Skip to main content

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.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.