A Friendly Note to My Critics
By Brian McLaren
You would think after 24 years of serving as a pastor I would get used to it. You would think I would get a thick skin so that criticism wouldn’t bother me. But I confess that I am disheartened by some forms of criticism. Obviously, I am aware of the fact that some of my ideas are controversial. I believe that all controversial ideas need plenty of scrutiny – as do many non-controversial ones. I do not in any way think I am above scrutiny, and I have been wrong enough times in my life to be sure that I will need ongoing correction for the rest of my life.
I struggle more whenever a new book comes out. Books are like kids, and the release of a new book is like sending your child off to school for the first time. You don’t want her to get made fun of for her thick glasses and braces. You know she’s a little clumsy and overweight, but you don’t want her to be chosen last for the team or called mean names. You don’t want her to get pushed around on the playground by the local bullies. You see her potential, and you hope that others will, and it hurts when they judge her by her looks, or when they make her the focus of their faultfinding mission. Of course she’s not perfect, but you know she has value and you hate to see her treated badly.
Thankfully, some criticism comes in a truly constructive way – it helps me, informs me, and helps me be a better person, writer, and Christian. In my most recent book, for example, The Secret Message of Jesus, a few readers pointed out a few small factual errors in the text. Thankfully, those mistakes were not substantial, and they will be corrected in future editions.
So it’s not the helpful pointing out of factual errors that disheartens me; it’s the unfair, inaccurate, unreflective, and mean-spirited responses – especially when they are done in the name of God. I imagine that some fair-minded people who deeply disagree with my books also wince at the way less fair-minded people critique me or my work.
When people who claim to love the Bible launch unfair, inaccurate, unreflective, and mean-spirited attacks, especially when they do so on a public and international forum like the internet, they are not only hurting me and sometimes my readers (which they may not care about) – they may also be hurting the cause of Christ (which they do care about). After all, the Bible clearly says we must not bear false witness, spread rumors, or indulge in uncharitable or unwholesome speech. It says we should do to others as they do to us and act justly. It asserts that our love for one another reflects on the credibility of our message. It tells us we should examine ourselves and look at obstructions our own eyes (which would include flaws in our own viewpoint or perspective) before we try to perform eye surgery on someone else. This kind of behavior among people who claim to love the Bible, Jesus, Christianity, orthodoxy, and truth brings dishonor on these very things.
So, in a fraternal and hopeful spirit, I would like to make several requests of my critics.
1. Accuracy: I repeatedly read people claiming, “McLaren says…” or “McLaren believes…” when I have either never said what they claim or explicitly denied it. Or they make exaggerated statements like, “McLaren doesn’t believe anything,” or “He questions everything.” Even though you think I’m wrong, may I ask you to accurately represent me, and not push what I say to an absurd extreme that any sane person would reject?
2. Fairness: Sometimes people accurately quote one sentence, or part of one sentence that I have written, and then use it to claim I am being imbalanced or dualistic or reductionistic, and so on. I often go back and check the sentences or phrases they quote, and then I notice that in the very next sentence or paragraph, I qualify or balance or add nuance to what they have quoted. If you are on a fault-finding mission, you will quote the first sentence and ignore the second, but if you are pursuing fairness – as an expression of your own integrity and good character, can I ask you to seek to be more fair?
As well, may I politely ask you in the interest of fairness to avoid guilt-by-association? This works two ways. First, I read and quote a wide variety of people. More than that, I try to build friendships with people with whom I disagree. With increasing frequency, I find that people are attacking me because I keep company with certain people (and even speak with them) or I quote someone who we would both agree is wrong on many counts. Since Jesus was a friend of sinners, and since Paul quoted “pagan” poets on more than one occasion, can I ask you to refrain from using guilt by association in your critique? Second, I find critics attacking other people merely for keeping company with me or listening to me. Be assured, people often are kind enough to speak with me or quote me on occasion even though they disagree with me on other points. I hope you won’t criticize them for doing so. Perhaps they’ll have a good influence on me!
3. Judgmentalism: There is a difference between truthfully reporting a statement and uncharitably inferring a motive. So when people say, “McLaren shows contempt for the Bible,” or “McLaren is a coward because he didn’t answer my question directly,” or “McLaren thinks he is better than everyone else,” that seems less like an act of reporting or analysis and more like violating Jesus’ command not to judge. In Paul’s famous love passage, he says that “love believes all things,” which seems to mean that love believes the best – it tries to interpret other people’s behavior not cynically, but charitably, graciously giving the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, Jesus sums up the law and prophets by teaching us to treat others as we would be treated. Unless you would like others to jump to conclusions about your motives and assume the worst about you, may I ask you to fairly and accurately engage with my ideas, but try to avoid making judgments about things you simply do not know – my heart, my motives, my intentions?
4. Rumors: It is quite distressing to see inaccurate or unfair or judgmental things said about my writings or my own character. But it is even worse when these rumors are passed around as facts. Recently, I’ve read a number of reviews by people who admit they have never read my books, but are working from hearsay. Please don’t spread rumors, and please don’t believe unsubstantiated claims.
5. Lack of Self-examination: Those who attack my ideas often do so in a way that shows they haven’t really examined themselves. For example, someone recently criticized some of my writings in ways opposite to what I’m requesting here. Then he quoted a Bible verse to refute what he claimed to be my position. (Sadly, he had misinterpreted my actual position, so he was attacking a straw man.) Interestingly, the Bible verse he referred to actually contradicts the position he claimed to hold. Even if I am wrong in my view, this kind of unreflective reaction is a bad reflection on the Christian faith. So please, if you use a Bible verse to try to refute me, first see if it actually supports your own position.
6. Name-calling. Words and phrases like “liberal,” “heretic,” “of the devil,” “Satanic,” “fundamentalist,” and so on are very effective in discrediting someone, but they are also rather childish and unhelpful and divisive. Those of us who are parents don’t like our children calling each other names in this way, and I am quite certain God has similar feelings when we resort to name-calling.
7. Harshness: In 2 Timothy 2, Paul advises his younger associate to use gentleness when he seeks to correct people in error. I’ve noticed that whenever I am harsh with people, I am less likely to gain a hearing for my message. In fact, some of your frustration with me may come exactly from times when I have been harsh, which I sincerely regret. If you are hoping to correct me or people who feel they have been helped my books, may I ask that you do so with gentleness? That way, if you’re completely right in your correction, you’ll increase the chances that we’ll listen. You’ll allow us to respond to the truth of your corrections rather than drive us away with the spirit in which you express them. And if you are not completely right, you will have made it easy for there to be constructive dialogue so that we can all grow through our interchange – instead of filling the body of Christ with the toxins of attack, defense, counterattack, and so on.
8. Disharmony: I’ve noticed that intelligent people often use a “but” when they could more profitably use an “and.” For example, I might make a statement that is true and accurate and needed as far as it goes. But obviously, that one statement still doesn’t say everything that needs to be said. So, someone else can wisely and helpfully add the word “and,” and build on what I’ve said, contributing balance, depth, nuance, and so on. This is how good conversation progresses. But if she instead implies I am stupid or wrong or dishonest for not saying both what I said and what she wishes to add, that strikes me as unhelpful. She has a chance to work in teamwork with me for the common good, but instead she chooses to set us up as enemies. I love Paul’s words in this regard in 1 Thessalonians 5: “Therefore, let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding,” or his words in Ephesians 4: “Be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
In that light, I want to say again that wherever I have been harsh in any of my writings, whenever I have come across to you as divisive and disrespectful, I am truly sorry. These eight requests are communication practices to which I aspire, but sadly, I fail to practice them at times. So of course I will endeavor to be gracious to those who fail to meet these ideals, since I stand in need of grace myself. I have made it my policy to avoid name-calling or even naming individuals in a negative light. I have tried to present my ideas with humility so that others do not feel shamed or insulted in any way. But I am sure that I have failed on more occasions than I realize. I have many regrets in my life, many of which relate to the way of I have critiqued others. Looking back, I have never been proud of even one time when I have been harsh, sarcastic, or disrespectful in my words or attitudes to other human beings.
So I want to assure you, if you find yourself among those who deeply disagree with me, that I mean you no harm. I repeatedly tell people, if they are happy and confident in your approach, that they stay with it and ignore me, my work, and my friends entirely. I am not here to steal any of your “market share” or do you harm in any way. Instead, I’m here for all the people who can’t survive following your way of thinking and your way of doing things. These people, many of them, are about to leave the church and the Christian faith entirely. Many have already left in disillusionment. Many are seekers with lots of issues, the kinds of people for whom your churches aren’t ready, nor are they ready for you. You may consider them apostates or pagans or whatever, but these are the people I feel some calling to help – so they can be connected to Christ and his mission even though they can’t function in the religious settings over which you preside or in which you are yourselves sincerely satisfied and blessed. I am not your enemy. I see myself as your colleague, just as Paul, who consented to work with Gentiles at the margins, was the colleague of the apostles in Jerusalem, who continued to focus on serving the Jewish community.
Paul wisely said in Galatians 5 that we must be careful. If we bite and devour one another, we will consume one another. Jesus similarly said that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Yes, there is a place for mature and direct debate, but a person’s attempt to correct another’s errors can in some cases create more trouble than the original person’s errors. I hope we who disagree on some matters can agree to work together to avoid that sort of vicious cycle.
Whenever I am shown to be wrong, I pray that my love for God and God’s truth will lead me to side joyfully with my critics against my own writings. But until I am convinced that I am wrong, all I can do is seek to tell the truth as I see it, and raise questions that I believe must be raised, with appropriate humility and openness to correction, while pleading with those who disagree to do so in ways that will not harm the communities and values we all cherish.
Whether or not you agree with these requests, be assured that I am committed to prayerful self-examination in light of all critique, and I seek to learn from all attempts to help or instruct me, even if those attempts come out in a less-than-ideal way. When critiques are obviously unfair or intentionally malicious, I hope I can receive them as opportunities to grow in my Christian character and follow the example of Christ, whose gracious response to mistreatment is one of the ways he fully and perfectly revealed the gracious character of God.
So in summary, I hope that if you are among my good Christian critics, you will aspire to be a good Christian in the way you respond to my writings, even if you think I am a bad Christian for what I write or the questions I raise. We have a chance to model constructive dialogue rather than the religious bickering which has too often characterized all our religious communities. Even if I am as wrong you think I am, what good would it be to prove a wrong person wrong if in the process right people prove themselves mean-spirited, unfair, unreflective, inaccurate, dishonest, or hypocritical?
One final request. I hope that none of us will spend so much time in internal debate about our beliefs that we neglect putting our beliefs into action. It would be tragic for both you and me if our differences distracted us and others from what religion is supposed to be about: helping widows and orphans and others in need, and keeping ourselves “unspotted from the world,” as James says.
There is much more that could be said, but I fear this is already far too long. Please feel free to link to this note or pass it on to people for whom you believe it would be helpful.