After witnessing several exchanges here and here and here regarding blogosphere dramas around Phyllis Tickle and Mark Driscoll and trying to process a convicting conversation with an honest friend, I thought I would wrestle through what I’m going to call the distinction between critique and dismissal. Because of the gotcha atmosphere that predominates our information age, we often critique in order to dismiss and feel dismissed whenever we are critiqued by others. What would it look like to critique and receive critique non-dismissively?
Before I went to seminary, my primary training was in the literary theory I encountered as an English major. We were taught to read novels and poems and essays with the assumption that nothing ever means what it does at face value. So my (postmodern) instinct in comtemplating other peoples’ writings and actions is to ask, “What’s really going on here?” What are the ulterior motives, exhibitionist pieties, and socialized presumptions that are on display? To (modernist) people with more left-brained sensibilities who are attracted to things like logic, objectivity, rationality, and so-forth, you’re supposed to presume that people mean what they say, because suggesting otherwise is an attack on their character.
So the standard postmodern critique of modernist writing, thinking, and behavior is to point out that people are acting upon unacknowledged agendas and presumptions. The only way that this is even a “critique” is if the modernist person claims to be acting and speaking from a perspective of universal objectivity, kind of like the perfectly omniscient narrator of a novel.
Because I’ve been talking and thinking about the world through these kinds of lenses for at least a decade, it doesn’t feel to me like a character attack to name the subterfuges within all the gestures that people make because I’m (far too) neurotically aware of all the levels of facade in my own actions. I’ve been taught to analyze and describe my own behavior as a somewhat predictable response to a white middle-upper class moderate evangelical upbringing during the culture wars of the 1980’s. It’s true that I often overemphasize these background conditions as a counter-balance to the way that others seem to deny their context in understanding why they believe what they do.
In the theology world, the main source of friction between modern and postmodern thought is when modern people make dubious claims about their own ability to channel truth without an interpretive filter, e.g. “I’m just telling you what the Bible says. You can decide whether or not you want to agree, but if you don’t like it, your argument is with God, not me.” When people talk that way, it does inject in me a desire to find a way to discredit them. I think if I were confident in my own theological journey, I would just pat them on the back and move on, but in my past, I’ve usually encountered statements like this in the context of having my own faith called into question.
The thing I’m not sure what to do with is when public figures like Mark Driscoll or Phyllis Tickle say things publicly that create stumbling blocks for other people. Do I have a duty to speak up out of solidarity with the people who are alienated? Because it’s not just between me and the public figure with whom it’s a farce to suggest I have any kind of relationship; it’s really about the overall shape of the public discourse. But how does pushing back and responding critically avoid turning into endless divisiveness?
One thing that may or may not be of comfort to us is that Christians have been arguing viciously with one another for thousands of years. This is not a new problem at all. In the past, people have been excommunicated and cut off from the church for what seem like very abstract theological disagreements. The fifth century giants Augustine and Jerome wrote scathing letters back and forth to each other that weren’t just for their own eyes but were read aloud in front of their disciples. Once the printing press became a factor, Arminians like John Wesley could have pamphlet wars with Calvinists like Augustus Toplady (don’t you just love his name!).
But surely there is a way to disagree even boisterously without excommunicating the other person (which I’ve done plenty of myself). Or is there a point at which it’s appropriate to say this guy really has gone out of bounds of the body of Christ that I’m in communion with? I’m not sure where that line is. I do think that we are called to be obedient to the truth, as 1 Peter 1:22 says. Of course, each of us has a different angle on that truth and reason for thinking that the other one is a heretic. How can we be faithful to the truth by speaking out but not lose our humility in doing so?
I thought I was going to find a way to explain how to critique without being dismissive. I guess that’s still a work in progress. I have intuitions about how to respond to other people charitably rather than cynically, but I’m not sure how to describe these intuitions categorically. One thing I can work on is being gracious and charitable when others take exception to things that I write. I need to kill the smart-ass retort that I’m so quick to pull out.