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Internal Criticism

August 25, 2014

I recently read an interesting article about the problems that Christian movies face. I don’t know all that many people who think that Christian art of any flavor is leading the field and so while I’m not familiar with most modern Christian movies I thought the article was interesting[1]. I also read a response to that article which caused me to bleed IQ points.

Now, there’s a lot wrong with the response article[2] but I’m not really interested in dissecting the article point by point[3]. Instead I want to focus on one particular objection that is relevant for this blog: the objection that people who criticize Christian movies don’t criticize “lefty” message-driven movies with the same rigor. (Specifically, the author of the response says he “highly doubts” that these critics are as even-handed as he wants.) I’m going to ignore the assumption that “lefty” and “Christian” are opposite (as long-time readers of this blog will be aware that I think that some “lefty” issues are very Christian and that others are very much the opposite). However, the whole idea that in-house criticism should be balanced by criticism of external opponents is an interesting one. It’s also not a principle I follow here on this blog.

Now, I have certainly written articles criticizing parts of the philosophy opposite to my own (namely new atheism) but I haven’t written all that many. I write much more criticism of the way Christians do things. I intend to continue in this vein. The reason why is simple: I’m interested in seeing Christians do better. I’m not interested in seeing the new atheists do better. I think they have a terrible philosophy (made much worse by the failure to recognize its own philosophical elements) and I hope it sinks like a brick. I don’t stop and think about how I should offer constructive criticism for a philosophy I hate.

The difference between constructive criticism and criticism aimed at undermining an idea seems pretty straightforward to me. When I write an article like the short series I did on inerrancy I write it with the aim that Christians will find and correct odd inconsistencies in their thinking. I point out problems so that they can be fixed and generally propose solutions. When I write an article like “Magical Contradictions” (also an article about inerrancy – specifically the odd way in which many atheists embrace inerrantist reading styles) I write it with the intention that people will read it, see the holes in new atheism, and reject it. In other cases, like “The Problem is You”, I begin with a short critique of a position opposed to mine and then move on to in-house criticism and discussion. In these cases part of the point is that I think the value of finding mistakes in others is learning from them.

Despite this, I understand why some people want to see balance in criticism. In fact, I suspect that there are two reasons for this view. The first is simple: it feels fair. We often insist on even amounts of criticism or other treatment in political discourse (which is a way of privileging the political groups who get to be in on even treatment) and we generally think that even is fair. Now, whether it really is fair is a complex issue (fairness is a somewhat slippery concept when one gets into details) but in reality there will almost never be an equal number of things to criticize on both sides of an issue. One side will make more sense or one side will offend more egregiously. Imagine for a second that we insisted that federal prosecutors prosecute Democratic and Republican politicians in equal numbers. In any given year one side will lead the field in offenses and so prosecutors would be forced to let some unpleasant characters off the hook or trump up charges against innocent people to meet this demand. Insisting on even criticism can actually be a very strange thing to do.

This leads directly to the second reason: if year after year you found that your favored side was in for more legitimate criticism that would probably mean that you need to rethink your favorites. However, this is only true when criticism is summed across all categories. In Christianity we call externally aimed criticism “apologetics” and have no common term for internal criticism. However, most people also favor one or the other mode. The real question is not “Does this author favor apologetics or self-reflective criticism?” but “When we take all authors together have they discovered more serious issues in us or in our opponents?”

There is one exception to this: when an ideology is in a time of desperate warfare it makes sense to ask every able-minded thinker to rush to apologetics, to man the defenses. Yes, some self-criticism may be needed to make the ideology stronger internally but most resources will be aimed outward. And that’s actually the problem. In some way most people realize this. When you start saying, “No, we need you to defend us,” we are actually saying, “No, you don’t realize what a threat we’re under.”

Is Christianity under threat? Sure – while religiosity is hard to measure it appears that less people are going to church, that they are going less often, and that they take central Christian doctrines less seriously. Meanwhile the number of people identifying as non-religious has gone up and the number of aggressive atheists appears to have gone up as well. At the very least, aggressively anti-religious viewpoints are now part of the public discourse. However, I believe that this threat should not compel us to man the battlements of apologetics as if there was nothing to be done in-house. Good apologetics cannot and will not come if we expect apologists to defend things that have not been carefully tested and improved inside our communities.

In some ways this is an appeal like the ones heard about consumer confidence in economics. If consumers hear that consumer confidence is up it will boost their morale and consumer confidence will actually go up. If they hear that consumer confidence is down they will become unsure and consumer confidence will go down. In the same way if we tell people, explicitly or implicitly, that Christianity might be on its last legs we will create a problem for ourselves. Let’s not do that. Instead, let us focus on being the best Christians we can be, something that will require careful, constructive internal criticism.

[1] You should read the article but if you need a synopsis to get you through the next paragraphs the author said that Christian films tend to be either too invested in evangelism (and not enough in plot) or end up creating or resolving tension through means that don’t make sense in the world we actually live in. The author then suggested that we could use more movies in which people face and deal with the sorts of dilemmas Christians actually face.

[2] The response article promises six reasons why the original article is wrong but actually provides five reasons and a general comment. None of the five reasons are good. At their best they are fuzzy and at their worst they trim important sections off of quotes in order to criticize the new (stupider) meaning.

[3] Haha. Of course I’d like to dissect the response article point by point. That’s how my mind works. However, I don’t see why that would be useful to do here.

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