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
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?