Gracious Critic Wrecking Ball

Something has been weighing on me quite a bit lately. I was very gently rebuked recently for how negative I usually am. This wasn’t an attack from some wounded outsider. This was from my closest business partner and friend, Justus. Second only to my wife, I rely on him to keep me in check. He said, in so many words, “I don’t want the Nehemiah Foundation to be characterized by naysaying. And you are often very negative. It leaves a sour taste in people’s mouths.” Especially after my article on Left Behind, I wanted to take this opportunity to begin a public dialogue on (some of) my shortcomings, and to ask for help in developing a constructive and gracious program for the destruction of mediocrity and corruption in the church’s arts.

Demolition in God’s Kingdom Plans

First, demolition and critique clearly have a place in God’s redemptive plan. If you look at God’s commission to Jeremiah (Jer. 1:10), two-thirds of it is destructive:

See, I have appointed you this day over the nations and over the kingdoms,
To pluck up and to break down,
To destroy and to overthrow,
To build and to plant.

Most of Jeremiah’s job was singularly negative. But Jeremiah’s purpose in demolition was not to leave a ruin behind him. It was to clear a place for something good. It was ultimately in the service of the destroyed place that it be cleared of corruption.

Jeremiah’s purpose in demolition was not to leave a ruin behind him. It was to clear a place for something good.

As you can imagine, in my youth and still, I latched on to the first two-thirds of Jeremiah’s commission. I like critique. I enjoy tearing things down. I’m a bit of an ideological pyromaniac. The hope of reconstruction is not as appealing to me as the gleeful mania of deconstruction.

And in my youth and sometimes still, when people wouldn’t listen to me, or called me arrogant or stubborn, I felt justified in stubbornly holding to my opinions and continuing to attack pretty much everything all the time. After all, I had a Biblical precedent for that one too in Ezekiel’s commission:

Surely the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate. Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint I have made your forehead. Do not be afraid of them or be dismayed before them, though they are a rebellious house. (Ezek. 3:7–9)

Learning to be God’s incendiary device without burning the people I love has basically been the project of my life.

So, I was stubborn not from pride, I told myself, but because I had to be as stubborn for righteousness as my opponents were stubborn for unrighteousness. I never thought for a moment that my stubbornness had more in common with the rebellion I said I opposed than it did with Jesus’ gentle tenacity.

The flesh is very deceptive. The truth is that God has called me to demolition and stubbornness. I face very much opposition and rejection nearly every day in the work I have been called to do. I wouldn’t be able to do it if God hadn’t made my forehead as hard as flint. But, just ask my patient wife or my patient friends—there are times when my flint-like forehead is not an asset. Learning to be God’s incendiary device without burning the people I love has basically been the project of my life. And I have not yet learned how to do it consistently.

So, again, I am in a position where I must recommit myself to be more like Jesus in my opposition to the mediocrity and corruption I see in the church. Yes, art is important. Very important. And I still firmly believe that the arts in the church are not where they should be. But how can we make a difference there? Certainly not by biting and devouring one another.

I have sinned in this way over and over again. I confess that my pride and my bitterness have colored my perspective at times, and I have taken more pleasure in the process of breaking down than the prospect of building up. For that, I beg your forgiveness.

A Critique of Critique

So, on that note, the next paragraphs will be for others like me, to encourage us to do what we can to get past the demolition phase to the planting and building phase of our gospel commission. Know that I am preaching just as much to myself here as to anyone else.

Critics Need to Do More and Talk Less

It saddens me that many of the people who are most right in their doctrines and words are most wanting in their deeds. It’s not that helpful to criticize what’s wrong if you’re not doing anything to make things right. It’s easy to devalue other people’s efforts when you have no efforts of your own to count for or against your theories.

That’s why the Proverbs say, “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can give a discreet answer” (Prov. 26:16). Why? Because the sluggard has never done anything to test his little nuggets of wisdom.

It’s like the childless newlywed giving the father of ten advice on child-rearing. Of course the childless one is sure he knows better. We all think we know better before we’ve had to apply our pristine principles. How quickly I abandoned so many of my high-sounding parenting strategies when first they came up against a crying baby and a few dirty diapers. Well-used principles, like well-used tools, are rarely clean, though they remain undefiled.

Well-used principles, like well-used tools, are rarely clean, though they remain undefiled.

That is not to say that one needs to be an expert in order to deliver a critique. But perhaps part of the grace necessary for constructive critique is a practical empathy for how difficult it is to actually do things well. Harsh words from an ivory tower are rarely as helpful as hardy shouts from the other side of the yolk.

That is one of the reasons why the Nehemiah Foundation strives to be such a practical organization. Most of our time is devoted to actually producing art. It’s hard work. And when I think about all the hours I have poured into production to still come up unsatisfied with the quality of the results, it gives me some degree of patience with the low production values of the arts in the church.

Critics Should Focus on Principles More than Tastes

It is difficult to make a distinction between one’s personal tastes and one’s personal principles. I think I have good reasons for what I like or dislike (Who thinks they have bad reasons?), but that doesn’t mean that my likes or dislikes are therefore universal or objective.

Harsh words from an ivory tower are rarely as helpful as hardy shouts from the other side of the yolk.

Some of my tastes are based entirely on personal preference without reference to a standard or any underlying principles. I don’t like fish. I honestly don’t understand why anyone likes fish (the adjective “fishy” is, after all, always negative). But there’s nothing wrong with other people liking fish. If they must.

That’s a trivial example, but the principle remains. Sometimes I don’t like a particular art object for the same reason I don’t like fish.[1. I’ll note in passing that I don’t believe my criticisms of Left Behind to be one of those mere matters of taste.] I might be able to come up with some reasons, but I shouldn’t be too adamant about other people agreeing with my personal perspective. Too many times, critics confuse their “reasoned” personal preferences for universal principles.

Part of the reason for this is the erroneous belief that there are no universal principles for aesthetics. Ironically, believing in universal principles for aesthetics makes you less of a tyrant concerning your aesthetic judgments—you can eschew many of your personal preferences as secondary concerns and focus on what’s actually important.

Think about the recent mini-controversy over rap music that happened because of one of the Q&A panels at the NCFIC’s 2013 Worship of God conference. Some well-meaning pastors all weighed in with their perspective on holy hip-hop. Words like “disobedient cowards,” “death rattle of a culture,” and other vituperative phrases abounded.

But none of the pastors made much of a distinction between their personal preferences and biblical principles. That’s dangerous. It’s okay to dislike rap music the way I dislike fish. But it’s not edifying to go out into the world roundly condemning rappers and fishmongers. I’m extremely grateful that, for the most part, the Christian hip-hop producers and enthusiasts who heard these comments responded with extraordinary grace. (Which, in itself, commends their cause, I would say.)

Critics Should Take Time to Find and Promote Good Things

Lastly, the best thing a critic can do some times in the face of overwhelming mediocrity is search diligently for things that are worthy of praise and promote them. As Anton Ego (yes, from Ratatouille) said, “We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read…” Indeed, it is. But, over my many years pursuing graciousness and humility (albeit to abject failure most of the time), I have learned something about dealing with people: “You don’t always get less of what you criticize. You nearly always get more of what you praise.”

It’s easy to find tons of things in the world worthy of criticism. And people really like being outraged. Stirring controversies and scandals does so much more for your Google analytics than positive pieces on things you love sincerely. We live in a cynical culture, and I am the first to admit I have fallen prey to that cynicism and negativity.

Sometimes we forget that cynicism destroys worship. It takes vulnerability to be sincere, and a lack of sincerity and vulnerability shrivels up our praise for God. Let’s fight against what’s wrong in the world by first cherishing what is right. Our sincere praise for God should set the tone for our lives. All the things in the world worth criticizing really aren’t worthy of being compared to the weight of glory we already have access to in God.

Conclusion

I ask forgiveness of the many people who have met me in person and left feeling like I was an intractable, harsh, and negative jerk. You are probably right. By God’s grace, I hope to be a useful tool for the demolition of mediocrity and corruption, but I pray daily that God would allow my tool of demolition to be grace. I want to heap burning coals of kindness on the head of mediocrity. To be totally honest, I don’t know exactly what that entails. There is much to be criticized and torn down even still, and it is difficult for me to know how to approach my calling.

But I have no desire for the Nehemiah Foundation to be known as a naysaying organization run by a big talker. If it is known at all for that, it’s my fault. Know that God is working in me concerning this. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, yes. And constructive criticism doesn’t hurt any less than malicious criticism. But the criticism of a friend is actually edifying, and the indifference or hatred of an enemy is not. If I’m to be effective in helping artists in the church, I must first be friends to them, even if we don’t yet agree on how the arts can best serve the church or reach the lost.

Feel free to call or email or leave a message for us if you have any words of advice concerning this. It’s at this stage in our growth that it is most crucial that we learn the discipline of graciousness. Please instruct us on it if you have any wisdom!