Keepin’ it real; or What Simon Cowell has to do with being a Christian critic

Earlier this week I found out that Simon Cowell is being sued by a participant of Britain’s Got Talent for telling her she couldn’t sing. While Cowell’s style is not always kind or gentle, he certainly cannot be accused of being anything other than direct. There’s a frightening epidemic of people, inside and outside the church who seem to live in a bewildering land of make-believe when it comes to assessments of their own talents and gifts.

The same day as I found out about Cowell’s court case, a friend of mine asked for advice this week as he was preparing to review a novel by a Christian missionary. The review is to be published alongside an author profile in a denominational publication with a large distribution. He asked how he should proceed, seeing as the novel was, well, not that great. The prose was filled with an overabundance of adjectives, including long alliterative lists and the dialogue was stilted. But what to do? How does he tell the truth in love, and explain that for a first novel, it is really quite ordinary?

When considering what to do in this situation, I ran through a list of alternatives: If it’s really that bad, can you ask your editor not to review it at all? Or, as someone else suggested, could you fake a “my dog ate the book” to get yourself out of the situation? The first wasn’t an option in this case because of the other needs of the publication.

But if you do have to review a book, or a gallery show, or a movie, made by anyone (but specifically by a Christian artist) that really begs for constructive criticism rather than overwhelming praise, how do we go about it? Do we just ignore the faults and pat everyone of the back saying “well, you tried hard.” Is that really what we are aiming for? I found Alan Noble’s incisive piece on why it is important to be a Critical Christian quite helpful on this point:

This fear of criticizing is dangerous to the Church and fundamentally unbiblical. We need to recall the plea of the writer of Hebrews to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24). Notice that this verse does not ask us to stir each other up to love and works made with good effort, or good intentions, or works which praise God, but good works (the Greek word for “good” here, kalos, can also be translated “beautiful”). Whether it is a worship song, a Christian movie, a band, a photograph, a skit, a choir, a painting, whatever we make for God’s glory, we should be working to make it good and beautiful. And when we find that our brothers and sister’s in Christ are struggling to make works of excellence, we should feel comfortable, lovingly stirring them up to mature in their works. This is important to the Church as a whole, to individuals, and to our relationships.

Alan also offers three practical suggestions for being a truthful critic within the context of the church: studying the medium and genre of the creation, being careful not to confuse aesthetics with taste, and remembering the goal is to encourage in a loving way good and beautiful works.

My suggestion to my book reviewing friend was to be honest. In the first instance, if you have been asked to review a work by an author, direct your remarks to them personally (not in print) if you are predominantly critical. If this isn’t an option, I would always suggest that either declining to review or suggesting to the publication that the book is not of sufficient quality, rather than simply feigning or avoiding the assignment is the better course of action. In this respect, maybe it’s a little like the discussion about serving clients with bad taste.

If you do have to write a review that will be going to press, be honest and graceful but not sycophantic. If the story is compelling, say so, but if the dialogue and style need work maybe you could gently suggest that they needed a heavier hand in the editing phase and that you look forward to seeing stylistics issues worked out in the course of further writing. Indicate positives, however slight alongside the negatives.

Finally, it is somewhat astonishing to me why we think as Christians that we shouldn’t be honest and call it like it is. If we don’t, we are not telling the truth, or being loving, or ultimately honoring God. It’s much more loving to be constructively critical than telling them they are the next Salman Rushdie or Eavan Boland, and much more helpful to the creation of fine works of art to be constructive in your criticism. There is always room for improvement. There’s also room for honest, loving assessments. Maybe then Simon Cowell wouldn’t be getting sued for telling someone they couldn’t sing when, for all the world, and in the words of the other judges, she really couldn’t carry a tune.

Image by qthomasbower (creative commons licence)

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