of prophets & pundits: a few words about criticism

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Friday, August 28th, 2009

of prophets & pundits: a few words about criticism

despite a couple bunch of interruptions, many of you have kept up with my track-by-track analysis of derek webb’s latest (and arguably greatest) album, stockholm syndrome. while this post serves as yet another break in the series, I thought a recent conversation was a fitting interruption.

whereas I usually refrain from and frown upon broad prefaces and disclaimers on blogs, let me offer a genuine disclaimer here before proceeding. the conversation I’m referencing was with a guy who, while I don’t know him extremely well, i consider a friend. he’s a great guy with a great heart and I respect the way he communicates and shares his convictions. my point is that my thoughts aren’t some kind of attack on him personally, but rather, a genuine critique of a pervasive worldview.

having not seen this friend in several years (as many as 4-5 years probably), I sought out some general conversational points of interest. I remembered that he is a die-hard caedmon’s call fan and being that I’ve also been a fan since their early days, I thought I would engage the topic. sure enough, we spent several minutes sharing our thoughts about the band and subsequently, related artists such as andrew peterson and jill phillips. the natural progression, as a (as you well know) HUGE derek webb fan, was to then engage the topic of webb’s music (in case you don’t know, derek webb amicably left caedmon’s in 2003 to pursue his solo career.) here’s sorta how the conversation went (and this is definitely a memory-driven paraphrase, obviously):

me: so what do you think about derek webb’s stuff, being the huge caedmon’s fan that you are?

him: [with hesitation] um, I thought his first album was pretty good…but…

me: not a big fan of the sorta electronic sound he’s doing now?

him: …no…I’m just not much of a fan of people who tear down the church by offering criticism without a solution.

me: [awkward pause] ooh…ok…gotcha…

him: so anyway… but yeah, I really like andrew peterson…


so yeah…I really stepped into that one…

it may be helpful to give some bits of recent history to flesh out the significance of the conversation. it’s no surprise that derek webb has caused controversy with a host of various brands of christians, but the most notable group has been calvinists. caedmon’s call is classicly considered one of the poster-child bands by our calvinist friends. naturally, the love flowed over into webb’s first solo album, she must and shall go free. whereas that album really lobbed some grenades of criticism at the church—utilizing the augustinian description of the church as a whore and suggesting that the church was held captive and needed freeing (the chief theme, still, of his latest album)—webb did it on their theological turf. the album is fairly steeped in reform theology (though, I would argue, still done in a way where it is accessible to non-calvinists like myself). (as a sidenote, whereas I’m certainly happy for his musical/theological/ideological progression, I still love that first album.)

so, what has happened is that, as webb began to sound much more like jim wallis than john calvin, calvinists who swooned over webb in 2003 began to “defriend” him in droves. people have trouble justifying the fact that they don’t like that he suggests we feed & clothe the poor or build bridges with the homosexual community or have a consistent ethic of life concerning war or the death penalty that’s neither a biblically adequate or politically correct position to assume. the workaround, to segue back to the aforementioned conversation, is the mass adoption of a new anti-don’t-question-our-fundamental-theological/ideological/ecclesialogical-presuppositions rally cry: you’re just criticizing without offering a solution.

that’s the new rallying cry of neo-calvinism.

don’t get me wrong. I generally agree, but in a MUCH different way than its intent by this group. I think it’s helpful to pair a critique with an adequate solution, but it isn’t in an attempt to undermine the intent of the critic. my fundamental assumption about a critic of the church isn’t that they’re trying to sabotage the entire concept, but that they’re trying to act in a way that echoes the prophets as described in the old testament. again, don’t get me wrong, there are certainly just vitriolic people who love to stir people up for their own pleasure, but there’s a big difference than those people and those who offer prophetic critiques. I think, by and large, those who hide their insecurity behind the aforementioned neo-calvinist rally cry do so in order to cloak their assumption that criticism equates to some kind of apostacy.

i feel safe in saying that derek webb joins the likes of keith green and rich mullins as modern-day musical prophets. we need these kinds of voices.similar to (though not identical, by any means) the prophets of the old testament, webb has been an unintentionally-divise voice in the church world. he has unswervingly spoken out against issues like the pursuit of the american dream, treatment of homosexuals in the christian community and the urgent call to ecclesial repentance. his words has been timely and unflinching.

we need these kind of people—people who speak out against the “sins” of the church in clear and critical ways. we all have different roles to play in the church. some of us are innovators who offer sweeping solutions that solve problems and meet needs. others are “friendly critics”—prophets who see the church’s shortcomings and expose them. that isn’t just “criticizing without offering a solution.” it’s criticizing so that those in change-enacting roles can lead people in a different direction. no doubt, some of us are in positions to do both of those things. i would like to think—as the leader of a faith community—i can speak out against internal injustice and also work to enact positive change, leading in ecclesial repentance.

quite frankly, i identify very closely with webb because 1.) i agree with most of what he says, but more importantly, 2.) i have, by and large, a contrarian personality. i learn through healthy argumentation and feel sharpened by a robust oppositional dialogue. there’s also something inherently deep within me—for various reasons—that wants to question the status quo and fundamentally examine it in contrast with the jesus that i find in the scriptures. if something doesn’t add up, i feel compelled—even obligated—to speak up. it’s not just “criticizing without offering a solution”, but acting in a way that i feel called and led.

so, that’s why, when you read the post i wrote questioning the fundamental propositions of the wildly-popular-in-christian-circles dave ramsey, i’m not trying to bash dave ramsey. i have little interest in taking down a fellow christian. rather, i’m bringing to light a pervasive ideology that is rampant within the church that, to me, at bare minimum, needs to be thoroughly examined (even leading to the discontinuation of its usage in the church, possibly). as stated, some of the elements are fine and good, but some of the underlying propositions are, i feel, dangerous to the story of jesus.

that’s why when you read the post regarding john piper’s god-like declaration that a deadly tornado was sent to wipe out the sinful lutherans, i’m not proposing that piper is some kind of deadbeat or leech on society. i’m sure he’s a fine person who is trying to lead people to jesus. i’m simply suggesting that when christians offer these outrageous, non-jesus ideas, there’s other christians out there who view god as primarily loving and not a god who brews up natural disasters to take people out.

when neo-calvinists (and others, to be fair) hide behind the cloak of “you’re just criticizing without offering a solution”, i simply wish that they could understand that there are those out there who aren’t trying to tear down the church, but quite the opposite: through repentance of its own sin, are building it up stronger and more christ-like. they are certainly peopel with vitriolic, poisonous intentions, but let’s stop and see the broader intentions of most critics of the church.

whether its derek webb or brian mclaren or even insignificant little ryan byrd, it’s worth it to stop and realize that identifying the problem is always the precursor to a solution. i hope to continue to use my sad little blog to point people to jesus by offering an alternative to what i see as the shortcomings and often-single-mindedness of the church. the church is a very beautiful and helpful thing, which is exactly why i and others will hopefully continue to speak out against the things that suck out the beauty.

for those who have stuck around for the length of this novella, i appreciate it. now, back to your vitriol and hate-spewing. 🙂