Today the journalist Jonathan Merritt released a much-reposted piece about Christians and criticism. More specifically, The Gospel Coalition and criticism. His point was that while the common thread of their posts is an “air of rebuke”, many in this group of evangelical Christian leaders are bad at receiving criticism. And while they happily accept the preaching platform, as well as Christian people’s admiration and trust, they don’t respond well to correction from the same people who give them authority, even when their teaching is harmful, and criticism may prevent them hurting others.
There’s plenty of questions in there about what builds a church platform, who has authority to speak on behalf of God, and various other issues. But I’m most interested in the notion of criticism, and how it can either destroy us or make us better.
I’m not removed from the game of criticism. I read this sitting at a desk with many projects on it. To be precise, there’s a PhD, a book, a chapter, a peer reviewed article, a teaching contract, and two media pieces. It’s like I’m waiting for projects to hatch.
But I honestly didn’t intend for it to be like this. In fact, I had high hopes I could finish my dissertation writing phase by working insanely hard on it last year, when … well, life happened.
… And I was left with a group of jagged, fragmented sentences that outlined the shape of my body on the pavement. It was a caricature of me, but it wasn’t breathing. A loud gang of personal, and existential criticisms questioned whether I could write, whether I would pass this course, and whether I should pursue a scholarly career at all. After four years of Seminary.
I added these words to an imaginary folder of “critique” I’d collected during the PhD program. And, to be honest, from time in ministry before that as well. In this folder were small pieces I needed to remember. Some warned me when my writing style was too scholarly, while others reminded me it was not scholarly enough. If I flick through the imaginary pile, I recount the times it’s been said I lack logic, probably because I’m creative. And inferences that I’m not very creative really, considering I’m a songwriter! There are notes reminding me not to be unrealistic. And little encouragements to push hard for my career because boys will be assertive and take the first teaching positions, whether qualified or not. Comments in there caution me not to be elitist with colleagues. Still, these notes write, you don’t have an Ivy League education, so you don’t have full access to all the ideas. And, of course, the clincher: ministry is not about the money.
Although the notes barely fit into their folder, I can normally close them up and store them away until I figure out what to do next… they help me in many ways.
But in December the folder flung open, and just wouldn’t close.
This took the gloss off my newly minted “All But Dissertation” status, and I had to remove my friend’s “Congratulations!!” card from the windowsill. I knew I deserved this title along with other candidates in my course, particularly considering I had 100 extra compulsory exam books allocated during the ridiculous gymnastics of changing PhD disciplines.
There were many good reasons I was in this situation, but knowing them didn’t help. I cried many tears over discouraging words that wouldn’t go away. I would be sitting at my desk normally, and then I’d be crying, and only realize when the computer screen became blurry.
If this is depression, I thought, it’s situational depression, because I can point to the place where the dam wall collapsed.
But that didn’t make it go away either…
And, unfortunately I’d already bought a plane ticket to California a week earlier, when I thought I could put a date on my dissertation defense – or at least, the final stages of editing the PhD. So, this date came, and I got on the plane, but with a deep sense of dread. The last place I wanted to go was back on campus.
But, of course, this was the best medicine. And I acted as though I had never cried a tear, not even one. I turned up for all my meetings, and I stilled my racing heart, and I listened to all the new criticisms, and I put them in their little folder, and I closed it somehow and I went off to the conference to present as if I was a professional, not a known fraud wearing high heels and a suit jacket.
At the conference I reconnected with Australian scholars who knew all my flaws but who were ecstatic to see me, and I finally admitted out loud where I was really at. I lamented the comments in the folder, and this helped remind me that I wasn’t actually dead, but being inducted into a community of scholars, and that this was the entry fee.
And, at the conference I met some new sister-friends. A beautiful new friend, Joy, picked me up every day and we talked very honestly and even wept a little. And then I found myself in a lounge with some girls laughing before our scholars dinner, and we talked about crazily unhelpful feedback, and infertility, and teaching young men in the Bible belt. And that night one of us won the conference book prize, and I felt as proud as if I’d done it. Because she’d admitted that she also had a little folder in her heart, and she’d worked slowly through each note, and she’d used those words to create something profoundly world-changing.
I know that criticism can be absolutely and completely unnerving. But somehow the Christian church has to get better at speaking about what is real. Without the barbed wire existential destructive bent. And it also has to get better at receiving comments and applying them within some kind of spiritual process that helps us get better, not bitter.
Why did it take me six months to admit that I wasn’t on top of these criticisms? How did I lose this much precious time?
Well, first I had nobody to tell. There were too few friends willing to stand with me while I gingerly took out the words and read them aloud like bad fortune cookies. When I am around other Christian friends, I have to be really careful. I have battle wounds, and I assume that everyone knows what that’s like. They don’t.
I’m not saying that people’s every day lives aren’t hard. As in, maybe the mundane actually forms a parallel to criticism in shaping our soul. But it seems like some women sit around and plan making pink frosted cupcakes all day. They could be blown over by a feather of opinion. Meanwhile, other parts of the church are like a war-zone. And there’s not a lot of in-between spaces.
I honestly have no idea how it happened, or how I failed to keep my junk together for six whole months, but I think we need to think about turning Christian conversations into places of deep nourishing moments of spirituality.
If someone’s asking, we need more resources for that.
This makes me slightly uncomfortable, but I’ve decided to get around it all by thinking about scholarship as just one role I play. Another is that I might be the friend you call if you want to work through deep existential pain (after your therapist!).
I’m honestly not judging but please forgive me if I vague out while sitting at a women’s ministry event and you’re talking about your six year old’s birthday party and which colour of bunting you like best. It’s just not one of the roles I play.
I’m trying really hard. I’m not always able to pull off the disconnect. I’d like to think I’m piecing together all the ferocious, terrible words for your daughters and grand-daughters, and I’m trying to work out how to make something that we can hand them.
So in that sense I guess, it’s really same-same, right? Some of us nourish the next generation of the church while rocking babies late at night and singing lullabies. Some of us are tracing out the lines of the conversation that build the pastors of tomorrow.
But I’ll admit I’m struggling to hold the spaces together. And at the moment this role idea is the only way I can work it out without becoming really angry and lashing out at everyone and everything around me.
So, today I’m feeling more empathy for the Gospel Coalition leaders than I care to admit. Sometimes, you just want a block button for all the pieces of the world that you don’t know how to deal with yet.