.

#1 Critique What One Actually Believes

First, it is important, even essential, that criticism is done in such a way that the person being criticized would actually recognize his or her beliefs in that criticism. Now this is important; we all want to be properly understood. I thought it was St. Francis who said it, but I just googled it, and it turns out it was Stephen Covey who said, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Those are good words for all us to heed, even if they don't come from a "saint."

I could give more than one example, and several immediately come to mind. A criticism is made, distributed over the internet, and repeated by others. And, the person being criticized (and just about every fair observer) just scratches his/her head and wonders, "Where did that come from?" The criticism is not recognizable by the person being criticized and other fair observers. It happens often and it shows a lack of grace and fairness that good criticism always includes.

Now, I should say that I am not trying to be the role model on this. But, I have tried to do this, for example, in my criticisms of the emergent movement. I think that the people in some of the more progressive wings of the emerging church would consider me an outsider critic, but a critic who is honest.

When I wrote what became something of the standard shorthand for describing the emerging church-- and later it would be used by many others, including in Jim Belcher's Deep Church a 2010 Christianity Today Book Award, and Golden Canon Leadership Book Award winner-- the description I gave for the more progressive wing of the emerging church, specifically, focused on areas that they wished to reconsider the gospel and the faith.

Now, at the time, my desire was that we would point to that end of the spectrum and say that I don't agree with that. But, in the process, many people in the emerging church wound up saying, "Yes, that's correct-- he gets what we're trying to do, he just disagrees with where we land on some issues."

So for me, when I wrote that article, originally simply to explain the emerging church to people in my denomination, published in my denominational press, I was encouraged that I might have been close to my objective when Andrew Jones wrote his post about it. Andrew Jones, a prominent leader in the emerging church, who has since stopped using that term, indicated, "Ed Stetzer gets it." Andrew and I came to different conclusions, but he felt that I been fair in my comments. Later on, some in the movement would criticize my article for being divisive. But I think that most found my article to be fair.

Interestingly, one of the deans at a seminary in my denomination would write me an email and said, "You were fair and accurate in your assessment, which means you will probably get killed." And the reason he wrote that is that in attempting to give an accurate portrayal of somebody's beliefs, and then to critique them fairly, is actually dangerous (in my denomination and in other places). By trying to understand and be fair, some people will attack you. So be it.

Yet, I think there is power in a criticism that rightly understands another's viewpoint, even while disagreeing with it.

So, let me close with this. Before you criticize, be sure you understand the person and perspective with which you are taking issue. If you lack understanding you are essentially picking a fight with an opponent who does not exist. You'll make a lot of noise, sell a few books, or attract people to your blog, but your criticism lacks wisdom and integrity.

Feel free to weigh in, and yes, to even criticize my post!

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How to Offer Criticism: Part One