For the ministry of CBA, part 2

Sharing is nice

Howdy, y’all. BTW, the infrequency of my posts recently shouldn’t lead you to assume I’ve gone to the dark side, been imprisoned, or don’t have much to say. Au contraire! I may not be as ubiquitous as the honorable professor, but trying to get a proposal wrapped up and the second half of a novel written does not come without a cost to the blogging life. Apart from ICRS and the resulting windfall of work that threatens to pull me into the bottomless vortex of doom, I am still alive (and very much kicking, as you can see by the post below).

About that. Kicking is not something a lot of people like you to do to them. Go figure, but they tend to complain when you do it. So I wanted to add a few links to enhance your reading of that last entry on Christian reviews and give you a fuller perspective of the “work as ministry” model I’d like to aim for.

While you couldn’t call CBA a church or expect its members to behave as such, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to treat it with a similar regard. Many who work in this church do so under personal calling. And many readers who come through its doors are spiritually wounded, looking for a hospital. We the ministers have to be aware of and always ready for the challenges that come with that. In a sense, everyone who enters CBA’s circle of influence is carrying infection. Many have scars that never healed right. Some are looking for any reason to refuse our help or damage our work. It’s them that we have to be vigilant and prepared to confront.

And on both sides of the current debate about “iron sharpening”, i.e. critiquing Christian arts, there are some snipers who need to be aware of the influence of their hot little opinions. Christ commanded us not to judge others. A good friend pointed out to me recently that most often, the authors you’re dealing with are not hugely masterful prose-crafters “slumming” to write bad, popular fiction. The majority of the writers you have a beef with are writing to the best of their ability. And even beyond that fact, they are our brothers and sisters and we would be incredibly out of line to judge their parenting. God will deal with them on a personal level. No critic needs to assume that role.

But art requires considered judgment. Roger E. Olson, professor of theology at Baylor’s seminary, gave a helpful response on CT on this issue at CT recently. “If [all judging were condemned…] the body of Christ would not be a body but a gaseous vapor!” Good point. We need smart, reasoned responses to some of these who take the Lord’s image lightly.

However, let’s stop and consider what that looks like for a moment. Clive James wrote an article for The National Book Critics Circle website: “Adverse book reviews there have always been, and always should be, lest a tide of good interntions rise to drown us all in worthy sludge…When you say a man writes badly, you are trying to hurt hum. When you say it in words better than his, you have succeeded. It would be better to admit this fact, and admit that all adverse reviews are snarks to some degree, than to indulge in the sentimental wish that malice might be debarred from the literary world. The literary world is where it belongs. When Dr. Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn’t allowed to hit him with an ax.”

Certainly we would hope for something a little closer to the biblical standards of dealing with errant church members than the brutality that takes place in the pages of New York Times. Forebearance and love must always go before correction and discipline. It is an inherently weaker thing to live by this principle than to simply fly off and let your words strike people. I do think the church could speak with a little more dignity in the culture if we were willing to say the hard truths that need to be said to some of its speakers, however softly and tenderly. If CBA is to continue to grow beyond its current borders and extend its reach to the dying who come looking for a cup of water, honest reviews need to be readily available to the public. The glut of books published in this industry absolutely requires it.

However—and this is a big red light—in the case of Christian fiction, we should also keep a few things in mind. One is a conclusion Jonathan Cordero came to in his article in the sidebar (“The Production of Christian Fiction”). CBA books are joint efforts of author/editor/publisher all attempting to meet the bookbuyer’s wishes. It’s a far cry from the image of the solitary writer in the forested cabin writing “art for art’s sake.”

Secondly, it would be wrong to take up the charge of Christian reviewing if you have a personal ax to grind or you’re simply jealous of an author’s limelight. Don’t make a fool of yourself by trying to hide your selfish motives in defaming them. I’ve done some of that and it’s not a fun thing to have to face up to. Those who feel a call to improve the perception of Christian arts should do so, but understand what’s involved in Christian fiction. Again, that’s advice from my own experience. It should give you pause to know that I’ve been shut out of many of the minds I was trying to reach because of my flippant, cavalier attitude and uninformed soap-boxing.

Now I have to say something that’s going to sound strange. Honest, critical reviews by Christians, for Christians, about Christian artists are probably NOT the best way to deal with the issue of low quality. Authors need accountability to uphold their oaths to add good and not bad with the message they’re sending. But I’m a fool if I think that to bring CBA closer to the Christian artistic ideal, I’ve got to provide a public critique of how well the books are working. I should have no business writing anything negative about the work of a fellow laborer without going to that person first and getting their perspective on my observations. You might think that’s silly or naive, but I just think that’s the way Jesus would do it. You may think it’s impossible but I’ve found most authors are eager to hear from an intelligent reader simply because so many readers aren’t.

As I was reminded recently, our words are a big deal. And they last forever. Ideally, wouldn’t we all be close, personal friends? And wouldn’t we rather take a bullet than do anything to damage our relationships? So when observing critically, your best friend’s work, wouldn’t you rather help them improve rather than hurt their efforts by publishing your findings? There are some in CBA I’d consider snipers, selfish people reflecting very badly on the work I’m trying to do here. Should I become one of them and use a critical review to bring them down? Or should I first attempt to go to them with my concerns? What I’ve seen in myself and others who make the argument that we need more honesty in reviews doesn’t do much to excuse my putting “truth” and “honesty” before love. What about treating others as we want to be treated?

CBA authors are trying to do something that’s very difficult: to make money while upholding their ministry. The bottom line is, mean-spirited reviews do little to help the second part.

Maybe there is a place for more honest reviewing. But that James article points out just how far from our real mission we could get.

So I’ll leave you to ponder. A friend showed me the application of the “CBA as church” thing just this morning. God’s timing, once again. Too uncanny. I want to push for more honest critiques mainly because I’m tired of the world looking at us funny. But ultimately, what would they see if we were treating each other contrary to the golden rule?

Sharing is nice

10 thoughts on “For the ministry of CBA, part 2”

  1. i will go away after this, i promise. :D
    i had this thought, and it came to me out of the clear blue. in the glut of publication stuff gets into print that shouldn’t. that is the fact of the matter. the industry is there to make money. Christ has become a secondary issue imo. treating it like a church is, well, probably impossible. but certainly a nice ideal. when you think of it, most churches are rabidly dysfunctional, so maybe we are more like a church than not?
    perhaps we err in the writing machine encouraging all these substandard writers to “just write” and keep at it. buck up old chum, you’ll get published. maybe some of us shouldn’t be published. publication is not everything. it is not the answer to all life’s questions and the solution to all life’s mysteries, but we treat it that way.
    maybe, just maybe, some of these writers need to NOT be published, not be encouraged in their gross lack of skill, to clear the way for the stellar, the outstanding. instead of glutting the market with crap just to have something new on the shelves, how about we act like jerry maguire and focus on fewer clients, less money.
    but we can’t, can we? the industry exists to feed the american demand for more, more, more.
    i’m totally disillusioned.
    suz

  2. These two posts do indeed make me think. It’s hard to hold one another accountable to grow as writers without wounding and tearing down. But I think this accountability, whether it comes through a critique group or more casual discussion of the work, is important. Ideally, that happens before a book makes it into print.
    I too am tired of the world looking at Christians as inherently mediocre.
    Thanks for your insight.
    Linda

  3. Suz, I appreciate your point about not all folks need to be published. As in any entertainment circle, we who are published sometimes have mixed motives–sometimes we are compensating for a painful childhood, sometimes we crave power. Yes, it is a ministry. True. But ministry is not merely encompassed in writing. There is SO MUCH more to ministering to people rather than writing to them who you never physically (in terms of location) touch. So, yes, perhaps some should retreat and minister in different ways.
    The other thought that scare the bejeebers out of me is the thought that in a sense (not in the full sense) we are teachers, and the Scripture holds up a huge standard to those who teach. I worry a lot about whether my printed words reflect Jesus accurately. And this is why we need writing communities of faith around us–to read our words, to encourage us, to call us to task when something theologically is out of whack. It is such a high calling.
    And in light of that high calling, we who are authors should welcome constructive (rather than vindictive) criticism of our work SO THAT we give good words to those who read our work.

  4. i have a terrible sunburn and I think it’s burned my wee brain. Sorry for the grammatical errors in the last post. It’s the curse of the Mediterranean Sea and being on antibiotics!

  5. Thanks for the provocation, Mick.
    Interesting links this time, too.
    Yikes!
    heh heh
    I think I disagree with you about the need to approach someone personally before criticizing their work in public. When they publish their work it is open for public discussion. If they don’t want that they should satisfy themselves by sending their books around to their relatives and friends and they should quit asking the rest of us to plunk down fifteen dollars to read their stuff.
    Sometimes I criticize writers because their theology is bad. (Think Benny Hinn.) I believe it is the right thing to do to speak against damnable heresy at every opportunity.
    There are others I criticize because their books are so poorly written. I believe that it’s not just about the world looking at us funny. It’s about honesty. When I read rave after rave after rave at Amazon over that stinker, Shadowmancer, I have to say, “These people are either lying or they are stupid. Either way they drag Christianity through the mud.” I think Christians are required to be honest.
    I’m not saying we all have to write up reviews on all the books we hate. I never do. I don’t have time. But the least we can do is quit writing glowing reviews for books that aren’t any good. It’s dishonest the way it is now. That is what is so disturbing.
    sally

  6. Several thoughts on this post, Mick.
    First of all, we all have to remember the central teaching that we must separate the sin from the sinner, and judging the work is not the same thing as juding the artist.
    It might do us all good to separate a bit from our work and be able to look at it objectively without getting offended if someone points out its flaws to us.
    The second thing is I want to pick up Mary’s point. Not all of us have writing as a ministry in the sense that we’re called to create works of art. For some of us, our calling is teaching, or encouraging, or prophecy or evangelism and writing is a means to an end. We have no idea how God might use even the simplest and badly crafted work to change someone’s life.
    A book called “Hey God!” by Frank Foglio brought me to Christ. It’s still in print and believe me, it’ll never win any prizes for good writing. It just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
    Let’s be wary of fudging the distinctions between judging a person and judging their work.
    I’d like to see some articulate reviewers who really know something about the craft take a look at Christian fiction and show precisely why and where it works and doesn’t work. MAybe we could all grow from the experience. I hope so.
    But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that people writing to the best of their ability can’t reach thousands of people for God, even if they won’t get any stars by their name for great artistry.

  7. This discussion reminds me of a guy I used to be good friends with, but we hadn’t seen each other for several years. Then, last month, out of the blue, he gave me a call. He used to build decks and chicken coops and tree houses for a living, but he graduated to building homes. In fact, he asked me to meet him at his latest building site where he was nearly finished with a development of thirty houses. Only three of the houses had been sold, and he was in a panic.
    “Any idea why they’re not selling?” I asked.
    “Jealousy,” he answered.
    “How’s that?”
    “A number of other builders claim the houses are overpriced. They have been spreading a lot of nasty rumors. One guy complained because the roof leaks in some of the houses. Another one said that every time the water is turned on, the pipes make noises. A third guy said that the houses aren’t even square, as if that was such a big deal.”
    “I assume none of these complaints are valid?”
    “That’s not the point. I’m a Christian, and these guys are supposed to be Christians, too. How do you suppose all this looks to people who aren’t Christians? They’re supposed to be able to recognize who we are by the love we show to each other. How loving is it to try to send me and all my subcontractors into bankruptcy? They’re all Christians, too!”
    We went into one of the finished units. The front door was hard to open and even harder to close.
    “Throughout the whole building process, there was no swearing or fighting or drinking by any of the workers. No smoking, either. Homeowners don’t like people to smoke in their house. Once that tobacco smell sets in, it’s hard to get it out.”
    I’m not a builder, myself, but after walking through the rest of the house, I had to tell my friend that I saw a lot of problems. They would have to be fixed before I could recommend that anyone buy one of the houses.
    “You know, we did our best,” he said. “Couldn’t you just tell people about the good things and forget about the rest?”
    “I don’t think I could do that.”
    “Thanks a lot! Didn’t Jesus say ‘If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all’? I thought you were my brother.”

  8. I have to agree with all the comments here, but I want to revisit this idea again soon. Can Christians write critical reviews of Christian books and not be guilty of breaking the Golden Rule?
    Of course, we all know a “bad” review is damaging to the author, whether or not it’s aimed at the work. Would we wish God to hold up our faults to the world and give us what we deserve in our lack of worthiness? Instead, He forgives and spurs us on to greater understanding, even in our miserable failures.
    I’m playing devil’s advocate here because the other part of me says it’s mushy-headed nonsense not to be honest about bad books, especially if we’re hoping to have an impact and raise the standard of Christian books. Are we to let things continue without the balance of objective, critical reviews?
    Either we’re taking the Golden Rule or we’re overturning the money-changers’ tables. I guess we can’t do both. And in the end, Jesus did not spend His time tearing down without rebuilding in love.

  9. I didn’t know negative reviews hurt authors. I thought if a novel got mentioned at all, that was a good thing–much better than being ignored. It meant the book was at least important enough to merit a comment.
    Negative reviews don’t necessarily turn me off a novel. I listen to what the reviewer says, and if he seems to dislike the same things I do, that may sway me. But it rarely happens.
    I’ve loved many books the critics hated, and vice versa–hasn’t everybody had that experience? I’m more likely to buy a book because of a good review than not buy it because of a bad one. And a friend’s recommendation will induce me to buy it no matter what the critics say.
    I do like to read reviews, though–for several reasons, not least of which is that they help me think through what works and what doesn’t work in a novel, so that I can avoid at least some of the worst pitfalls when I write my fiction.
    Just guessing: if it works that way for most writers, doesn’t that help to raise the bar?

Discuss...