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For the ministry of CBA

I’m sort of depressed tonight because I just found out we’re losing a couple good book reviewers. And once again, God’s timing is impeccable, because I’d been mulling this over a while and I questioned whether I should give in to answering a few rumblings about this subject of Christian book reviews. There are some misguided thoughts circling around the Internet, as usual, and it wouldn’t normally bother me if it wasn’t all becoming so personal. But I guess as with anything, there’s a price to pay for being aware of it. Okay, a “responsibility” if you prefer.

It’s a tricky thing to talk about because it seems so divisive. Authors understandably feel irked and threatened by the potential for public criticism, and reviewers understandably feel marginalized and muzzled by authors who think good Christians shouldn’t complain. There seems no middle ground for these two groups who both obviously care so much for the ministry of CBA.

Now, it might not be a news flash to most of you, but I’ve always sort of assumed the reason there is no Christian equivalent of Kirkus or NYT reviews or these hoardes of book reviewers for local newspapers and bookstore chains, was largely because Christians tended toward the mamby-pamby, “if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice” end of the spectrum. I figured it was the same mushy-headed reasoning that explained the overall poor quality of Christian media and Christian business and Christian sugarless gum. I thought it was fairly obvious that we simply had lower standards because most of what we did was a knock-off of a secular original.

I just happen to be reading Lewis again. In The Weight of Glory, C. S. Lewis says, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” There is a lot in the Christian retail industry that is a knock-off of a secular original. But there is also Christian art that transcends basic copying and invites people in to the foreign place of “meditation and true friendship.”

So I’d like to offer a thought on critical reviews of Christian art in general. Should we not attempt to make a distinction between that which does achieve Lewis’s measurement for Christian art, and that which simply offers “an alternative to all the smut out there”? Otherwise, would we have to start calling Christian “novels,” Christian “unoriginals”?

Judging a work’s skillfulness is not the same as judging the value of the result. I thought I had a fairly objective measuring stick with which to judge the standard of Christian arts. But it took C. S. Lewis to set me straight. This idea of judging skill as opposed to value is from his preface to Paradise Lost. The fact is, there are precious few exemplary Christian book reviewers because judging the skill of the work is inherently distinct from judging its value, its end result. And that doesn’t seem to be widely recognized either by reviewers or by artists.

First, it’s hard to assess both the skill and the value and keep them distinct. Second, reviewers have a hard time convincing people that judging skill (let alone value) is an objective thing. The argument that invariably surfaces is that we should allow for differences of opinion. The poor reviewer trying defend himself against that accusation is left sounding arrogant or worse, unloving.

I know. I’ve been called both for my incisive remarks, some of which sound no less arrogant than saying I’m one of the few who says what needs to be said the right way. But there it is.

Some people are going to think what they’re going to think and no one can stop them. But if we let them stop us, they win. Take me to task on this; I welcome it. But to me, while the world may have nothing but the “skill” guideline to measure by, we have another stick. What kind of reader am I to judge of the skill God’s given one writer over another? An intelligent one. And who am I to judge whether or not that author is writing to the top of their skill or not? I am, simply, an observer, born to make my judgments through logic and calculated discovery. It’s not my perogative to remind artists what will happen if they’re not doing all to the glory of God. My business is to preserve the perception of my Savior’s children in the larger world. Should that world not be able to find the value I seek as the truer standard of measure in all our art, I bear the shame and the accusations that my faith is an alternative to thinking.

The disrespect paid to us, my friends, by the scoffing world, is not merely the result of spiritual warfare or historical prophesy. Those paltry excuses should shame us. I’m not saying the devil has nothing to do with it, but a lack of true criticism from inside the industry by an agreed standard of measure, in my opinion, has led to all kinds of sagginess I’ve had a hard time not owning for my own part.

Another quote from Lewis here: “Every poem can be considered in two ways–as what the poet has to say, and as a thing which he makes.” Two ways: the poet’s statement, and the poet’s creation. Again, value, and skill. And both have objective measurements, but use wholly different sticks. We need to evaluate and scrutinize with both if we’re to improve our witness to the international marketplace. And we need to do so publicly so that the world can see we aren’t immitating a tame lion.

But please, a word of caution: I’m treading on thin ice here. Some have taken my words and lifted them from their context to excuse some very unloving words. I say everything here with fear and trembling, begging your mercy. But if you decide to agree with my thoughts, please just think and pray and wait a while before taking up this charge. Review some Christian art in private and remember to put your own dignity and purpose behind you to serve the work at hand. Also remind yourself there’s no money in it. I’d also encourage you with a couple more quotes from Lewis: “Reasoning is never, like poetry, judged from the outside at all.” Though you aspire to the higher measurements, neither you, nor the artist you’re reviewing, are objective. It is good to recognize that, and as the sage says, “to grasp one without letting go of the other.”

And finally, from The Weight of Glory “If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself.” Never lose sight of the fact that it is God’s glory we’re announcing, and His creation we’re aiming to reflect.

To challenge the body toward healthy growth, we will need more approved workmen. I’m praying for the stamina to start adding my voice to the growing chorus. I’ve recently just begun. And if you think of it, you can pray for my humility and tact.

2 Responses to “For the ministry of CBA”

  1. siouxsiepoet says:

    good pilgrim you do wrong your [self] too much.
    i don’t know who they are that get lathered up by your writings, but i’m tired of seeing the weaker brother determining what i can read. what i can say. what i can do. i know this is very unchristian, and i can be that way, but geez, if the whole of christianity were played down to the weaker brother, we’d all be only reading purpose driven life forever and ever amen. (shoot me now) now that was mean, and i do apologize, but i’m frustrated by this whole muzzling situation.
    does judging a completed entity, a picture, a book, a poem, have anything to do with the artist’s ultimate capability? no. sure a bad review hurts. i’ve had my poetry called absurd (to my face btw), but the Lord was gracious with me and got me through it.
    if i had to serve the God we want in print, the pantywaist, impotent God we put forth, i’d rather burn in hell.
    we’ve pared the claws of the Lion of the tribe of Judah as sayers says, and i, for one, need Him to have sharp claws.

  2. relevantgirl says:

    I liked your thought processes here, Mick. As in life, it’s often “both and” than one right answer. We must hold many things, particularly many theological stirrings, in tension.
    Here’s my perspective. A reviewer who is honest about the quality and/or relevance of a work is doing readers a favor, whether the book be secular or cba-ish. If I were to believe every positive review out there, I’d be filling my shelves with more books. But, to be honest, I don’t really buy books through reviews anymore because everyone seems to be saying the same nice things.
    I go by recommendations from friends. Friends who tell me whether a book changed their lives or made them mad or fell flat. On that level, an author doesn’t get hurt by hearing hard reviews, and I get the benefit of a truly honest review.
    But here’s another side: I do READ reviews on Amazon. And I take them with a grain of salt. Usually, if a book is worth picking up, the positive reviews outweigh the negative. ANd, it’s important to look at WHO is writing the review.
    In terms of public reviews like Publisher’s Weekly, I believe that to raise the standard in the CBA, we’d best welcome those. Even if they are hard. I don’t learn how to write better if someone is holding my hand and telling me how nice my words are strung together. I learn through criticism. Tough, but true.
    Yes, everything should be balanced in love. Truly. But we TOTALLY (Valley girl speak alert) forget that Jesus was LOVE PERSONIFIED and He said pointed, honest words. Jesus wasn’t always nice. We’ve painted Him, in our evangelical circles, as a kind-hearted surfer looking guy who has deep, penetrating eyes and never said anything unkind. Jesus was honest. And He spoke to some folks about the works they did on the outside, about their religious occupation. He turned over tables (something I thought about quite a bit when I walked the CBA floor). We forget that even that act was love. Mean? Yes it seemed so. But it came from Love in the Flesh.
    So there are my thoughts. I know it might be different next year when my first novel comes out and I get many catty reviews. I may retreat into self-protection mode.
    Here’s some friendly advice (that was hinted at here). We authors will better weather public criticism of our work if we are STILL welcoming it in private. The more we welcome it now and as we are published, the better our writing will become. The more we heed the advice of trusted writers now, the thicker our skin will become. The secret to enduring the CBA marketplace is the uncanny ability to have thick skin while keeping our hearts tender.

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