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The Kindness of Critique

Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you,
Reprove a wise man and he will love you.
(Proverbs 9:8)

In academics, as in the church, as in business, as in the home, there is often no more kind word than a word of rebuke. Rebuke is almost always a sign of love: even if the primary motivation for speaking is annoyance, the fact that you are speaking to the person usually means that you believe that the person can and will change their behavior, so that your relationship can improve. You have not moved away from them in indifference, but towards them in love, seeking to reconcile through correction. This is even more true when our motivation are more pure – love and a desire for the best in another.

In academics, this is generally recognized: it is considered an honor to have one’s book, paper or article critiqued by others. A really, really good piece will be critiqued by not one or two, but several major authors – this is considered a real mark of respect. It means that people are actually reading your words. They think that your work is significant enough to warrant a response, which will in turn encourage more people to read the original piece. It means, ultimately, that another person thinks that your thoughts are important enough to, in some way (either positively or negatively) build their own thoughts on yours – because every review or critique is ultimately a chance for an author to spring-board off of the original piece, into exploring one’s own beliefs, whether they be in the complete opposite, or virtually the same direction, or someplace in-between.

[Of course, it goes without saying that there are also reviews which do not really engage the content of an important work, but simply sling mud and call names. Fortunately, however, these sorts of things rarely make it to print in serious, peer-reviewed journals.]

I have at times found that this appreciation for critical engagement is absent from the non-scholarly community, and I wish there were more of it.

This is probably especially true in the group of people who are trying to find new labels for themselves, now that “Emergent” is going out of style.

There has been a whole rash of people who have recently published new, cutting-edge books. They have stirred up real controversy, asked some tough questions, shot (and BBQ’d for dinner!) some precious sacred cows, kicked sand into the eyes of the “big kids on the beach,” and published best-selling books (earning, no doubt, a pretty penny in the process!). However, when the expected responses, criticisms, critiques and rebuttals came flooding in, said authors (I am not going to name names – if you are thinking of someone, I probably had them in mind too!) do not receive this attention as a compliment, nor do they attempt to defend their arguments with sound, solid, reasonable works such as were sent their way. Rather, many seemed to “play the martyr card,” run home to their congregations/families/mummies and cry about how “everyone is being so mean to me.”

Let’s just get one thing clear: if you are human, you will have your day in court (Heb. 9:27) where you will have to give an account of every idle word spoken (Mat. 12:36). If you are a Christian, you are subject to a stricter judgment, because judgment begins with the house of the Lord (1 Pet. 4:17). If you have the audacity and boldness to take on the position of “Christian teacher,” you are subject to an even higher judgment (James 3:1), because you are in some measure entrusted with the souls of those under your tutelage (Heb. 14:17). And what of those who presume to actually write books, publish articles, blog? We are presuming to not only teach, but teach those who teach – thus bearing the weight of responsibility not only for our own lives, but for all those touched by the ripple-effects of our words, in the decades and centuries to come.

Anyone who does not feel a crushing weight of responsibility, a certain holy dread, and an awesome fear of the Holy One when they pick up the pen or consider publishing has no business writing on behalf of God. Anyone who does feel this weight will ultimately love and appreciate those who critique, refine, discuss, or even outright reject their works, on solid, Scriptural grounds.

If the words are true, they will stand up when defended against the harshest of criticisms: if they are false, then who would want them to stand? They will be nothing but a source of shame to you on the day of judgment.

What better friend could be wished for, before God, than a solid, staunch critic who meticulously and judiciously sorted through what was written, amplified and proclaimed the bits of good here and there, passed over the mundane, and critiqued and rejected the errors? What better friend could one have? What better grace could one pray for than one who will refine and perfect your work through the razor-edge of their own intellect, so that together you can both be sharpened, as iron sharpens iron?

Scholars know this. Wise people know this. It is time that the “formerly-Emergent” community starts realizing that solid critiques – when lived under the shadow of the judgment of Christ – is and should be viewed as a welcome and friendly action.

…and yes, since you asked, I am willing to live with, stand by and hear my own words.

Do you disagree with me? Do you think I am unscriptural? Do you think I am wrong?

Well, be nice about it.

But PLEASE tell me what you think! And if I ever publish a book, please, please – blog and discuss to your heart’s content, and the Father’s glory what you thought was profitable and edifying, and what was crap.

Time permitting, I will respond: if I still think I am right, I will stick to my guns and defend myself. If the discussion reaches a point where it is beyond my expertise, I will humbly say, “You’ve got me, I don’t know” and I may or may not research it further. If I am wrong, I will admit it and change.

The one thing I will not do is try to emotionally manipulate you into stopping the inquest, stopping the discussion, stopping the pursuit of truth, and “being nice to me.”

Truth is bigger than my emotions, and pursuing it will cost me more than a night’s sleep now and then. I struggle with a people-pleasing and man-fearing tendency, so I won’t lie – intellectual rejection hits me right where I hurt: but ultimately, the fear of God is the final corrective of the fear of man.

I want to have something to be proud of, and few things to be ashamed of on the Day of the Lord. If you, in your critiques, can help me arrive at the place that I want to be then I consider you a friend – even if, and perhaps because you are the staunchest of doctrinal opponents and critics.

If our hearts are striving together for the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” then we may embrace one another as “brother, sister, friend,” even while our minds wrestle valiantly, patiently, forcefully, and painfully for the truth which will set us free.

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