Talk hard: The role of the critic in Christianity

Talk Hard
In which the iMonk describes and defends the role of the critic in Christianity.
by Michael Spencer

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.

(It’s almost always a woman. But that’s another essay.)

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.

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 publically 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 🙂

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.

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.

2. We don’t know how to criticize, so we say it’s wrong. My school has a rule against dancing. It’s been there for most of a century. It’s ridiculous, but it’s (apparently) financially necessary in our subculture. It grows out of a certain kind of post-Elvis knee-jerk fundamentalism that needs to stop things that go on in taverns. (The loss of a good use of a pub among Christians is truly a sad state of affairs.)

So after most a century, it is safe to say that the staff at our school is as ignorant on the subject of dancing as any group of human beings on the planet. We know nothing, and are happy to know nothing. The difference between Celtic folk dancing and the worst kinds of freak dancing are wasted on us. We haven’t danced in so long, and we have cared nothing about dancing for so long, that we simply believe all dancing is wrong. When anyone dances, for whatever reason, we are offended.

Evangelicals have virtually forgotten how to be critical. This shift is there before me every time I read our state Baptist propaganda rag, The Western Recorder.

There was a time in the long ago, that the pages of the Recorder were full of little but hard talk, criticism and debates. Opinions. Lengthy essays taking on opponents and advocating theological and denominational positions. The WR was a Baptist partisan, and proudly so. As time went on, this aspect of the paper began to recede, first into the editorial pages, and finally into oblivion. (This coincides, btw, with the success of Southern Baptists as a whole, their morphing into generic evangelical fundamentalism and the disappearance of discipline in the local church. Draw what conclusions you will.)

Today, the WR runs promo pieces from the denomination, promo pieces from the various entities of the convention, promo pieces from churches, and generic, USA Today type articles on churches with coffee shops. Debate, opinion, criticism? Look for the loonies in the letters to the editors, or in the occasional liberal squeal about some fundamentalist shenanigan. “Criticism” in the WR is now a books column, where two predictably liberal reviewers churn out monotonous descriptions of terrible little books about tiny and tediously generic evangelical concerns.

Is there a CCM magazine that tells the unwashed and unvarnished truth about the product? I won’t retell the story of CCM Magazine running a review that suggested, in short, Carman’s new album of the time was terrible. The fans descended on the editorial offices with tar and torches. Let’s be honest. Christian reviews now mostly just ignore the majority of what is produced, says good things about everybody and frequently reminds us that this is all a ministry. Evangelicals couldn’t take the thought of someone saying Carman was terrible, or even just dull and ordinary. I mean he’s Carman. He has to be anointed, right? Hard edged, biting, truthful reviews? Dennis Miller style fair and unbalanced on the side of real art? No. We don’t do it. We don’t know how.

It is the Internet that now allows sites like Internet Monk to publish the sort of things that The Door Magazine always dared to say, at the risk of losing subscriptions. But it’s apparent- we have a lot of evangelicals that don’t know how to criticize even a reeking phony and Tetzel like Benny Hinn. They don’t know how to call Warren a mediocre author or say the megachurch movement is arrogant and ghettoized. Worst of all, we’ve become a kingdom of sheepish consumers and we don’t know how to produce critics who will criticize the products we are devouring or the corporate interests that sell us the need to buy them. (All so we can be good Christians, of course.) We’ve become a community that eats out four times a day, but jails any critic who says the food is bad.

When the secular media does our criticism for us, we don’t know what to do with it. I, for one, tend to say thanks. Note this famous review at NRO of the first Left Behind flick. It’s scathing. And true. Why didn’t an evangelical publication write it? Why didn’t Christianity Today or Focus on the Family say it? Because we are selling this garbage to one another and we don’t how to stop. Or whether we want to stop.

In Mark 11, Jesus entered Jerusalem and goes right to the one aspect of Temple life that the leaders had lost the capacity to criticize: the religious flea market that stole from pilgrims by over-charging and defrauding them. Jesus’ actions are unmistakably LONG OVERDUE. Why? Any question about what Jesus would do if he visited the evangelical temple today?

3. Our idea of criticism is it’s either “of God” or it’s “of the devil”. If it’s of God then, of course, you shouldn’t criticize it. This is why evangelical marketers spare no effort to wrap their products- be they personalities, books, methods, art, etc.- in the blanket of divine origination. Once the status of “God-given” is awarded, then the critics are wrong, no matter what we say.

Such all or nothing thinking has an ominous history in Christianity, both in approving what is evil, and in condemning what is good. Have we learned our lesson from those mistakes? Apparently not. Nothing has earned the ire of IM readers like my criticisms of popular television ministries like T.D. Jakes or Rod Parsley, or saying something good about the Roman Catholic Church. These ministries are of God (or of the devil), my readers tell me. End of story. Prosperity Gospel? Rejection of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity? Faith healing? Lying. Profuse sweating? It doesn’t matter. It’s of God. Leper hospitals? St. Francis? Fine scholarship? It’s of the devil. Hate it, if you know what’s good for you.

This kind of black and white evaluation is particularly damaging to any real consideration of the content or quality of art or literature. For example, I find Warren’s Purpose Driven Life to be “mediocre.” Not evil. Not heretical. Not bad. Mediocre. The rejoinder: Warren and his book are “of God.” OK. I would tend to agree, at least as much as I understand Rick Warren from what he says and writes. (In fact, I just discovered he’s a Calvinist. Now, what am I?) But what does that have to do with whether his book is mediocre? Nothing. Can’t Warren be mediocre? If not, why not? Because his church is big? Puhleeze.

Can a song be “of God” and still be terrible? Can a movie be “of God” and be poorly written and poorly acted? These are silly questions, since we all know that if “of God” means intended to honor God, then all kinds of homely results are acceptable. But if by “of God” we mean, “this is from God and can’t be criticized,” then I am going to yell “Manipulation!”

If you want to see this at work, read the product summaries in any current CBD catalog. Whoever writes these blurbs is required to imply- or announce- that the book or CD under consideration is ‘of God, from God, by God” or whatever will make the point and get inside the wobbly minds of the consuming public. This means that it’s not just someone’s opinion about worship, it’s “God’s anointed wisdom for a dynamic worship experience from the most Spirit-filled worship leader in Australia.” And so on. Reading fifty pages of this stuff is dangerous to your sanity. You begin thinking that Yahweh has quit running the universe and gone full-time into publishing and marketing.

The other side of the coin is just as bad, if not worse. Can Christians possibly watch a movie other than G-rated pre-1970 Disney fare and find anything commendable? Not if you listen to the majority of vocal evangelicals. It’s “of the devil,” and that’s all we really need to hear. In fact, just going into the theater or having the television in your house is dangerous.

I will admit that it’s hard to get people to think in terms of seeing the good that remains in the bad, but it’s really our only authentic option in this fallen world. When we say that something is “of the devil” do we mean it’s from the devil? The devil likes it? It will turn us into Satanists? The devil will get into us if we watch or listen to it? I have to tell you that I can’t bear to imagine my intelligent and sensitive children looking at the whole world of secular art and believing that it is all “of the devil.” Or worse, looking at evangelical “art” and believing it’s “of God” and must be praised. That would be an utter failure to teach them the truth. If I must believe The Omega Code is good because it’s “of God,” then pass the hemlock.

In the classic Arthur Miller play, The Crucible, we get a glimpse into what happens when complex problems are reduced to “God” and “the devil.” Fallible human judges are given the status of infallible authorities. Hysterical and jealous girls are seen as instruments of the devil. Middle ground and more subtle analysis are not allowed. In the end, innocent people die. Terrible things are done, and anyone who doubts is in league with darkness. This is a story about us. Like it or not, it happened because the critics- of preachers, particularly- were silenced.

Evangelicals who reject the legitimate role of criticism do not necessarily run to these extremes, but they pave the way. The critic may not rescue anyone from these errors, but is it really so bad to have those in the body of Christ who think beyond simplistic categories, ask uncomfortable questions and raise more possibilities than we usually consider? Am I buggin’ ya? Then tip me.

4. God can use anything to save people, so we shouldn’t criticize what God can use. Any discussion of criticism in the body of Christ eventually will get to some anecdotal story of God’s use of whatever is under discussion for the salvation of a person, thereby rendering criticism inappropriate. “If one soul was saved…..” The ultimate stamp of God’s approval is His choice to use something as the instrument of bringing a person to faith in Christ. After that is established, we can quit thinking and starting saying amen.

My generic letter, for instance, referred to music that was now creating interest in church on the part of a formerly uninterested young man. If the critic has his/her way, such music wouldn’t be around, and this man wouldn’t be saved. Right?

Of course, this isn’t the case at all. Criticism should never claim to see into the sovereignty of God, because none of us can, and if we could, God would do something different just to play with our minds. What God chooses to use in any way for His purposes is utterly beyond our ability to predict. In fact, God has shown that He delights in bringing people to faith using what we might find foolish or unsophisticated. Men like Spurgeon, for instance, were often influenced and converted by people whose theology was crude, errant and incomplete. God uses bad books, bad sermons and bad preachers all the time. Just ask anyone who thinks I’ve said or written anything good.

I assume that even as Jesus criticized the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3, there was evangelism going on, and some of the converts were solid. Did that nullify the criticism of those churches?

It’s with churches that we have the most problems. The entire church growth/Willow Creek/Purpose Driven/Emergent Church phenomenon has put a lot on the table to be evaluated. These churches are numerically prospering, and that numerical prosperity convinces many Christians that any criticism is inappropriate and diabolical. Yet, it is the message and methods of these churches that most need our scrutiny, precisely because their numerical success can obscure serious problems of Biblical faithfulness, content, compromise and theology. These are uncomfortable questions, but they must be asked, and the megas and the smart guys don’t get a pass.

For example, if the largest church in the country says, “No Cross, No Sin, not here!” are we to assume that their numerical success ends the conversation? Or is there a role for the critic in pointing out that a crowd of 25,000 gathered to NOT HEAR the Gospel isn’t really a good thing? Are the ideas in these various movements going to be evaluated, or simply tested by their results? Some of the worst ideas in human history were numerically successful. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate.

Many of my readers will recognize the name of Mike Warnke. Warnke was, at one time, one of the top Christian entertainers and speakers in America; filling stadiums, selling thousands of albums and winning awards and acclaim. Warnke managed the unique role of the first broadly successful evangelical comedian of the “Jesus movement” generation, while at the same time being a successful minister in Charismatic circles based on his best-selling autobiography, The Satan Seller. In that book, Warnke told of his conversion from years as a Satanic high priest and drug lord. From this testimony, Warnke built a ministry that led thousands to faith in Christ and was poised to go to even higher levels of secular prominence.

I heard Warnke many times. He was a breath of fresh air, with his irreverent attitude, story-telling wit and heart-felt messages. There was only one problem. Mike Warnke was a fraud, a liar and a thief. Two writers at Cornerstone magazine, one of the few evangelical Christian publications with any real consistent spine when it comes to tough reporting, “outed” Warnke as a serial liar, fraud and bigamist. Warnke squirmed on the hook, but the Cornerstone crew landed him. Warnke’s ministry was virtually destroyed. (Oh don’t worry, he’s still in business. It’s not that easy.)

Why do I use Warnke as an illustration? Because thousands of evangelicals pelted Cornerstone with hate mail and whine mail premised on the theme of this discussion: So many were saved under Warnke’s ministry, how could anyone doubt that God was using him to spread the Gospel? In other words, Warnke’s ability to share the Gospel, which he did well, rendered his fraudulent lifestyle and lying autobiography as insignificant, at least to thousands of his fans.

In fact, this familiar line often came to Warnke’s rescue: How many souls has “Cornerstone” won to Christ? (Actually, quite a few, but I digress.) If you haven’t won as many people as Warnke, you have no right to criticize, said the defenders. Tune in next week for “Yeah, well I DOUBLE DOG dare you!” or “I put a curse on you!”

5. We’re really quite relativistic, and criticism just doesn’t sit well with us. Evangelicals are very odd. Here is a group of people that can get a riot going about any aspect of morality. Should we even watch “Friends?” Can homosexuals date right out there in the open? Should praise and worship bands be sponsored by major car companies? Is it right for Michael York to play the antiChrist when he’s so funny in Austin Powers?

Yet, at the same time that we have our razors out to split hairs on morality, evangelicals just don’t care five cents about the good, the true or the beautiful when it comes to art, literature or music. At that level, they are complete pragmatists. (Lord, have mercy on whoever designed the TBN set.) Has it occurred to anyone that the same Christian worldview that cares so much about sexuality, also might care about art, movies, fiction or poetry? Or the quality and content of anything?

In a relativistic culture, the critic is engaging in subversion. Asserting the values of the Biblical worldview can be dangerous- even among people carrying their Bibles. Relativism has the appeal of allowing each one of us to define what is right, good and true “for us.” Challenging that means admitting we might be wrong, and that our resulting choices might be wrong. Do we want to live in a world where we are wrong, and someone might tell us so?

A culture where everyone does what is right in his own eyes is one thing. A church that lives and thinks the same way needs correction. But can fallible, sinful, very human critics really do the job? How can a constructive ministry of exhortation/criticism contribute to an evangelicalism that seems reluctant to own even its own worldview with any enthusiasm?

How the critic works will be important. Most TV watching Americans are familiar with Joan and Melissa Rivers, the self-appointed critics of fashion and style who have turned themselves into celebrity anti-Christs. The Rivers girls are highly opinionated, but I can’t find a trace of an objective standard in all their outrage. They pretend that the celebrities they pan really are tacky, but how do we- or they- know? What we really watch with the Rivers girls is the entertainment of their own opinions, not a glimpse beyond them to what is really good or true. Christian critics can easily sink to this level of constant, baseless, offendedness, but it’s a parody we must avoid.

A Christian critic does have an objective standard. If he/she is outraged, it needs to reflect the outrage of Jesus. And it helps that Jesus was outraged, and it’s not hard to discover why. God is outraged in the Old Testament at the violations of the covenant and the depths of Israel’s apostasy. A prophetic critic can echo that outrage if it’s clear that God’s Word, not human preference, is what has been violated.

Can criticism be entertaining? There may be aspects of Christian criticism that make us laugh at something in order to help us see the truth more clearly. (Thank God for The Door, and its children Lark News and Holy Observer.) Jesus used humor precisely to make us see spiritual truth. Absurdity ought to often strike us as funny. Fools are presented as comic in Proverbs. But the critic has to be careful not to let the desire for humor obscure the truth. If it leads us to see the truth, humor can be an expression of love. If it brings perspective and helps to see the true significance- or insignificance- of things, then it is a gift. But if it becomes an exercise in ego and ridicule, it can be cruel, and cruelty is never right. Not even in the best of causes.

The best critics in history were not relativists, but had a strong point of view outside themselves; a point of view that includes themselves. Good critics can poke as much fun at themselves as they can any target, and they aren’t reluctant to show the follies of their own tradition. (cf G. K. Chesterton.) It ought to be fun to read a critic, not just for what he/she says about others, but for how they bring themselves and the reader into the picture as well.

Relativism has already made significant inroads into evangelicalism’s ability to define its doctrines. Now relativism threatens to make it difficult for evangelicals to know what’s wrong, because ultimately, relativism kills off the doctors who diagnose disease and says the medicine of reformation is unnecessary.

An old song says “Does anybody really know what time it is?” If we lose the role of the critic by embracing relativism or denying that critical thinking and writing have a place in evangelical culture, then no one will know what time it is, and everyone’s watch will be a little tyranny. Whatever the risks of letting the critics sometimes bug and irritate us, isn’t the alternative much, much worse?

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