Monday, May 8, 2017

Contra Constant (Christian) Critiques

(Sorry, couldn't resist the alliteration.)

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Philippians 4:8)

We live in the age of criticism.

One of the things about how the internet, 24-hour news, blogs, and the like have shaped our discussions is that, while the amount of content has grown exponentially, a huge share of that content is really just reaction to other content. You can see it in the spread of the review, in the preponderance of the "think piece," in the perpetual Twitter brush wars. We are constantly riffing off of thingscreated by others.

And almost all of that riffing is negative.

While I could cite lots of more general examples, I'm going to talk about it in Christian circles, because it is where I live.

A huge amount of what Christians write, especially Christians on the internet, is about how other people are wrong. And not just people opposed to Christianity - how other Christians are wrong. There is a continual barrage of articles about how the church fails. Importantly, though, by "the church" the author almost never means themselves. Instead, they mean those other Christians who are different from them. Who aren't doing everything their way.

There is a constant drip of bile you can tap into, regardless of your specific Christian tradition. Depending on how you identify, there is an endless barrage of reasons that [megachurches/small churches, cultural engagers/cultural retreatists, contemporary/modern, Protestant/Catholic, Reformed/Arminian, theological/practical, politically conservative/politically liberal, or whatever other side of whatever binary you are on] are ruining the church.

Now, it's not that those articles are always wrong. In the first place, it is good for us to sometimes reflect critically on where we fail. What's more, there are people and places in the church that are problematic and that do require rebuke. When Peter comes to Antioch, Paul opposes his error publicly (Galatians 2).

But that is almost the only time, in the whole New Testament, that you hear one leader in the church say something negative about another Christian leader. There are false teachers, sure. Ear-ticklers only in it to make a buck, people denying the basics of Christianity, denying the cross and the resurrection. The New Testament regularly blasts them. But that is based on the assumption those people aren't really Christians. When it comes to other groups of believers and leaders in the church, the apostles constantly refuse to take the bait. "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." (1 Corinthians 3:6)

I am increasingly convinced that this should challenge our culture of criticism.


Again, that doesn't mean that there isn't a place for valid critique. But while we find such critique of others in Scripture, the overwhelming thrust of the Bible's view of our fellow Christians is positive. That should be a model for us as well. We should be spending the bulk of our time talking about what is true and good rather than what people get wrong or do poorly. We should be focusing on celebrating successes rather than gossiping about failures. We should write articles and have conversations focused on what different groups of Christians do well, seeking to learn from them how we can do better.

I don't just mean that as a platitude. I mean that as a concrete moral command. What percentage of what you read/hear/write is negative of others? Whether within Christianity or in society more broadly.

Have you ever noticed how web sites that skew "conservative" and "liberal" aren't the sites with the deep discussions of conservatism and liberalism? They don't have long essays about economics or political theory. Instead, being "more partisan" actually means talking less about what we believe and spending more time simply attacking all the people who don't believe what we do. Whatever that actually is. This has raised whole generations who can't explain why what they believe is actually good for the world. They just know that it's not what that other, evil side believes.

The same thing can happen within Christianity.

Perhaps even more tragically, out polarization keeps us from actually learning from each other. Seriously. Let me just imagine for you two caricatures of pastors. Caricatures of pastors I know. We'll call them Knox and Chris.

Knox is all about theology. He reads big books and talks about the puritans and reads Greek and Hebrew. Chris is all about practicality. He is charismatic and attractional and good at programs and getting butts in seats.

Knox and Chris, in our world, they hate each other. They constantly mock and belittle each other. Knox views Chris as having sold out, as being wishy-washy and barely Christian. Chris views Knox as being ingrown and parochial. Too heavenly minded to do any earthly good. I have books on my shelves written by both Knox and Chris, and the whole thrust of those books is "Why I'm not like that other guy, and you shouldn't be either."

Here's the thing. If they could get over their egos and actually start learning from each other, Knox and Chris would both be more effective pastors. Chris might never care about theology as much as Knox, but he would be a better teacher of the Bible and make more robust disciples if he had some of those puritans in his back pocket. And Knox would probably never have the laser lights and rocking band from Chris's church, but he would be a better leader and offer stronger applications in preaching. Maybe Knox could help Chris grow some people deeper, and Chris could help Knox get a few more people to grow in the first place.

That paradigm - that can apply to all kinds of areas. All kinds of areas within the church, and all kinds of areas outside of it. Just imagine, per the earlier example, what would happen if conservatives and liberals sought to celebrate areas of agreement and learn from each other instead of constantly going to war.

And ultimately, that is true because of a simple fact. When we spend all our time as critics, we will never get better. When we focus on what others get wrong, we'll never get any more right. But when we start looking for what is true, what is good, what is excellent and lovely and commendable - those things will actually help us grow. Which is what we should all be seeking in the end.

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