Critics, Criticism and Character

No one likes criticism. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who has ever enjoyed having their faults pointed out, especially when it’s on a subject you really care about. And let’s be honest, critics—perhaps ironically, especially the Christian ones—can be vicious. The last week has been no exception as we’ve seen from all the hubbub around Real Marriage. There’s a lot of back and forth on what’s good and what’s not so good about the book, and sometimes it gets a bit too personal. So there’s a sense in which I can definitely understand the following:

When asked to respond to his critics, Driscoll said he hadn’t read any of the reviews but that “sometimes reviewers will reveal more of their own struggles than actual problems with the book.” (From Dan Merica’s article, “Pastor’s detailed book on sex divides reviewers, sparks controversy“)

This is not yet another article about Real Marriage and Mark Driscoll (I’ve already got two—a general review and a follow-up if you’re looking for my thoughts on it). But it is about a few lessons I’m learning from his critics and how he is (at least publicly) handling them so far:

1. Some critics do need to be ignored. Sadly, a lot of folks write truly vicious things about those with whom they disagree. Maybe it’s because of a personal experience (like those who run the “[insert church name] victims” blogs); maybe it’s out of a warped desire to contend for the faith (Jude 3); maybe it’s because they just don’t like the person they’re talking about. Criticism based in pure emotionalism or are based in character rather than content should be ignored. I took quite a few nasty shots from a big-time former pastor’s fans when I criticized his book last year. The healthiest thing I did was ignore them. If I didn’t, I’d probably never have slept (and neither would my wife). Some people really are best left ignored (cf. Titus 3:10).

2. Don’t write off every critic. Even though some critics should be ignored, it doesn’t mean that all critics should be disregarded. This is what’s perhaps most frustrating about the quote above, where Driscoll says that “sometimes reviewers will reveal more of their own struggles than actual problems with the book.” Consider how it can be taken by those who have objections not based on preference but on thoughtful biblical interpretation. If someone reveals an error in how we use Scripture, and they’re right, then we should never disregard them—we should thank them. Thoughtful critics are good for our sanctification. They are one tool by which God grows us more and more into the image of Christ, by giving us the opportunity to humbly listen to and act upon legitimate concerns and criticisms. Further, careful and thoughtful critics—even those we don’t know personally—actually reveal that they love us enough as fellow believers to tell us the truth. Good critical thinking doesn’t comes from an intellectual ivory tower; it takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable, because the critic will often become the one being criticized. But for the critic that desires to show an abiding love for God and a deep love for others will, it’s a risk that’s worth taking.

3. Have real friends, not sycophants. “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals,'” wrote Paul (1 Cor. 15:33). This little verse is really important to both critics and those whose work is being criticized. It’s easy to create an army of people willing to tell us everything we do smells like roses, either because they want to be our friends and think that sucking up is the way to go, or they just want something from us. But a real friend is one who will tell you when you’re off track, who will call you out when you’re succumbing to your pride or when you’re flat out acting like a fool. Real friends, like good critics, are a tool used by God to make us more like Christ. If we don’t have these kinds of people in our lives, then we need to carefully examine how we live and who we associate with. Yes-men will tell you want you want to hear, but real friends will tell you the truth.

Those are a few of the lessons I’m learning so far. How about you?

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  • Ben Thorp

    Thanks (again) for your coverage of the Real Marriage stuff. Particularly with Mark Driscoll’s stuff, it’s so hard to differentiate between “I have a genuine Biblical critique” and “I dislike Driscoll and everything he stands for”. Most of the negative articles about this book seem to start with “I’ve said this before….”. 

    In this particular instance I personally find it hard because I know that Driscoll’s teaching on marriage was extremely helpful in my own marriage, and very challenging for me as a man and a husband. It’s very hard to remain objective when it appears that the person on the other side isn’t either….

    (On a side-note, it’s also frustrating that publishers love to court controversy to make sales. Releasing books on marriage by Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll at the same time is almost as bad as the release of Love Wins)

  • Louis Tullo

    The thing I’m learning from watching this all pan out is that as believers we have to really need an esteem for the Bible before the words of any man and that sometimes we can sift the wheat from the chaff and find something worthwhile in the midst of less helpful things. Your words about critics really point to that because they force us to examine for ourselves statements people make, books they write, and views they esteem. Acknowledging critics and sorting through ones worth considering forces us not to be lazy and actually think through what we believe.

  • Antwuan Malone

    This is pretty funny because I am getting ready to write a blog post about my site Candid Christianity (www, that tries explain why I am so critical in most of my posts.  It’s like we’re long lost brothers or something…. :)

  • Aimee Byrd

    This is a good topic for a post. One thing that I think has been very valuable to me is the art classes (as well as creative writing) I took in college. 1/3 of our grade was the ability to critique our classmate’s work. Once a week, our work went on the board for the whole class to critique. It taught us both how to critique well, and how to take a critique well. We can truly learn and grow from valuable critique. It is actually a very important part of our work.

    In a way, blogs can be like those boards in my art classes. And we have to remember the artist may be in the room. That being said, sometimes they need the hard truth.

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  • Paul

    Great post and reminder…
    also, it’s just becoming more evident that online criticism simply is ineffective at best and more likely misunderstood and overly aggressive in reality.  If you want to be utterly dismayed at Christians go to a Pastor’s/Christian Authors featured Youtube video and scroll through the comments below…or better yet a CNN article that allows comments…

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