Monday, January 19, 2009

Thoughts on the Role of Criticism

For some reason, probably subliminal I’m sure, criticism has been on my mind lately. It is fascinating to witness how different people respond to honest criticism. I for one do not do well with it, I know! I am such a people-pleaser that I have to work really hard to receive criticism in a helpful way. It is one of the many areas in my life where I still need to grow a lot.

I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” early this morning, like I do every year on this day. This year I got caught in the very first paragraph by the words, “Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas.” Nothing like a big serving of irony to start you day off right, huh?

How ironic is it that Dr. King, an adamant critic of the status quo, starts out his letter responding to his own critics by affirming that he gets so much criticism of his work that he rarely even responds to it? But then of course, in this case he responds and proceeds to deliver a letter that contains perhaps some of the harshest criticism he ever conveys. The critic deflects criticism by writing yet another critique. Relentless … and brilliant!

In the stories of Scripture, prophets criticized kings on a regular basis. Jesus criticized “scribes and Pharisees” unequivocally. In Christian history, criticism of the church led to reforms and renewals. The tension created in the pushback against the religious status quo can generate creative energy by which new and powerful endeavors of the Spirit are launched.

John Wesley criticized the Anglican Church of his day, calling for a spiritual renewal that eventually launched the denomination in which I now am granted “all the rights and privileges” granted to an ordained elder. Another delicious bit of irony: the denomination of which I am now a part, the United Methodist Church, is a status quo whose creation was generated with a criticism of a status quo.

I wonder how the present status quo will respond to its critics. When powerful systems are criticized, they tend to flinch. Sometimes they build bunkers. Sometimes the empire strikes back. But sometimes there can be a healthy, faithful dialogue with the critics that leads to wonderful transformative revitalization. How will the UMC respond to our modern day John Wesleys (whoever they may be), who push us for radical change and renewal?

One last batch of questions about criticism – I wonder sometimes whether it is better to criticize a system from within or as an outsider. From within the system, it seems to me that a critic is always aware of systemic repercussions in response to criticism. An outsider is in many ways more free to speak. But an insider may have the advantage of fuller knowledge of the system, and firmer footing on which to stand when offering the critique. An outsider may critic a caricature of the system, or at best be working from limited or anecdotal knowledge.

So it seems to me that systems should create safe places in which critics within the system can speak honestly without fear of reprisal. In other words, every event that takes place cannot be simply “training us to work for the company store,” as one of my colleagues succinctly puts it. If a status quo system makes room for that criticism to happen, listens to that criticism openly, and then engages in truthful dialogue with its critics, wonderful things are bound to happen.

Maybe one of the “rights and privileges” granted thereunto the ordained in the UMC system is the privilege to offer criticism. I don’t know for sure, I have never seen the official list. And of course, these are just my own thoughts and questions – I’m always open to criticism … (well, a little bit, anyway!).


Rev Kev said...

A big "Aye" to your comments on inside criticism... we need safe place to be able to critique, and to do so boldly, knowing that we are doing so out of love. Excellent words brother! (and that's my honest critique).

matthewgallion said...

These are great ideas about criticism, and I specifically want to interact with the questions about insider versus outside criticism.

I think the most important aspect of criticism is honesty, which is sometimes brutal. I'm not suggesting that we should be cruel in our critical comments, but instead, that there are many times that we simply refuse to listen to the truth of our own weaknesses. In this regard, I think an "outsider" has the advantage. There is no investment on their part, they can say what they perceive to be the honest truth even if it is unsatisfactory (a fact I think we saw in operation last week).

But I think you are also right to say that the outsider's perspective may not be as accurate. They may not know the whole picture. So, the insider has that advantage. At the same time, though, I think critiques from insiders are more likely to be ignored. "A prophet is without honor in his hometown," kind of thing. Especially when the critic is younger, like myself. I know from experience that my ideas are likely to be brushed off as "young, idealistic, inexperienced and unrealistic." I tend to be encouraged that I will think differently when I grow older and realize the world is incapable of idealistic realization.

Ultimately, I think the most effective critic is the insider who is forced to leave. Both by their words and their silent protest, their critiques are unavoidable. Whether this person leaves by choice (such as Martin Luther), or by "default" or "accident" (such as John Wesley), the most notable critics are those who start as insiders, speak out, are ignored and have no choice but to leave to maintain faithfulness to their God.

Creed Pogue said...

Two different pieces...

First, is the UMC "working?" If an organization is "working," then while dissidents should be respected, there is a presumption in favor of "if it isn't broke, don't fix it." However, I think virtually everyone agrees that there are problems with the UMC. Disagreement comes when we come to causes and solutions.

The second part is asking whether you are being part of a solution or being part of the problem. At the NEJ Conference, for example, we were berated by Rev. Isaacs from GCRR because we showed our racism by appointing a group to the general agencies that would be representative of what the general population would look like in ten quadrennia! That group was more diverse than the laity or the clergy are. In fact, it would probably be an example of reverse discrimination. Rev. Isaac's lecture did nothing to address our basic, glaring problem: we don't have as many UMs as we used to. If we don't work on that, we won't have to worry about the diversity of the NEJ in forty years because we will be extinct.

Anonymous said...

I think respectful criticism from both insiders and outsiders is valid. Still, there are things that my family can say to and about one another that I'd likely punch an outsider out for saying.

Ok, probably not, but you get my drift.

Sally said...

One of the main problems within the UMC, from my vantage point is the culture of mediocrity that seems to exist. I am certainly not talking about any one person or group but as a whole maintaining the status quo, not rocking the boat or taking too many risks is the norm. John Wesley would be appalled to see how the passionate flame of the beginnings of the movement has swindled to a mere flicker. The most passion is not for the cause of Christ or making disciples, it is for advancing agendas and dwelling on minutia while souls perish. Just my humble opinion...

John said...

Maybe one of the “rights and privileges” granted thereunto the ordained in the UMC system is the privilege to offer criticism.

Maybe. But I'd say that any right to criticism is more likely based upon informal political power than any title of ordination. Criticize your bishop and you could be sent to a punishment church the next year.

Is that the term used in your conference? In Florida they're called "punishment churches".