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.