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This past weekend, the New York Times Sunday Book Review featured six essays and an introduction on the topic of literary criticism entitled “Why Criticism Matters.” I won’t assume that our readers are overly interested or concerned with the state of literary criticism in the 21stcentury. It takes a certain level of word-nerdiness to care much about that. But, as I think many Times readers have been discovering, there are several important implications, tentacles that reach from this seemingly narrow consideration into the way we think about culture in general. The Editors’ Introduction points out that “We live in the age of opinion,” but asks “Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?” It is precisely these larger implications that extend the reach of this otherwise constricted set of contemplations.

Unsurprisingly, my reflection on the series of essays moved very quickly from my literary background and into my role and that of other writers here at Patrol who make it our business to consider “religion and the modern world,” as our tagline has it. What does it mean to be a critic of religious practice, and, even more specifically, to consider the way a two thousand year old religion is lived out in contemporary culture? This is what we hope to do, and therefore, I think, it merits some reflection every now and then. The publication of the Times essays seems like a perfect opportunity to do so.

The first thought that occurred to me as I tried to apply these thoughts on literary criticism to the kind of criticism that Patrol is engaged in is how little criticism goes on, particularly in evangelical Christianity. Certainly there are those who criticize evangelicalism (count us among these, sometimes) but surely this is not the same as being critical in the sense that Stephen Burn defines it in his Times essay. He challenges the critic to move beyond opinion and into analysis. That is, there are plenty of people out there who can level judgment on something, but it is the role of the critic to analyze, to make connections, and to attempt to conjure meaning.

Sam Anderson picks up this thread in his essay in which he highlights the self-reflexive nature of criticism, the way in which books talk to other books. Often this conversation reaches back in time and builds upon the work of those who have come before. Certainly, we read scholars within Christianity calling for us to read and grapple with the work of the great scholars of the faith, but for the most part much of contemporary Christianity, particularly within evangelicalism, is stripped of history – ever forgetting, ever reinventing. This is why it is important for critics to remind us that we need not reinvent the wheel, that the talk of bringing art into the church or engaging culture, for example, is ludicrous to an institution that, throughout the majority of its history was the cornerstone of art and culture. We needn’t stop asking these kinds of questions, but we should take into consideration the history we inherit.

A second theme that runs through the Times essays is that of identifying currents in contemporary culture. Not only must we connect back to our history and identify and engage with the work that has been done, but we must also connect with trends that shape and move contemporary culture. As Katie Roiphe states in her essay, the critic must “identify movements and waves.” This, too, is unfortunately stifled by a seemingly innate behavior in Christianity – oversensitivity to the pitfalls of acquiescing to the whims of the world. Mention to any group of evangelicals that we should consider what is popular or trendy in amending our practices and you’ll see this reaction in full force. Though this caution is healthy, it also is responsible for the fact that when Christians do eventually pick up on a trend, it is years after it matters. Therefore, it is the role of the critic of religious practice to analyze the way that currents and trends are addressed or not addressed, and to what effect.

In engaging with thoughts and ideas from the past and the present, the critic of religious practice must then make connections. Lines can be drawn between current trends and former practice, between cultures, authors, and other critics. The critic of religious practice should be actively fighting against the tendency toward fragmentation and isolation that is common in religious communities.

This all makes the role of the critic seem very utilitarian, and several of the authors of the Times essays recognize this tendency. In some ways it is unavoidable. But each of these writers calls for an elevation of criticism to the level of art by way of beautiful and truthful writing. This is the final necessity for criticism of religious practice. Without writing truthfully and artfully, the true critic cannot rise above the level of complainer or, often synonymously, pundit. In his definition of serious criticism, Adam Kirsch calls for a person who “says something true about life and the world.” He concludes by suggesting that “maybe, if you seek truth and beauty, all the rest will be added unto you.”

In a very real way this is the work that I hope I am engaged in, and that each of the writers here at Patrol considers as they write in this arena. Religion needs its critics as literature, music, and film does. Critics are necessary not merely to make judgments as to what is good or bad, but to help us understand how we make those judgments, to define the criteria we evaluate by and the language we use to discuss. We must look backward and forward, make connections between what we have learned and what we are learning, and we must do so in a way that engages readers and helps them understand why it is important to consider faith as we attempt to practice it.

If critics are not looked upon fondly by the culture at large, this is the case to a much greater degree within Christianity. There are plenty of underdeveloped defenses against the kind of criticism outlined here, but let us not be deterred. Criticism, when measured and well thought out, is a force for good, a bulwark against carelessness, thoughtlessness, and stagnation.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to Christianity’s Critics

  1. Joe Carter says:

    Interesting essay. This line, however, seems to need a bit more clarification:

    “Though this caution is healthy, it also is responsible for the fact that when Christians do eventually pick up on a trend, it is years after it matters.”

    If Christians are picking up trends that have ceased to matter, then are you saying they should have avoided the trend altogether? If a trend ceases to be important after a number of years, then it was probably a mere fad and not all that important anyway.

    • Fitz says:

      Thanks for commenting, Joe. Rick captured most of what my response would have been, had I got to it quicker. I would just add that I think if we had a more active critical base we could actually determine the validity of particular trends, and perhaps know sooner whether they are worth participating in.

      As Rick pointed out, many cultural trends have been and continue to be important parts of our practice of faith, so to dismiss these things as “mere fad,” I think, serves to discredit them. This is the very notion I was speaking against, this tendency to dismiss what may be important cultural movements. Even if they are temporary, that does not negate their importance, for we know that nothing happens in a vacuum and seemingly short-lived trends often become the ashes from which the next thing rises. Today’s trend: mixing metaphors, apparently.

  2. Rick Bennett says:

    Joe,

    I see your point, but would say many of the things we hold dear at this time are cultural trends or “fads” that we have co-opted and even baptized. For instance, hymns following the tunes of bar songs, Sunday School, Royal Ambassadors, Acteens or Awana, Acapella Choirs (while there is a historical tradition for Christianity, it has only been re-introduced since Acapella gained steam once again), organs, guitars, microphones, suits and ties, drums, radio, blogging, news reporting, tracts, TV, coffee, Africa, etc. Some of the trends we engage in and hold sacred have ceased to matter.

    Many of these were picked up late (some early). Would you say that those things should have never been engaged with in the first place?

    Trends are not just the obvious things we think of and culturally dismiss if we are “serious Christians” but the very core of our practice.

    It is hard to know which ones to dismiss early on and which ones to engage in. The Christian critic should be careful to understand that pretty much everything is a trend of some sort. However, if we are going to engage in any trend or fad (which have been used by Christians to communicate the Gospel since the beginning of our faith), they should be considered, critiqued and used in a timely manner (if they are to be used). Instead we wait until they have been around so long that others are already tired of them before we finally get around to engaging (much of the time).

    By the way, I speak as a critic that does not like many of the things in the list I put together.

    • Joe Carter says:

      Rick,

      Oh, I agree. I don’t have a problem with the adoption of trends, assuming, as you say, that they are “considered, critiqued and used in a timely manner (if they are to be used).”

      But it seemed to me that Jonathan was implying that there was something wrong with waiting till later to adopt a trend. In my opinion, if the trend is still relevant then we Christians are unlikely to have missed out on much by waiting till later to “baptize” them as their own.

      Are their counter-examples that I’m not considering?

      • Rick Bennett says:

        I definitely think we are on same page in most of this area. I would rather figuring it out earlier than later if we are able. but, that is me.

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