6 thoughts–let’s call them tips–on publicly criticizing and being criticized

6 thoughts–let’s call them tips–on publicly criticizing and being criticized April 29, 2014

The following comes to mind in light of some Internet theological smackdowns I’ve been reading lately, as well as my own working through the muddy fields of publicly criticizing and being criticized.

1. To write is to be criticized. If you don’t want to be criticized, don’t write. Anything. Ever. In fact, don’t think, talk, marry, beget/bear children, or otherwise engage with humans.

But definitely don’t write. And most definitely don’t write about God or the Bible, for there is no more sure fact of life than people are very, very touchy about what they believe about ultimate reality.

So, to sum up: if criticism is hard to take, avoid all human contact and especially writing about God and the Bible.

2. Make the other feel “safe.” When I was in seminary, my professor Bruce Waltke was in the middle of dealing with a rather harsh group of critics who painted him as a combination of (the worst possible interpretation of) Rudolf Bultmann, Julius Wellhausen, the Zodiak Killer, and a practicing warlock. As I recall, he had written something suggesting that the Pentateuch has sources behind it and grew over time into its present shape.

You’d think the world had stopped spinning for some people. This group went after him with torches and pitchforks, i.e., pamphlets, letters, and phone calls to counter his “dangerous” ideas.

They read Waltke looking for mischief, looking to bring him down, to marginalize him, demonize him, exaggerating any point that could be exploited to their advantage and ignoring anything that could make their case weaker.

I mention Waltke because of what he said to me in the midst of this: “If you ever review a book, make sure the author feels safe in your hands.” That doesn’t mean you must agree. You can disagree. Strongly if need be. But the author has to know that you have read him/her generously and fairly. If not, you have failed as a reviewer. You are a propagandist.

I may not follow that advice, but I’ve never forgotten it.

3. Learn from your “enemies.” I’m too lazy to look it up, but I think I read this somewhere in one of Richard Rohr’s books. Or maybe Thomas Keating.

We all like to listen to those who agree with us and support us. That’s because our egos have voracious appetites, and the more they are fed the hungrier they become.

Our “enemies,” those who think what we write is stupid and who tell us so, should not be ignored. If we listen, we may hear something that only our detractors have the courage to say. They may actually be on to something.

I remember a year or so ago getting some comments on this very blog, amid all sorts of compliments of my awesomeness, that my posts were pretty much strictly negative– “Here’s what wrong with those people out there.” That kind of thing.

I pushed the criticism aside, far too captured by the cheering crowd, wondering why these mean people didn’t hear the same applause I did.

But then I remembered Rohr (or Keating, or whomever), and I consciously decided to turn the volume down on the cheers and turn the volume up on the boos. And I had to be honest with myself: my “enemies” were right. They saw the kind of thing that only “enemies” see, that supporters either do not see, do not want to see, or are afraid to say for fear of offending.

I decided I had to turn over a new leaf, which meant over the next 6 months I actually included one positive post. It’s a start. Stop judging me.

4. Leave it be–at least for a while. Quick responses usually don’t work very well, other than to protect our egos. See #2. Take me back to the pre-Internet days where responses weren’t instant but had to age before being shared.

5. Imagine that, however you respond, you will have to read it to that person in a week. Again, the point of this is not to deflect strong criticism and just hold hands. The world of thought demands crisp and clear articulation of differing views. Without that all you’ve got is a cult.

But finding ways of expressing strong disagreement that don’t create awkward moments at some later point–an academic conference, denominational gathering, whatever–is hard work but worth the effort.

And it is hard work to say, “In my estimation, so-and-so is not competent to judge on this matter and has greatly misconstrued a complex issues,” instead of, “Wow, this person is either stupid or Hitler.”

6. Don’t take offense. In 1813, on his way to becoming the second faculty member of Princeton Theological Seminary, Samuel Miller wrote out 7 resolutions about his new life, and especially how he would relate to his new colleague, Archibald Alexander.

Reflecting on past collisions with colleagues, Miller wrote on the slow journey from New York,

I desire to set a double guard in regard to this point. Resolved, therefore, that by the grace of God, while I will carefully avoid giving offense to my colleague, I will, in no case, take offense at his treatment of me. I have come hither resolving, that whatever may be the sacrifice of my personal feelings–whatever may be the consequence–I will not take offense, unless I am called upon to relinquish truth or duty. (David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, vol. 1, p. 73; emphasis original)

Not taking offense is 10 times harder than not giving it. Try going a day without taking offense when criticized.

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  • Jim West

    Pete- it isn’t RUDOLPH, it’s Rudolf. He wasn’t a reindeer…

    • peteenns

      AAAAAAAAHHHHHH hahahahahahaah. But wasn’t he sort of a Rudolph, with his shining light leading the way? OK, I’m changing it.

      • Jim West


  • Andrew Dowling

    Sound advice; # 4 is tough. Heck, I didn’t wait 10 seconds between thinking what I was going to type and typing it just now!

    • peteenns

      Good one, Andrew.

  • Excellent advice Peter! I know you didn’t learn all this at once.

    Your #3: ‘Learn from your enemies’ has been particularly helpful to me over the years. I never learn as much from those who agree with me than I do from those who disagree.

  • Orton1227

    I like Rachel Held Evan’s idea (I think it was her) to create origami cranes and such out of her unfair reviews (ones questioning her salvation).

    So I’d say #7: do something creative/constructive with your criticism.

  • Brett FISH Anderson

    This is so great and helpful. Thank you. And now go and turn up the volume on what those trolls said below!

  • Hmm, I wanted to click ‘five stars’ on that JPG…

  • Robert Johnson

    VERY good read!

  • I will, in no case, take offense at his treatment of me.

    Is this biblical? When I perceive that someone has violated my dignity, I double- and triple-check to ensure I perceived correctly (two or three witnesses?). If I have, then I take offense. Because we ought to take offense whenever the dignity of another human being is violated. We are called to utterly detest evil. To possibly temper this point:

    Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips. (Prov 27:2)

    Likewise, I think it is much better to be defended by someone else. But when all else fails, is it wrong to let someone else know that he/she has possibly wronged you? Indeed, no it is not wrong:

    “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. (Mt 18:15)

    (See NET Bible notes.)

    • peteenns

      I suppose it can be a matter of degree. In my opinion, though, letting someone know he/she wronged you is not the same as “taking offense.” One can do the former without feeling offended. And we are definitely in the realm of “feelings” in the Miller quote.

      • It doesn’t matter if we’re in the realm of ‘feelings’, ‘intellect’, or ‘will’; they all suffer under Total Depravity, and they can all be sanctified. I am reminded of the triad, Ps 4:4, Eph 4:26-27, Ja 1:19-20. I might allow for a distinguishing between ‘feeling’ and ‘affection’/’sentiment’, such that ‘feeling’ is short-term and ‘affection’/’sentiment’ is the long-term, refined version of ‘feeling’. So if you really want, you can define ‘take offense’ as acting only on short-term feelings. But how many people really define ‘take offense’ in this way?

        And actually, it is not right for Christians to go around needlessly provoking other Christians’ short-term ‘feelings’. Eph 6:4 tells fathers, “do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them.” Now, sometimes the provoking is not intended, hence my “double- and triple-check”. But really, we ought to care enough about our brothers and sisters in Christ to try hard not to hurt each other, even via short-term feeling.

      • ajl

        This is a good statement. I can let someone know they wronged me in what was said about me. But, if I take offense, who does that actually help? It doesn’t make the other person feel remorse. It just eats me up inside. So, taking offense internalizes a criticism. Life is too short to be grind yourself up by getting offended by others.

        I’ve had back-and-forth editorials with Professors about what I’ve written – that is a very perfunctory way to stand one’s ground. But, if I take offense at what they criticize and can’t fall asleep at night because I am so worked up over it, I have let things get out of hand. Its just simply not emotionally healthy in the long run.

    • Luke, I agree with Peter that discussing differences is not the same as taking offense. In practice, it seems to me that taking offence is being overly sensitive to criticism and perhaps wanting to retaliate.

      We don’t have to take criticism personally. We can determine not to feel hurt or injured by criticism, and we can decide whether or not we need to ‘defend’ ourselves at all.

      • Where does the Bible condemn “being overly sensitive to criticism”? I’m very interested in this. I can think of “love covers a multitude of sins”, but I can also point out many passages which urge gentleness; Rom 2:4, Eph 4:2, and Gal 6:1 come immediately to mind.

        How ought we “feel hurt or injured”? Your statement here reminds me of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Do you realize how evil this statement is? God created the entire universe with words, Jesus is called The Word, and James 3 is all about words. Words are extremely important!

        • Luke, words do hurt. But sometimes it is better to let them slide than to confront the offender; often it does no good and just escalates the friction.

          Perhaps you and I are using ‘offense’ in different ways. I have in mind being thin-skinned to the point of ‘defending my honor’ or having to ‘set the offender straight’ whenever I am insulted or disparaged.

          I don’t think it necessary to find scriptural support for this view, but the message of Jesus is one of reconciliation rather than conflict.

          Sometimes it is important to work out major differences, but many issues aren’t worth the energy. I think it depends on the issue–and particularly the relationship.

          Bloggers deal in controversial ideas, and some readers will over-react with personal attacks. A blogger who is easily offended will be stressed much of the time.

          • You might find my response to Pete elucidating. I do recognize the role of “turn the other cheek” (I think this includes, if not is primarily concerned with, insults). There’s also “love covers a multitude of sins”. But there is also this:

            Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.

            How does this verse interplay with the whole ‘offense’ issue? I’ve actually never understood this verse in a non-‘two-dimensional’ way until now! So, what do you think of that? It’s the only competition between individuals which I know of the Bible sanctioning; see 2 Cor 10:12. (I think the Bible also sanctions competing against one’s previous self.)

          • Luke, I am really not clear what behavior you approve and what you disapprove. But I think I have been as clear as I can, and I have no need to pursue it further.

          • Would you care to take a whack at explaining Romans 12:10?

          • No. I have no problem with the passage, and I don’t see the connection to Peter’s statement: ‘Don’t take offense.’

          • You didn’t respond to my comment. I’m wondering what you think Rom 12:10 means, and how it applies in real life.

          • How does this apply to the discussion on ‘Don’t take offense.’?

          • Luke, perhaps you have knowledge of the Greek? If not, I can try to clarify Romans 12:10. The verb that the ESV has translated “outdo” is a compound, προ-ηγ-έομαι (pro-heg-eomai), which carries the meaning, “to lead out in something before someone else.” The “pro” carries the meaning of “before” or “in advance,” and the “heg-eomai” is the verbal form meaning “guide,” or “be a leader.”

            So, in my reading, the ESV has, if not mistranslated, at least created a confusing translation of this verb that is by no means confusing in the Greek text. This verse says, “With brotherly love, be tenderly affectionate to one another, being the first to lead in honor for one another.” Basically, Be the first to treat your brother with honor, don’t wait for him to honor you. This is not reciprocal, just honor each other in love.

            Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 4:11-13 Paul lists some of his burdens and his responses to them, because he sees the Corinthians acting in a way that is contrary to the way of the cross, which serves as Paul’s model of ethics in 1 Corinthians. Right in the middle of the list, he says, “When we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate.”

            p.s., I recommend reading the NASB as your English version. The ESV is not ideal, which is surprising, because I respect the scholars and pastors who led the way in its production.

          • Hmmm, I actually don’t like the ESV or the NASB when it comes to προηγέομαι. Neither has the strong connotation of “be a leader”. Grrrr! Thanks for pointing this out! I want to learn Greek at some point, and frequently look at definitions and usages. But that has its issues, since I don’t know much about the Greek culture, which heartily informs the language.

            Point taken on 1 Cor 4:11-13 (note how Paul didn’t do this in Acts 23:1-5). I’ve certainly been reviled enough myself, and it is the rare occasion when reviling back is even pragmatically useful. It just seems a bit sad to apply 1 Cor 4:11-13 to other people who are professing to be Christians and yet are slandering and reviling. I’m not say we oughtn’t to, I’m just saying it’s sad. For that to be the level of discussion is depressing. But perhaps this is how things always have been.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Luke, there was also no Internet back in the 1st century . . I imagine the back and forth blog posts between Paul and his detractors would’ve been harsh indeed! What Pete is saying is common sense . . Biblical or not . . in a electronic forum full of strangers, especially when you publish something to that community of strangers, it’s probably best to not take things too seriously and have a thick skin. It will save one a lot of needless mental anguish

          • The funny thing is that nobody seems to have a problem with what you are assuming about other Christians, such that a thick skin is required. I see this as a fundamental breakdown in Christians actually trying to love one another. It’s like this is no longer being expected. Very sad, it seems to me. Very sad. People are really, really good at living down to expectations.

            I also don’t know what you mean by “community of strangers”—are we including atheists? Otherwise, I take theological issue with that term.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I mean it’s the Internet . . the wide majority of us don’t personally know each other. As Pete runs this blog, I viewed his post specifically relating to the Internet age when the speed between the publication of viewpoints and responses has never been faster, nor have the opportunities for retort been so many. I would have different expectations for Internet discourse as I would for a face to face discussion.

          • All the internet does is strip away façades. People can say what’s really on their hearts instead of veiling it in nicer language. What you seem to be saying is we should expect the darkness, the refusal to try and understand each other, etc., among Christians. It’s a low standard. Maybe it is what must be expected, but I find that to be sad. Paul, author of Eph 4:1-6, is rolling in his grave.

  • CrazyDogLady

    Thank you. This is very helpful to me. I have had trouble discussing my thoughts about God and a lot of other things with my spouse, primarily because I am way too sensitive and also because… Well, it doesn’t matter why. I am going to go practice all of these points (after I have had at least one good night of sleep. I was up way too late last night “discussing!”) Thanks again.

  • Benj

    Wait–the Pentateuch has sources?!

  • Marianne Meye Thompson

    Pete, well said, especially #2: make the other person feel safe in the way you treat their work.

  • Tam

    “And it is hard work to say, “In my estimation, so-and-so is not competent to judge on this matter and has greatly misconstrued a complex issues,”… and isn’t it still just a highfalutin way of saying “Wow this person is stupid”

  • RustbeltRick

    I don’t know, it seems more effective to use the criticism as yet another proof that everyone is persecuting me in horrible, horrible ways, which therefore 1. must mean I’m really on to some hard truths that less enlightened people can’t accept, and 2. makes it essential that you buy my book or send me money so the persecutors don’t win.

  • excellent advice, thank you!

  • I hope everyone will pay heed to your wise advice, Peter.

    As for me, Internet has learned me how to (try to) love my enemies. There are all too many people who use the veil of anonymousness to bully others, especially if their cherished beliefs get challenged.
    But as Christians, we should know better.


  • Bob Reid

    Sweet post, Pete. And I mean sweet in both the eighties slang version (awesome) and the normal version (pleasant and delightful). Seriously, though: good stuff for me to think about on the night before preaching!

  • Thanks for the post Pete. I think I’ve often had the opposite problem in the past. Rather than quickly being offended and getting defensive, I would pretty much accept the criticism and perhaps be too hard on myself. But in either scenario, there was an issue of imbalance. Thanks to my wife (who is very defensive of me), I’ve come to have more balance over the years and learn to both give some credence to criticism, but better separate the what is constructive from what is done out of ignorance, striking a chord or just arguing for arguments sake.

    I had an opportunity to do this on my site (http://cultureconscience.com/) with someone who left a very negative comment. They appeared to be very hostile towards one of my early articles, but I was able to see through the anger to realize there was some hurt going on underneath those words. The situation was able to be turned around, but that outcome may not have occurred had I either reacted defensively or simply wallowed in the negativity.

  • Junia

    Pete, you’re a great scholar with an ear for Truth. I’m looking forward to the day when God reveals to your critics you were right all along. Be encouraged and keep writing.

  • MacPeter

    Thanks for this. I admire your boldness and scholarship. I am working toward becoming a scholar in science and religion, and I am currently having a number of talks with elders and pastors in my home church about evolution. It’s not easy when people think you’re trying to up-end the Faith itself. If I could add a 7th point, it would be “Highlight areas of agreement wherever possible.” When I discuss evolution with church leaders, I always re-direct the conversation toward the fact that young people in our church are going to enter post-secondary school and encounter the (strong!) evidence for evolution whether we like it or not; even YEC’s can agree with me that we want to make sure that the student’s faith survives that encounter. Even though they disagree with me on the specifics of the problem, we have the same goal.

  • michaboyett

    Love this, Peter. Thanks!