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May 19, 2011

How to Offer Criticism: Part Three

In an attempt to encourage healthy, honest dialog, and fruitful, Christian criticism I am offering five thoughts on how to criticize well. Today in part three I'm reminding us to slow down.

In part one (Critique What One Actually Believes) I wrote:

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.

In part two (Critique Fairly and Charitably) I added:

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.

Today, I suggest part three.

#3 Wait

When you feel the need to offer criticism recognize the need to "slow your roll." That's right, slow down. Take your time. You not only need to think through your cautions and complaints, but you also need to pray deeply before going "public" or "personal" with your critique. I know that some of you will feel the pressure to be "first" in your response to whatever just hit the web, but more important than being first in your criticism is being right and righteous in your criticism. The act of thoughtful delay might not only save you from saying the wrong thing, but also help you to say what you need to say with greater precision.

Instant communication today makes the need to wait all the more important. People say some really awful things online they would never say to a person's face because we have this awkward ability to communicate with one another instantly while remaining separated spatially and relationally. Before you post, tweet, update, or whatever, slow down.

Follow the counsel of Scripture when James says, "Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger." (James 1:19)

I can think of a prominent example where a well-known pastor blurted out a comment toward a younger pastor that was not well considered. The reaction of many was, "That does not make sense or fit the facts." The criticism was primarily based on one line and, as such, the end result was conviction without much content. It was heard by many, but helped no one. If critics would wait and think, criticisms would be better. They may still be needed, but they would be better articulated and understood.

Waiting can also check and even change your motives. For example, because I work at a publishing company, I had Rob Bell's book weeks early. I had a strong, but (I think) fair, review ready to publish. And, I have to confess my enthusiasm in that I was about to publish the first review from a person who had read the whole book. But, just as I was publishing, I lost the whole document-- poof. Needless to say, that was pretty frustrating. Then, the day after I was to post, Kevin DeYoung published his massive review (that was better than mine anyway). All my web traffic was lost and my opportunity for "firstness" gone.

However, I believe it was the Lord that scattered the electrons in my writings about Rob Bell-- I needed more time to think more clearly and write with grace and discernment (and you can read what I wrote here). It only seemed right to write a blog series about criticism while giving some-- to hold myself accountable in the process.

Criticism hardly ever goes well when you do it in a hurry. To do criticism in grace may cause you to miss the moment in blogtown, but it is better to take the time and do it well.

Criticism fails without a filter. The wise man waits.

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How to Offer Criticism: Part Three