Have Courage to Hear Criticism...and Even Find It "Helpful"
Don't be afraid of people who unfairly critique your tribe.
Let’s take a break from social media commentary and dive into a subject that is related, but only tangentially.
A number of days ago, there was some discussion among Christians on Twitter about a book called Jesus and John Wayne by Kristin Kobus Du Mez. The book is a sort of modern history of American evangelicalism and its fascination/obsession with male machismo and “traditional” or “complementarian” gender roles. The author criticizes some prominent evangelical leaders of the last few decades, especially those who have promoted the idea of male headship/leadership in the home and church.
One conservative Christian Twitter user remarked something to the effect, “I find it surprising how many people in my timeline have called Jesus and John Wayne ‘helpful.’” The idea behind the tweet is that this book which so unfairly criticizes the conservative/complementarian movements within evangelicalism could not be “helpful.” Many prominent leaders within the conservative, complementarian camps of evangelicalism agreed with this idea in their replies, while they also admitted they hadn’t actually read the book.
As one who considers himself a conservative, complementarian evangelical who holds generally the same beliefs as the concerned Twitter user in this areas, I was called out by his tweet because I read Jesus and John Wayne and I actually did find it helpful! But my concern isn’t as much with this tweet or the Twitter user that posted it. My concern is with the undercurrent of thought that the resulting conversation reveals.
To be clear, I think Jesus and John Wayne is unabashedly biased, selective in its reporting of facts, and pretty obvious in its uneven treatment of certain leaders in evangelicalism. For instance, some “villains” of the book like Mark Driscoll are rightly criticized at length for their toxic leadership while others like Bill Hybels and his intolerable actions are mentioned in passing. It shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence that Hybels gets an easier treatment than Driscoll. Why? Because Hybels promoted egalitarian values, Driscoll promotes complementarian values, and the author is clearly more concerned with exposing the latter than the former.
But despite all of that, despite the clear bias and selective handling of facts in Jesus and John Wayne, I and others still found the book helpful, to the surprise vocal people in the conservative, complementarian camps of evangelicalism.
Why can books as flawed as Jesus and John Wayne be helpful? Because reading books that criticize your “tribe” are tremendous opportunities for learning and self-reflection.
Criticism Helps You Learn Others’ Perspectives
Reading Jesus and John Wayne was most helpful for me because of the window it gave me into the minds of people who think like the author thinks. A lot of people criticize conservative, complementarian evangelicals, but most often that criticism comes in the form of hate-filled tweets or condescending podcast conversations. Kobus Du Mez wears her bias on her sleeve, but her book doesn’t read as hateful or even condescending, even if unfair. To be able to gain a window into her mind and the minds of the thousands that agree with her concerns is incredibly valuable and helpful!
To say that seeing the perspective of Christians like Kobus Du Mez is not helpful is to say, “I am uninterested in hearing the perspectives of people who disagree with me on these issues.” Such a statement is a demonstration of intellectual cowardice more than one of intellectual honesty or prowess.
Criticism Provides an Opportunity to Evaluate Yourself
I think that one of the scariest places we can be as Christians is to never wonder whether if what we believe is true. I don’t mean to say we should live in a constant state of doubt or fear, always on uncertain ground and never quite sure of what we believe. Not at all. What I mean to say is that we should challenge our beliefs with some frequency to remind ourselves of their validity.
As I get older I have become increasingly interested in finding ways to challenge and stretch my faith when life is peaceful. Why? So that when life is tumultuous my faith is not shocked by difficult circumstances or heartbreaking loss.
If we can have the intellectual confidence and courage to always be “criticizing” our own beliefs on everything from the roles of men and women in the church to the deity of Jesus Christ we can be more sure of our beliefs and ready ourselves for times in which these beliefs will be tested by other, more antagonistic forces.
When a conservative, complementarian evangelical like me reads a critical book like Jesus and John Wayne, it allows me to reconsider and reevaluate what I believe about American evangelicalism, the role of men in the church and the home, and what it means to truly be a “Christian man.” That isn’t to say the book changed my principled stances on these matters—it didn’t!—but the evaluation and reflection through which the book led me was valuable, and dare I say, “helpful”!
Be Willing to Listen
Frankly, the most frustrating part of the concerned Twitter user’s original tweet— scoffing at the idea that people in his tribe would find a book like Jesus and John Wayne helpful—is that it is a perfect example of some of the valid criticism contained in the book!
As a conservative, complementarian Christian, it concerns me that one of our hallmark traits to those outside our tribe is that we are unwilling to hear criticism and correction. This trait is called out in the book and is, unfortunately, exemplified in the Twitter criticizing the book and its readers.
Hearing the complaints of critics and not dismissing them outright can give us a better understanding of how they think. Likewise, if we take the words of our critics into careful consideration we are given the opportunity to intellectually spar with their criticism so as to better understand and more firmly hold to that which we believe.
If we hope to be intellectually honest Christians who humbly hold our doctrines as we follow Christ, we shouldn’t scoff at people who call out problems in our tribes, even if we disagree or think they are treating us unfairly. We should listen because by listening to our critics we recognize the image of God in them and demonstrate our desire to live peaceably with all, even if it doesn’t come to pass.
If you want to read a great review of Jesus and John Wayne from someone who sees its problems and bias, check out this review at Mere Orthodoxy. I agree with this reviewer that the book is not perfect, but it is important.