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.
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