On Receiving Criticism: How Well Does the Critic Take His Own Medicine?

By Scott Keith

The ritual of an Inklings was unvarying. When half a dozen or so had arrived, tea would be produced, and then when pipes were well alight Jack would say, ‘well has nobody got anything to read us?’ Out would come a manuscript, and we would settle down to sit in judgment upon it––real unbiased judgment, too, since we were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work––or even not so good work––was often brutally frank. To read to the Inklings was a formidable ordeal.

– Warnie Lewis (Older Brother of C. S. Lewis)

Not long ago, I was discussing with a good friend a manuscript she wishes to publish someday. This friend is a solid thinker, a good writer, and I am sure her work will add a great deal to the body of work already existent on her topic. But, she is unsure what to do with her book. She asked me, “what do I do with my little work?” “First, you have to let us read it,” said I.

Sharing something dear to you, something that you have poured your heart and soul into, is not easy. Yet, the worst thing that can happen to a work of such care is that it be hidden, kept away, refused the praise and the criticism of its readers. The idea that someone might take your hard work and dismiss it as inconsequential, or worse, bad, is one of the most terrifying thoughts that any writer faces. But, lack of exposure will not make a bad text good, just as exposure to criticism will not make a good text bad.

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Getting over the fear of criticism is more easily said than done. My book, Being Dad, was recently reviewed on a well-known fatherhood website, fathervision.com. The review is thorough, honest, scathingly unbiased in its assessment, and often accurate in its criticism. The author of the review, at the end of the day, recommends my book with comments like: “But those who come to this book looking for inspiration in the noble calling of fatherhood and for encouragement to keep pressing into the sacred work of fathering will come away from this book with some very good food for thought.”

Rest assured, this praise did not stop the author from cleaning my clock on other areas of the work. He criticizes, among other things, my distinctly Lutheran approach to the topic, saying that: “As a non-Lutheran reader, I felt like I was ‘out of the club’ so to speak. This also included the constant and annoying bifurcation between ‘Law and Grace.’ The author is too immersed in his own thought bubble.” In some ways, I think he is right. Even if he is not, I need to hear that he might be. Though, I might also encourage the reviewer to remember that we all have a “thought bubble,” and to use my book as an opportunity to get out of his own for a few hours.

C.S. Lewis, though now highly regarded as a great Christian author and teacher, was in his time often criticized for what he wrote. He received the criticism that his works seemed hastily constructed or that they only flirted with being scholarly. It was also said, even by his friends, that Lewis would introduce difficult theological concepts only to conclude them in too short a work allowing the tensions inherent to these difficult topics stand unresolved. (These are also somewhat accurate criticisms of Being Dad levied against it by the reviewer at fathervision.com.) The reader can get a sense of how Lewis reacted to some of these as he responds to the criticism of The Pilgrim’s Regress in the appendix to the third edition of that work. Lewis is a total gentleman as he glides through, point by point, the objections to his work, praising the accurate criticism and taking the blame for where the work fell short.

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As a budding author, I need the type of criticism Warnie Lewis describes above: “real unbiased judgment.” We have too many people in our lives that serve as our mutual admiration society. Withholding accurate criticism will not make those around us more self-aware or improve their self-esteem. Rather, we will create, or have created, a world full of people who believe that they are better than they are.

Imagine, if you will, a world full of writers who cannot write, teachers who do not know their field, musicians unworthy of the title, and artists who produce trash praised as life changing epitaphs that will stand in perpetuity as hallmarks of culture and intellectual sophistication. Or, perhaps, you do not need to imagine it. Perhaps, all that is needed is for all of us to look around at our mediocre world and cast an examining gaze at it through clear eyes to see the lies.

Worse yet, how will we Christians tell the world full of people who are wholly unaccustomed to criticism on even the most mundane of topics, that they are sinful in thought, word, and deed? Bringing people to Christ involves two messages: 1) God’s Law – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); 2) and God’s Gospel – “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:24).

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To go on through life without allowing those we love, those that are close to us, or those that know our field well to critically analyze us and our work, is akin to walking through this early life blind and unaided. The message of the Law is a shock to the system for all of us, more so if we have never been corrected or criticized. The message of the Gospel is foolishness, and, even more foolish if it is equated to the chorus of false praise that the world seems to send our way in a daily fashion.

So to my friend I say, show us your work. Praise for good work will be unstinted, but censure for bad work––or even not so good work––will probably be brutally frank. And that is the way it should be.

Finally, I give a heartfelt thank you to the reviewer at fathervision.com for reviewing Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace. The work you do at fathervision.com is important and valuable. God’s richest blessing to you as you continue serving Him who has called you out of the darkness into His marvelous light.

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One thought on “On Receiving Criticism: How Well Does the Critic Take His Own Medicine?

  1. The fear of criticism of one’s published work should not prevent an author from expressing himself or herself. Critics are not the final authority. Truth is the main component, even flawed truth. In the marketplace of ideas, each of us has an opinion to be aired, reviewed, explained, and yes…criticized. Many authors throughout history have been the subject of scathing criticism from the so called experts, yet their work managed to resonate with people. In the end, integrity and truth were articulated.

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