Shelley Curtis Weaver | 26 September 2023 |
About a month ago, I heard from someone with whom I’d lost touch in the course of busy lives, cross-country moves, and the passing of time. He’s a kind and trusted friend who has spent his career working in association with the Adventist church, making a meaningful impact on many lives. He and his family have meant a good deal to me and mine.
In the course of the conversation, he mentioned reading a few of the essays I’d contributed to Adventist Today. He was generally positive and affirming of the topics and my wrestling with them. Then, there was a slight pause and he hesitantly added, “I don’t know. . . I generally find Adventist Today to be, well, a little prone to ranting… I mean, it’s just a little heavy on the criticism and complaining, I find.”
I agreed this was worthy of consideration, though I didn’t mention there were certainly plenty of Adventist publications from which he might get cheerful, uncritical news and positive, Adventist-friendly information. We moved on to other discussions of our kids and the puzzle of new generations’ finding their way in the wide world, work and summer plans, and we sent our well-wishes and greetings to each other’s spouses and kids.
Criticism isn’t complaint
Afterwards, I pondered his observation, and it occurred to me that perhaps he—indeed, many of us—don’t really understand the purpose and function of criticism.
I recall my surprise as a fledgling college English major to see a course in my bulletin titled “Literary Analysis and Criticism.” Who was I, an eighteen-year-old from Washakie County, Wyoming, to criticize the literary greats? And who indeed, for that matter, are the rank-and-file church members, the pen-scratchers and keyboard-tappers, to take on the decisions, policies, structure, and leadership of the Advent movement?
Many who read the independent Adventist press might wonder the same about articles and features that seem critical of the church. Isn’t criticism unchristian? Many church leaders are claiming as much.
Writers aren’t the only Adventists, or Christians at large, for that matter, facing the objection that it’s unchristian to assess and hold religious (or political) leaders accountable for what they say and do. It is a valid question to examine. When some disciples inquired or complained about other disciples, Jesus was pretty firm in his “mind your own business” response.
But the concept of criticism has a broader application than mere complaint.
I learned in my Literary Analysis and Criticism class that each piece we read and examined was viewed through the lens of the structure, substance, and style which had evolved through the centuries of English literature. In other words, without attacking or deriding a writer personally, we studied and assessed the work in the context of the whole tradition. We held it to its own highest standards, and in doing so we sought to defend and comprehend it. Since we had chosen to invest our time, effort, talent, and tuition to pursue this degree, since we studied and wrote about English literature because we loved it, we ought to know how to analyze our subject. By assessing and criticizing writing, we were actually learning to defend what was essential to our discipline.
The same may be said about the best critiques of the church. Those who value religious experience and community rightly expect integrity and responsiveness from their church and its leaders. And sometimes that means assessing its actions and holding it responsible for those words and actions.
Keening, protest and recovery
It was in my consideration of the art of criticism that I stumbled upon another concept that helped me understand the role of criticism in faith and faithfulness.
When Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor died two months ago, there followed a flood of articles discussing her art and lifetime. One of the most intriguing discussions of her life and work appeared on the NPR website, in an article by Jason King. Instead of jumping into the chorus of journalists hitting the highlights of her playlist and her protest of sexual abuse in the church, King pointed to O’Connor’s lesser known advocacy for racial justice. In a powerful description, King explains her advocacy by employing a term from her tradition of faith:
O’Connor connected her interest in Black liberation to her Irish aesthetic sensibilities. Given her penchant for singing songs to honor the dead, she was a kind of pop star as “keener”: an Irish woman traditionally hired to wail and cry songs of lament at wakes and funerals.
“Keener” is a fascinating title to assign Sinéad O’Connor, given that King also quotes O’Connor herself describing “her unrestrained singing on ‘The Lion and the Cobra’ as ‘ranting and raving.’” The tradition of public mourning is certainly not exclusive to the Irish. Many cultures have a vocal and formal body of public mourners who give loud voice to grief and loss.
An examination of the concept of keening may also be helpful in explaining why criticism has more substance, and more value than simple venting or “ranting.” To keen is to publicly express the breach and the void, the anguish and rage against death and separation. Audible anguish seeks audience with our Creator, and voices our protest that evil, suffering, and death is not what God meant for our world.
Similarly, criticism aimed at an institution or leadership in a tradition we have valued and loved, cries out at the loss of fidelity to our mission, identity, and calling. It mourns aloud and calls for restitution, or perhaps even a renovation of our values.
The writer’s guidelines of Adventist Today urge a balance of criticism with appreciation for what is good and meaningful within the church. Good criticism, like keening and protest, must be motivated by a longing for restoration and redemption. To the objection that criticism of this sort is “unchristian” or unbiblical, I would recommend the example of Jesus himself, who condemned the abuse of the poor in the courts of the temple. The motive behind his literal “lashing-out” was that those in greatest need were being cheated in the very structure built to represent God’s presence, care, and saving grace.
We might also see his anguish over Jerusalem as a powerful keening: a loud cry emerging from the anguish of rejection and unrequited love. The longing of Jesus to embrace and care for humanity is especially painful as he nears his last days physically among them. His keening over that loss was no less passionate than his weeping at the tomb of a friend who had died.
Of course, we who write, analyze, and yes, criticize would not place ourselves on par with Jesus or the host of prophets and poets in the scriptures who also mourned and rejoiced, cautioned and celebrated, keened and rebuked humanity. Ideally, though, we do aim for the same goals and are called by the same spirit. At our best, we embrace the charge of one of our most powerful predecessors: the prophet Micah, who sets up a high bar of responsibility where human effort and behavior is concerned.
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness [in many versions— mercy], and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8 (NRSV)
A challenge to the church
As we rant, criticize, or keen over the ways Christianity, Adventism, leaders, and followers fall short of ethical conduct and eternal values, we aim to do justice. We challenge the church to honor both its traditions and its potential. More importantly, we strive to examine with honesty the ways the church has done harm, intentionally or not, in order to end wrongdoing.
We also embrace mercy and kindness. We do not criticize to burn everything to the ground and stand alone in the ashes of our certainty. That’s actually a mindset most of us write to oppose. Mercy claims the promise that hearts, minds, and behaviors can change. In the process of becoming the harmonious body of Christ, many different parts and perspectives must learn to coexist and work out their differences.
To that end, for both the critic and the church, mercy is essential.
This last requirement is definitely the most important and most difficult. The call for humility is inseparably paired with the act of walking with God. We are not just humble; we are humble in the company and context of a near and relational God. This is what gives us wisdom, and binds us to examine the motives and methods by which we pursue justice and extend mercy. It grants us peace and purpose when we conduct our efforts well, and gives us the humor and grace to manage those times when we are rightly or wrongly rebuked as a “troubler of Israel.”
All of this, clearly, is my own point of view on this side of keyboards and websites. But I believe that the responsible act of criticism has significant spiritual weight. Without freedom of speech and expression, there really can exist no free choice or free will. When ideas and arguments must be softened, stifled, or camouflaged to maintain a facade of orthodoxy, shore up appearances, or keep the peace, truth becomes a casualty, and cannot set us free.
Shelley Curtis Weaver lives in coastal Washington state. She is a clay-artist, writer, wife, mother, grandmother, and a frequenter of Columbia River crossings. She has edited and contributed to The Journey to Wholeness Addiction Recovery curriculum from AdventSource.