On critique and dismissal

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.


12 thoughts on “On critique and dismissal

  1. There is such a fine line at times between critique and dismissal. I appreciate you making the distinction. I’m going to use this distinction as I’m teaching a college course that covers systematic theology.

  2. Morgan: I think that there is a lot of literature in the business world that may prove useful to you in your endeavor to critique in a way that leads to discourse rather than dismissal. I would recommend the VitalSmarts team (authors Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler) book “Crucial Conversations” as a starting place. You will find, although they try to veil it, a very biblically grounded approach to making progress in dialogue within the book.

  3. Pingback: Sex-trafficking, colonialism, and blogosphere miscommunication | Mercy not Sacrifice

  4. this is fascinating, morgan, and i think you are onto something. i hadn’t considered that could be modernism that assumes people mean what they say and that any critique is attack, but i’ve sure seen a lot of it lately. i tend to assume the opposite, that people acting with good intentions can and do hurt people all the time (i know i do) and that we are accountable for our words, actions, and inactions regardless of if we meant harm. otherwise, we’re absolved of most of our junk and social/institution sin, too–and nothing really changes.

    i’d venture that it’s a function of personality type, too. i’m an INTP. it’s easier for me to not take things personally, and my biggest disconnect may be with Feelers who may perceive attack in any critique. but then, if my tone if hurtful, that would (might) be on me…

    (btw, i appreciate your thoughts at my place and have been mulling them over. i kind of didn’t know how exactly to respond, but i do appreciate your wading in.)

    • Cool. Thanks for writing. That is a good point about the INTP vs. ENFP dichotomy. I kind of straddle the line between the two. I think the problem is when people exploit a modernist “face value” presumption about communication manipulatively. I’m from the South so we see this all the time in “polite” discourse. It needs to be okay to call out socializations and gestures that people are making underneath their actual words, but it’s also important for this critique not to be summarily dismissive of what the person is saying. I’m in the process of a piece you’ll want to come back to look at regarding the drama about this new book on sex-trafficking and colonialism.

  5. (Thanks for the heads up, Morgan. Selfishly, your blog will be missed. Many of us use Lent to call out “bad habits” (lack of consistant prayer, bible study, etc…) that creep into our daily lives, and we truly make a conscious effort to concentrate on all things spiritual. Many blogs such as yours, help those of us who are less grounded in orthodox, evangelical, reform theology to do just that, learn and further discern.)
    “True theology never begins at the level of popular culture. In Orthodox theology, consideration of God begins with affirming that we don’t know Him (even that we cannot know Him). Of course, having said that, we immediately wish to leave such a negation and see how quickly we can move to saying something more!” (Father Stephen)
    I keep coming back to Romans 8:28. We believers/searchers look to the the Driscolls, Tickles and Guyton’s, etc… of the world to discern and call out false prophecy and perverted interpretation of the Bible. If we question their testimonies, and are passionate about our love for God, we will certainly react in human ways that dismiss some rather than diplomatically “critique” others. There is a time and place for both, obviously, just as we read ” who have been called according to His purpose”. NOT our purpose, or sense of responsibility to others who experience stumbling blocks by (we believe) faulty ministry. God is in charge at all times.
    What is our purpose? The easy answer might be to try and love, and “trust and obey” (I will resist the urge to break out into song, but love that hymn!)
    The human factor screws us up every time.
    The tough answer might be what you are actually already doing, Pastor…calling yourself out when you feel you are dismissing rather than critiquing, and working on being less snarky, if that is your discomfort. Maybe, “snarky” is indeed, part of His purpose. It is difficult for us to see ourselves the way others see us, but if we put forth the effort to overcome our righteous overactive conscience, we must certainly be headed in the Godly direction, right?

    • As always, God uses your words to offer both grace and edifying challenge. I am very blessed by the people God has put into my path to refine me. Maybe you need to be writing your own blog. Heck, everybody’s doing it. 😉

  6. I don’t see a solution. I really don’t. As someone who has been on both sides of the fence, I’m getting to the point where I almost want to disconnect myself from the machine entirely. I love Jesus; I love community; I love studying theology; but I do NOT the way that public faith like this continues to polarize the Body. You’re always going to have the people who say, “Don’t say anything, because it’s not our place”, but then you’ll have people like Revival or Riots who feel incredibly passionate about keeping people AWAY from bad and dangerous theology, and I cannot say they’re wrong in that. I think methods are important, but ultimately, calling people out for calling others out doesn’t make sense. I get why they say it, but to use the method you are rebuking others over doesn’t make it any better. Maybe Mark Driscoll just needs to be grounded from the internet for a bit? 😉

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