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

July 27, 2010

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)

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2010 10:11 am

    I think you are absolutely right, Anna, to be advocating loving AND honest assessments, two qualities which are so easy to separate. Sometimes the tough truth has to be told, as Simon Cowell does.

    But of course Christians can go much further with their constructive criticism. Allow me to put this in the metaphor of theatrical improvisation.

    Consider the opportunity to offer constructive criticism as an “offer” to which you need to respond on stage. For the improviser, there are three options. You can block the offer, which would be not to give any criticism because it would be too hard. The second option would be to accept the offer, giving criticism in a loving but honest manner as you have suggested. But I think a third option might be to overaccept the offer, in other words, approaching the situation with Christian imagination and going further than expected. This person might not be a good writer, but maybe they have a gift that could be developed? How can that be encouraged? This person may not be able to sing, but what other gifts do they have, and how can those be encouraged?

    The problem with Simon Cowell is that he either blocks or accepts, but rarely overaccepts. Christians are especially poised to overaccept because we believe everyone is created in the image of God with unique capabilities. We should definitely call things as they are, but let’s do so in a spirit of overacceptance!

    • Jim permalink*
      July 27, 2010 11:07 am

      Wes, your idea of overaccpetance is interesting, and I see how it could be taken on as an important Christian practice within the church. The church offers many ways in which a person can participate and so a careful and creative pastor may be able to redirect someone who would like to serve in one way (say, singing), toward another (say, children’s ministry). And perhaps another way to look at overacceptance would a pastor who encourages and maybe even actively helps his parishioners to develop their abilities (in the hope that one day he or she will be ready to sing for the church).

      It occurs to me that Simon Cowell (at least as I have seen him on Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol) is not in a position to overaccept an offer. The whole premise of the show is to find the most talented person or the best singer/performer. What is more, the show assumes a context for the “most talented person” and “the best singer/performer,” such that it is the “most talented person who can perform on this stage, in front of this audience, and succeed (after the show) within this commercial infrastructure.” In other words, it seems to me that these TV shows play a little bit of slight of hand by offering to find the “best” whatever, and allowing us to live in the illusion that best is to be understood universally, but not within the context that Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol creates for it.

      So another way to use overacceptance might be to say, “well, this theatre is probably not the best context for the play you have written, but there is another theatre (or somekind of venue) across town that it may work for. Here is their phone number.” But I can still imagine that a problem comes in when the person, whose skill or project is in question, insists that it is an excellent fit for the particular context. Then, it seems to me, that one of the best things the reviewer can say is “no, what you have done will not work (for the following reasons), please go work on it some more, and, if you like, you can bring it back so I can look at it again.” Even here there is a bit of overacceptance because of the possibility of working on the project more. It is unfortunate though that, often, reviewers, and perhaps Simon Cowell is one of them, are not in a position to even say that they will look at it again at a later point in time. It appears that they are asked to cast their judgment, and that no dialogue is possible. I wonder if the form that many criticisms and reviews take is as much to blame as is the attitude of the reviewer him or herself.

      PS: I have no idea whether Simon Cowell would actually engage in what you have called overacceptance, I’m just trying to point out another facet of this issue.

    • July 27, 2010 11:13 am

      Wes, what advice (especially if it is different to mine) would you give to my friend faced with reviewing this book, in light of “overacceptance.”

  2. July 27, 2010 2:55 pm

    Actually, I think your suggestions were quite good, Anna, especially the one about contacting the writer personally if there are some pretty heavy criticisms, and giving honest and loving suggestions of how to improve. Of course, if this person knew the writer better, it would be possible to encourage and/or challenge in an ever more personal way, with a view toward long-term growth or encouragement toward taking up a different form of expression. Maybe this person is not cut out to write reviews, but he or she would be great at writing other things. Or maybe they just need some honest and loving direction. I think all of this can be involved in overaccepting.

  3. Chaplain MediaCityUK & The Anchor permalink
    January 17, 2011 10:33 am

    Proverbs is packed with stuff about speaking the truth but my farourites are:

    Prov 24:26 An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.

    Prov 28:23 Correct someone, and afterward he will appreciate it more than flattery.

    Prov 31:26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue

    • Anna permalink*
      January 18, 2011 5:30 am

      Thanks for reminding us all of these verses. How do you feel we should apply these in relation to offering helpful criticism in the context of the arts and more generally in the church? A.

      • Chaplain MediaCityUK & The Anchor permalink
        January 19, 2011 3:59 pm

        I think first of all we need to move away from thinking that we are in ‘the family’ and that if one of our members does something, just like a little child does, you tell them it’s wonderful and stick it on the fridge and they feel adored and affirmed.

        There seems to be an unspoken idea that if another Christian did/made/sang/wrote it then it must be included/used irrespective of calibre/gifting. I think it comes from the idea that if it was created from a heart of worship then that is all that matters. In some sense this is true, of course, but it does depend upon the audience/viewer of said piece and what it is being used for.

        I guess we have to learn to be able to do the secular criticism sandwich (praise, criticism, praise) constructively in a non-directive way – you know, ‘I love the way you use colour. I’m not so sure about the persepctive, that building in the background seems to look larger that the one in the foreground, but the movement and colour really capture the mood. What do you think?’

        Given that opportunity we can then admit that we struggled to do x or y and feel more able to ask for suggestions as opposed to being told that the perspective is wrong and how we should amend it.

        Christians can be awfully bossy! On the other hand, we also need to be less sensitive and more open to constructive criticism. The trouble is, anything born from a worshipping heart has something of that person’s soul in it, and objective criticism will be walking over extremely sensitive ground. Still, I for one am looking forward to suggestions as to how I could have made this reply shorter in order that my blogging might improve! ;D

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