First, Read Charitably: Towards an Ethic of Criticism

Being critical in the sense of articulating a negative assessment or deconstructing a work, like a piece of writing, is easy. It is easy to point out the absences, the flaws and the failings of a work. Sometimes they need to be pointed out. Sometimes elucidation of the holes and cracks in a work or an argument is essential to its eventual bearing of fruit.

But, I wonder whether in having “tearing down” as a default position in “criticism,” do we also lose some of own humanity? Is there another way? Another default path?

Lori Branch suggests a “scholarship of metanoia (change of mind and heart)” whereby one turns a “humble, critical gaze” on oneself as much as “on the so-called object of its criticism, and that seeks to love those texts and those Others about whom it writes.” [1]

What I am not saying is that we default to a sugar-coated rhetoric whereby we reassert the cultural norms of “self-esteem building” as the best end. I wrote about this in an one of my early Transpositions articles: Keepin’ it real; or What Simon Cowell has to do with being a Christian critic.

Rather, I’m swayed strongly by an ethic of charity and reading charitably. What do I mean by “reading” charitably?

Reading charitably is to reflect fairly the arguments and approach of the scholar or artist and first consider them on their own terms prior to making judgements on your terms as the critic or considering the significance of the artistic work or scholarly endeavour for the broader field or for society. Enjoyment, fun, and personal taste must enter in somewhere, but we need to be careful generalising matters of taste or aesthetic enjoyment to universal levels.

So, if I could put my working statement of a Christian ethic of criticism into a sentence it would be this:

A Critic should seek to articulate truth-filled assessments about artistic works and experiences within the realm of the critic’s experience and expertise, expressed appropriately in love.

A few words about “appropriateness” to context. I don’t really think I should read less charitably when reading a blog, or when reading a scholarly article or book than when I’m listening to a talk or in a face-to-face conversation. This argument that there are fora in which we should be charitable and others which, regardless of whether you are a Christian or not, are a free-for-all is not at all convincing to me. Rigorous debate and strident, healthy, animated, thoughtful discussion: yes. I’m all for that. But, I’m not convinced by the cognitive dissonance of behaving in one way when someone is in front of you and a different way behind their back (or when they are not physically present as in digital communications). There are appropriate ways and fora for certain kinds of communication and to that we need to be sensible, but not to the end of cherry-picking our ethical approach.

We also, I think, have lost some of the sensitivity to that which is jarring to our sense of the holy, the worthy, and the good. This is not some plea for Puritanism. It is rather a plea about context. It is a plea not merely to accept the depiction of violence, of gratuitous nudity and sexual acts, declaring it as “just the way television or movies or books are.” Exploring the darkest reaches of the soul is  the important concern of many artists. But what is even more important is the way the arts (including literature) have the capability to encounter the Other and to delve the truths of humanity: the reality of suffering, the desire for relationship, the complexity of the human spirit, courage and the ability of human beings to triumph amidst great suffering, the brokenness of humanity, and the possibility of redemption.

To this end, I also recommend Wes Vander Lugt’s post “Learning to be Critics With Our Hands and Feet” from last year.

Your thoughts?

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[1] Monta, Susannah Brietz. “Introduction.” Religion & Literature 41.2 (2009): 1-11. Print. 5

Image Credit: Used with Permission SXC

5 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    “I don’t really think I should read less charitably when reading a blog, or when reading a scholarly article or book than when I’m listening to a talk or in a face-to-face conversation.”

    Yes. Yes, yes, yes.

    I remember discussing the role of the critic while a theatre student at NYU, and the stance that received the most agreement was the following: First, determine what the artist was aiming for, and then determine whether or not he achieved it. This stance requires first receiving the artist’s goals and intentions, instead of trying to measure his work by a standard alien to it. This stance also easily leads to “constructive” criticism, where the critic is able to suggest how the work could have been improved to match the artist’s goals – and also leads the critic toward an affirmation of the places where he did achieve his goals.

    The critic should always ask herself: What is the good I am trying to accomplish with this review? Even negative criticism should have a positive outcome in mind, whether to give the artist feedback that he can use to improve his work, or to warn audience members away from a piece they will not enjoy, etc. My most enjoyable role as a critic is to introduce readers to a new friend, to share an artist whom I love with others.

  • Michael Carter says:

    Excellent article! Thank you. Your working statement is well-crafted, particularly- “within the realm of the critic’s experience and expertise”. Too many ‘immature’ opinions have stifled creativity, especially for students.

  • Jill McFadden says:

    Thanks for this. Your post brought to mind a couple of resources that helped me think about interpreting and critiquing charitably. They are most specifically responses to current literary theory and refer primarily to the act of interpretation while reading, but I think the themes can be applied to our ‘reading’ of all types of art.

    On developing a ‘hermeneutic of love’:

    1) Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.
    http://www.amazon.com/Theology-Reading-Hermeneutics-Radical-Traditions/dp/081336566X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1309968391&sr=8-1

    2) Valentine Cunningham, Reading After Theory (ch.9, “Touching Reading”)
    http://www.amazon.com/Reading-After-Theory-Blackwell-Manifestos/dp/0631221689/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309968483&sr=1-1#_

  • Steve Schuler says:

    Anna, having studied under one DLJ, this has a happily familiar ring to it.

    In principle, I think the idea of “charitable reading” is true and important. I just haven’t yet been able to articulate some of the details satisfactorily.

    My first question concerns this: “. . . expressed appropriately in love.” Given that love requires an object, love for whom or for what specifically? For the work itself? For the author? For God?

    I think Cole’s response is spot-on. One’s approach to criticism is largely driven by the kinds of questions one asks. Beginning with, “what is the aim of the work?” is rather different from beginning with, “did the work express views similar to my own?” The problem in assessing old works, of course, is that the critic is forced to infer the intent from the work itself, and perhaps from the context, which is a difficult and sometimes impossible task. What WAS Euripides trying to do, after all? Or the Beowulf poet? In some cases, we simply don’t know. I hope that such ignorance of the author’s personal aims doesn’t prevent us from reading charitably. I also hope that reading charitably might still allow us to see things in a work that the artist doesn’t know that he or she put there.

  • Dave says:

    Well said! I am certainly guilty of dwelling first on the negative, and sometimes only on the negative, not only in my critique of art, but also of culture. Perhaps we should spend more effort articulating what we are for than what we are against.

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