Critical thinking and evaluation of what goes for “Christian” has always been a part of the Christian faith. This past Sunday my pastor preached on Colossians 2:13-19 and in the midst of the sermon he made this brief remark about Paul’s list of characteristics of those who have “false ideas about ‘righteousness’ and salvation”–in other words, those who use their critical evaluation skills to destroy others (rather than build up) or to build their own kingdoms.
Based on Paul’s list, he said these leaders tend to (a) be quick to pass judgment about the views of others, (b) equally quick to dismiss their opponents, (c) and likely to claim a vision or something special on which to base their own beliefs. He added that these leaders commonly hide their views under a veneer of humility.
In the counseling world, we have had many of these thought “leaders.” These are those who have a grain of truth as they point out the flaws in the views of others, who refuse to accept any critique of their own position and claim to have a purer view of the Bible (though never once really articulating it as a positive position).
But is there a place for critiquing others’ models? If so, how do you tell the difference between a false critique and a necessary critique? Try some of these questions:
- Are the critique overly personal? Does the writer give the benefit of the doubt or choose to read the one being critiqued in the worst possible light? If you finish a critique and it seems like the author was making fun of their opponent or making outlandish statements about the intentions or consequences of ideas–then they probably fail the test of constructive criticism and love for all.
- Does the one doing the critique identify where the author has spoken truthfully? If not, then the critique is not balanced.
- Does the critic offer an alternative after making statements of judgment? If not, then it is likely that the critic isn’t really looking for solutions but merely wants to be destructive.
How easy it is to slander other Christians, to paint them in the worst possible light. We see something out of place in someone’s life and repeat that story to others. While it may be a true story, does it really capture them in totality? Does it provide the best review of their value and personhood? What do we gain by repeating these true but incomplete stories?
In my world, it is very easy to do this with public figures. I find myself tempted to do so when I see a public figure giving a terrible lecture or training. I want to point out their superficiality, their mis-representation of either psychology or christianity. And while I do believe there ought to be room for critique and wise review of public works, it is easy to cross the line into slander.
How do you evaluate whether you are giving a careful critique or have lapsed into slander? APA format in writing allows us to make a statement about another and conclude it with a “citation.” For example, “Monroe (2009) believes that Christianity and psychology are one and the same.” Note that I do not even need to give real evidence in my citation. I only have to cite an entire book. You can take me at face value and conclude I’m a lunatic.
Where I struggle is when I am critiquing with substance what I believe to be a problem in someone’s work, how do I do so without vilifying their entire body of work. Someone may indeed write heresy. I can call it out but does the reader get the impression that I believe that everything the person has said is suspect? The same goes for a preacher who is later discovered to have been in an affair. Does this invalidate his prior sermons?
Tough questions. Few answers. My impression is that it is so easily possible to do good and do evil at the same time. That our motives in pointing out others’ mistakes are of utmost importance. So, I can be right in my critique and entirely wrong in my doing it.
Some further thoughts about our propensity for evaluation. Is it only my perception or have we become a culture of critics? In past generations, we overlooked the flaws of others to maintain the looks of stability, honesty, and integrity. Now, we love to out leaders (sports, religion, politics, etc.) when they are immature, foolish, or downright evil. And the advent of the cellphone camera and blog means we can catch it on tape and share it immediately with the world.
I’ve noticed that this culture of criticism extends to the local community–even the church. Stand around with neighbors. How long does it take to hear your first gossipy complaint? Stand around at coffee at some churches and you might just hear a complaint about the sermon, the way the youth leader operates, a question about how the budget is being formed. Recently, I was at a function (non-church) of friends and I was surprised to hear catty complaints about whether or not others brought enough food or the right kind.
Why are we inclined to talk this way? What do we gain by pointing out the flaws of others? Pride? Self-righteousness? “Reasons” for why we can overlook our own sins?
One more thought. Do we take greater pleasure in noticing the brokenness of the world than pointing out the good?
I am all for speaking the truth in love; for standing up against injustice and incompetence. But the repetitious meditating on what is wrong with others (including systems) seems to tear down more than it offers a way up.