Dealing With Criticism

On a recent trip to Florida on a BridgeBuilders assignment , I spent an evening with some Methodist brothers who had been reading some of my books and wanted to come down for an evening of conversation. I had a fabulous time! It reminds me all over again that there are great people on this relational journey who serve with great grace among those in more traditional congregations. It does well to remind us all that living outside the box, isn’t about stopping Sunday morning attendance, but living alongside the Resurrected Christ wherever he places us in his family.

One of those brothers had been reading a book of letters by Swiss theologian Karl Barth from the 1960s. I loved what he was saying about it and he made me a copy. This was in response to a seminary professor who wanted to send Dr. Barth some questions on behalf of Christianity Today. Now I haven’t read Karl Barth in years and am not even sure what his particular theological bent was that riled up the evangelicals in the States. So, this is certainly no defense of his theology, but it is celebration of his wisdom for dealing with criticism. Not all who criticize are looking for truth, and you don’t have to fall victim to the ‘orthodoxy’ crowd that it is only interested in proving a point and not growing in the Truth. I thought others of you might enjoy reading some excerpts from it:

Please excuse me and please try to understand that I cannot and will not answer the questions these people put.

To do so in the time requested would in any case be impossible for me…. But even if I had the time and strength, I would not enter into a discussion of the questions proposed.

Such a discussion would have to rest on the primary presupposition that those who ask the questions have read, learned, and pondered the many things I have already said and written about these matters. They have obviously not done this… But I cannot respect the questions of these people from Christianity Today, for they do not focus on the reasons for my statements but on certain foolishly drawn deductions from them. Their questions are thus superficial.

The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and to the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me.

…These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.
Karl Barth (From Karl Barth, Letters: 1961-1968)

After a few hundred emails, it is pretty easy to tell those people who have serious questions and concerns and want to engage in honest dialog, and those who demand a one-sided conversation to defend their views and mischaracterize mine. I love dialog with the first. I think dear brothers and sisters can disagree about a lot of things and find meaningful and graceful dialog through those differences.

The second, however, act just like Pharisees, always straining at the smallest issue while missing the bigger picture of God’s grace and love. They don’t listen to others but act as prosecutors to prove my knowledge is deficient to theirs. I like Barth’s approach here. You don’t have to engage that conversation, for it will not bear fruit in either life.

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30 Comments
  1. Phebe August 20, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Well said. Reminded me of these lines from Kingdom, Grace, Judgment by Robert Farrar Capon writing about the parable of the sower: “If you have any feeling for the way narrow minds work, you will realize that the Sower, as told, would immediately strike such minds as reeking of the catholicity they had spent their entire religious lives deploring. People who are that narrow do not really listen to what someone says; rather, they sniff at his words — the check them over to spot the squishy, rotten spots through which ideas they hate might seep in.”

  2. Phebe August 20, 2008 at 1:54 pm

    Well said. Reminded me of these lines from Kingdom, Grace, Judgment by Robert Farrar Capon writing about the parable of the sower: “If you have any feeling for the way narrow minds work, you will realize that the Sower, as told, would immediately strike such minds as reeking of the catholicity they had spent their entire religious lives deploring. People who are that narrow do not really listen to what someone says; rather, they sniff at his words — the check them over to spot the squishy, rotten spots through which ideas they hate might seep in.”

  3. kent August 20, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Karl Barth has indirectly had a great influence on my relationship with Father and how I live in the world because he has had a great influence on many of the brothers and sisters that have been helpful in my journey over the past few years. His name has come up often.

  4. Nils August 20, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    What great wisdom!

  5. kent August 20, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Karl Barth has indirectly had a great influence on my relationship with Father and how I live in the world because he has had a great influence on many of the brothers and sisters that have been helpful in my journey over the past few years. His name has come up often.

  6. Nils August 20, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    What great wisdom!

  7. Bones August 21, 2008 at 6:02 am

    Barth hereby is added to my list of “must reads”!

    We’ve got to let the Spirit tell us when it is time to “answer a fool according to his folly”, and when it is time to “not answer a fool according to his folly.”

  8. todd August 21, 2008 at 6:17 am

    i rather enjoyed this…..thanks,

    T

  9. Kelly August 21, 2008 at 6:21 am

    It’s so sad that we humans are always arranging our paradigms and trying to rearrange others’ paradigms to match ours so we can prove that we are “in the right.” There is so much crippling fear involved for those “Pharisees!” I’ve stopped believing that right and wrong is the point (this was the point of Satan’s temptation in the Garden); it pulls us inevitably away from relationship. If relationship is the point, then addressing every point of criticism with an answer or a proof seems counterproductive. God doesn’t answer our critiques, does He?

  10. Bones August 21, 2008 at 9:02 am

    Barth hereby is added to my list of “must reads”!

    We’ve got to let the Spirit tell us when it is time to “answer a fool according to his folly”, and when it is time to “not answer a fool according to his folly.”

  11. todd August 21, 2008 at 9:17 am

    i rather enjoyed this…..thanks,

    T

  12. Kelly August 21, 2008 at 9:21 am

    It’s so sad that we humans are always arranging our paradigms and trying to rearrange others’ paradigms to match ours so we can prove that we are “in the right.” There is so much crippling fear involved for those “Pharisees!” I’ve stopped believing that right and wrong is the point (this was the point of Satan’s temptation in the Garden); it pulls us inevitably away from relationship. If relationship is the point, then addressing every point of criticism with an answer or a proof seems counterproductive. God doesn’t answer our critiques, does He?

  13. Don August 21, 2008 at 10:37 am

    My reason for liking the Shack is expressed by Oswald Chambers: “It is possible to know all about doctrine and still not know Jesus. A person’s soul is in grave danger when the knowledge of doctrine surpasses Jesus, avoiding intimate touch with Him.”

  14. Don August 21, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    My reason for liking the Shack is expressed by Oswald Chambers: “It is possible to know all about doctrine and still not know Jesus. A person’s soul is in grave danger when the knowledge of doctrine surpasses Jesus, avoiding intimate touch with Him.”

  15. Toby August 21, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    invited > instructed + informed

    It’s all about a love relationship!

  16. Toby August 21, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    invited > instructed + informed

    It’s all about a love relationship!

  17. Robin Sampson August 22, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for posting this Wayne. Those of us promoting the Shack can feel the heat.

    I read this helpful comment on The Shack forum:

    I believe scripture to be the plumbline. I think the idea that truth is relative is a chaotic idea. I remember a colleague at a Christian school said to me “I believe what the Bible says.” Everybody in every denomination or independent church, fellowship, club whatever you want to call it says that. You can have two responses to the confusion that arises from the fact that we arrive at different conclusions from the Bible on many issues.

    1. One is “I am right and everyone else is wrong because they do not know how to interpret scripture.”

    2. The other response is “Though I have tried to be faithful to this scripture, I am human and broken and bound to misunderstand some things. The fact that other sincere believers disagree with me means I have to continually ask the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and inform my mind as I go back to scripture again and again. I don’t have truth by the tail”

  18. Robin Sampson August 22, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks for posting this Wayne. Those of us promoting the Shack can feel the heat.

    I read this helpful comment on The Shack forum:

    I believe scripture to be the plumbline. I think the idea that truth is relative is a chaotic idea. I remember a colleague at a Christian school said to me “I believe what the Bible says.” Everybody in every denomination or independent church, fellowship, club whatever you want to call it says that. You can have two responses to the confusion that arises from the fact that we arrive at different conclusions from the Bible on many issues.

    1. One is “I am right and everyone else is wrong because they do not know how to interpret scripture.”

    2. The other response is “Though I have tried to be faithful to this scripture, I am human and broken and bound to misunderstand some things. The fact that other sincere believers disagree with me means I have to continually ask the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and inform my mind as I go back to scripture again and again. I don’t have truth by the tail”

  19. Dave A August 22, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    The freedom to walk away from those whose only desire is to divide and conquer. I love it. THanks.

  20. Chris Pack August 22, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    Wayne and Brad,

    I went to Wikipedia and read about Barth after listening to your show. There are some quotes out there, one of which is as follows:

    “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way.”

    Man, if that doesn’t say what you guys are talking about most of the time, then I don’t know what does.

    Blessings!

    Chris

  21. Dave A August 22, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    The freedom to walk away from those whose only desire is to divide and conquer. I love it. THanks.

  22. Chris Pack August 22, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    Wayne and Brad,

    I went to Wikipedia and read about Barth after listening to your show. There are some quotes out there, one of which is as follows:

    “Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way.”

    Man, if that doesn’t say what you guys are talking about most of the time, then I don’t know what does.

    Blessings!

    Chris

  23. Pam August 24, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Robin, I wrote that several weeks ago. The funny thing is as I read it again. I remember that the “I don’t have truth by the tail” bit came from Professor Phil Holtrop and Christ and Culture class at Calvin College in the early eighties. Reading some Barth was a part of that course. I don’t remember a lot of specifics about Barth’s theology, but I remember Prof. Holtrop repeating that line, “None of us have truth by the tail,” time and again, urging us to be gracious, keep thinking, and really setting our feet on a journey. I am so grateful for the many people Papa has put in my life. I’d forgotten about Dr. Holtrop.

  24. Pam August 24, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    Robin, I wrote that several weeks ago. The funny thing is as I read it again. I remember that the “I don’t have truth by the tail” bit came from Professor Phil Holtrop and Christ and Culture class at Calvin College in the early eighties. Reading some Barth was a part of that course. I don’t remember a lot of specifics about Barth’s theology, but I remember Prof. Holtrop repeating that line, “None of us have truth by the tail,” time and again, urging us to be gracious, keep thinking, and really setting our feet on a journey. I am so grateful for the many people Papa has put in my life. I’d forgotten about Dr. Holtrop.

  25. Lysle Myers August 29, 2008 at 10:01 am

    It’s sad that the only way some folk can feel good about themselves and what they believe is to knock anything cuts across that, often without allowing the Holy Spirit teach them anything from that which they criticize. I guess it shows how crippled they are in certain areas. We can trust Father to get throught to them and heal them in His perfect timing, but they do do a lot of damage in the meantime to those who rely on them for guidance.

    The Shack story has blessed me beyond belief, I recently finished reading it for the fourth time and got new wisdom’s again. I’ve no dought that when and if I read it again I will be taught something new by the Holy Spirit

  26. Lysle Myers August 29, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    It’s sad that the only way some folk can feel good about themselves and what they believe is to knock anything cuts across that, often without allowing the Holy Spirit teach them anything from that which they criticize. I guess it shows how crippled they are in certain areas. We can trust Father to get throught to them and heal them in His perfect timing, but they do do a lot of damage in the meantime to those who rely on them for guidance.

    The Shack story has blessed me beyond belief, I recently finished reading it for the fourth time and got new wisdom’s again. I’ve no dought that when and if I read it again I will be taught something new by the Holy Spirit

  27. Murray September 19, 2008 at 7:48 am

    While I have never read any of Karl Barth’s letters (something I will soon remedy) I find myself agreeing with what I percieve as the idea or premise behind the brief comments stated here. However, I also believe that the only way to open dialogue and break down barrieres is to engage in conversation and debate with those who would seek to “cling to their orthodoxy at all costs” and “act as prosecuting attorneys.” Isn’t this what Jesus did? Didn’t he go to the home of the tax collectors, sadducees, and pharisees? Didn’t he confront the ones who would stone the woman taken in adultry? Didn’t he meet with those that he knew in advance were out to trap him with his own words and were not interested at all in knowing the truth. And didn’t the truth either open their eyes or shut their mouths?

    My favorite statement in your book, So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore , occurs twice in your book and for me, sums up what our response should be in like situations. We see John make it in the beginning of the book, “You really have no idea what Jesus WAS like, do you?” Jake makes the same comment in the end of the book with one word change, “You really have no idea what Jesus IS like, do you?” We should welcome opposition, approach it willingly as John and Jake (and Jesus) did when they approached the hostile crowd, and then watch what God will do.

  28. Murray September 19, 2008 at 10:48 am

    While I have never read any of Karl Barth’s letters (something I will soon remedy) I find myself agreeing with what I percieve as the idea or premise behind the brief comments stated here. However, I also believe that the only way to open dialogue and break down barrieres is to engage in conversation and debate with those who would seek to “cling to their orthodoxy at all costs” and “act as prosecuting attorneys.” Isn’t this what Jesus did? Didn’t he go to the home of the tax collectors, sadducees, and pharisees? Didn’t he confront the ones who would stone the woman taken in adultry? Didn’t he meet with those that he knew in advance were out to trap him with his own words and were not interested at all in knowing the truth. And didn’t the truth either open their eyes or shut their mouths?

    My favorite statement in your book, So You Don’t Want To Go To Church Anymore , occurs twice in your book and for me, sums up what our response should be in like situations. We see John make it in the beginning of the book, “You really have no idea what Jesus WAS like, do you?” Jake makes the same comment in the end of the book with one word change, “You really have no idea what Jesus IS like, do you?” We should welcome opposition, approach it willingly as John and Jake (and Jesus) did when they approached the hostile crowd, and then watch what God will do.

  29. Wayne September 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm

    Murray,

    Thanks for your gracious words. Not sure I agree with your point, however. There are times and places to have conversations that are helpful and there are times and places to have debates that open people’s eyes. Jesus rarely confronts the Pharisees. They are usually confronting him and he responds however the moment demands.

    What I loved about Bart’s letter was him realizing the difference between a conversation that would give life and a set-up debate that would only bash his views without taking them seriously. He saw no need to participate in the game. I think we need to be sensitive to his leading about when to have the discussion and when it is just worthless to do so.

    Jesus lived with that grace. And there are times when he didn’t defend himself, knowing it would produce the opposite of what Father intended…

    Blessings,

    Wayne

  30. Wayne September 23, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    Murray,

    Thanks for your gracious words. Not sure I agree with your point, however. There are times and places to have conversations that are helpful and there are times and places to have debates that open people’s eyes. Jesus rarely confronts the Pharisees. They are usually confronting him and he responds however the moment demands.

    What I loved about Bart’s letter was him realizing the difference between a conversation that would give life and a set-up debate that would only bash his views without taking them seriously. He saw no need to participate in the game. I think we need to be sensitive to his leading about when to have the discussion and when it is just worthless to do so.

    Jesus lived with that grace. And there are times when he didn’t defend himself, knowing it would produce the opposite of what Father intended…

    Blessings,

    Wayne

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