Deafness, Good and Bad

Christians shouldn’t shut out the criticism of the world, but we shouldn’t give it too much weight, either.
on Jun 10, 2014 · 8 comments

Last week R. L. Copple posted an interesting review of the Christian film God Is Not Dead. Part of his critique concerned how atheists or non-Christians generally would receive the movie (not well).

It left me thinking about how we, as Christians, should receive criticism from the world. How much does it matter? Should we care how they react to our films and books? Do they care how we react to theirs? I don’t recall any atheists or agnostics worrying about how Christians took Noah or The Da Vinci Code.

Because the secular world is culturally dominant, especially in movies and television, Christians are more likely to hear and be affected by their critiques. And our evangelistic mission gives us a reason to look outward.

creation-storyThe Apostle Paul, who became all things to all men, certainly showed regard for what unbelievers think. While laying down regulations for the church service to the Corinthians, he wrote, “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and … some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” He commanded the Romans, and all Christians, to “do what is right in the eyes of everybody”. He even required that elders have a good reputation with outsiders.

In all these cases, the apostle is addressing what unbelievers think of our conduct, which is infinitely more important than what they think of our art. But he still establishes a principle of caring about the opinions of unbelievers.

Another reason to pay attention to the criticism of the world is that it will, on occasion, be right. C. S. Lewis once warned that a group “can create around it a vacuum across which no voice will carry. … Whatever faults the circle has – and no circle is without them – thus become incurable.” The Christian community must avoid what Lewis, in that same passage, calls “the wholesale deafness which is arrogant and inhuman”.

But on balance, we must retain the “partial deafness which is noble and necessary”. If we cared too much about the opinions of the world we wouldn’t be Christians. The world is not on God’s side. If, by God’s grace, we are, they’re not on our side, either. Paul puts the divide starkly: “What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?

Christians are often biased in their judgments of art. But so are non-Christians. It’s a human thing. Nobody really enjoys it when a book or film promulgates a viewpoint, political or religious, they disagree with; often people ignore it, but nobody enjoys it.

Beyond this, fundamentally opposed worldviews means a different understanding of reality. In many things, it won’t matter much. A person’s metaphysical beliefs will not much affect his views of what makes for a pleasing writing style or a well-paced film. But the deeper you go, the more apparent the divide will become. If we think we’ve found the pearl of great price, and they think we’ve found cheap imitation pearls, any talk about the matter will run into a wall or, at the least, a mist.

Christians should not shut out the criticism of the world. But neither should we give it more weight than it deserves. We must not look to the world for our validation – not for our lives, our faith, or even (in a kind of cultural cringe) for our art. That’s not the praise we were meant to seek.

Shannon McDermott is an author of science fiction and has been occupied for years with constructing scenarios of the colonization of Mars. Her first Mars-centric novel will be released by Enclave Publishing in late 2024. Her earlier works include “Jack and I” (Once Upon a Future Time: Volume 2) and “The Fulcrum” (Hidden Histories: Third Flatiron Anthologies Spring/Summer 2019).
  1. Julie D says:

    I’m curious to see what other people have to say about this. As in most things, there’s a fine line between ignoring outside criticism and being hyper-sensitive to it.

  2. notleia says:

    That’s true of anyone about anything. How seriously should we take ABC comment/advice from XYZ person?

  3. Great post, Shannon. For me, your concluding paragraph brought it all home:

    Christians should not shut out the criticism of the world. But neither should we give it more weight than it deserves. We must not look to the world for our validation – not for our lives, our faith, or even (in a kind of cultural cringe) for our art. That’s not the praise we were meant to seek.

    Looking to the world for validation for our lives, faith, or art is definitely a mistake. I’d go so far as to say it’s a mistake to look to the Church or other Christians for that validation, too. Unfortunately, I think some people look for certain accomplishments as validation (see, Bucket List). All these are nothing when stacked up with God’s “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That, I should think, ought to be the validation that matters.

    But I don’t think criticism, or critique, is the opposite of validation. I think we should listen to what others say, weigh their views against Scripture and see if there’s any merit in what they say.

    The problem with criticism of the Church and of Christianity is that too often false teachers get lumped in with the true and activity done in the name of Christianity which is far from anything resembling the gospel falls into the with true discipleship. Consequently, it’s hard to separate the criticism that should belong at our doorstep from that which belongs to professing Christians, not the true Church.

    For writers, I think the same thing is true. How often I have told critics that they ought to actually read Christian speculative fiction if they want to criticize it. It doesn’t work to say, I read one bad book ten years ago, so I know what Christian speculative fiction is all about. And today, clearly not every books is a five-star, award-winning story. So some criticism might actually be needed and helpful. But I think we almost have to go on a book-by-book case.


    • I wouldn’t seek ultimate validation in the Church, either. The most important reason is the one you mentioned – the “Well done” comes from God. Another reason is that we are all fallible. The best Christians will be wrong sometimes. I even think there are eras in which the majority of Christians are wrong on a particular issue.

  4. R. L. Copple says:

    Good and valid points. I agree with your analysis.


    I would only point out my comment was in reference to potentially reaching an atheist with the gospel. Pretty much the same reasons you mention Paul was concerned for what the non-Christians of his day thought, to by all means, save some. But we also know Paul was not given to compromising Christian values to get the world to like us.


    I just felt the film missed an opportunity to reach out honestly to address the atheist issues. Instead, it dealt in straw men, focused on rallying the troops rather than reaching out.


    That was the only context my statement should be understood in.


    Great post!


  5. Matthias M. Hoefler says:

    I’m hearing everyone on here.

    Christ tells the parable of the sower. I would add to what I’m hearing that Jesus Himself initiated some groups and allowed others to be outside the knowledge of God:

    Mark 4: 9 And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear , let him hear. 10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable. 11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: 12 That seeing they may see , and not perceive ; and hearing they may hear , and not understand ; lest at any time they should be converted , and their sins should be forgiven them.  (KJV)


    My version of yet another rebuke by Peter: “Come on, Jesus! What are you doing? Shouldn’t everybody be in on this? Shouldn’t what you’re teaching be accessible to the (outside) world?” (MESS) (just kidding)

    Granted after He was gone His disciples were to take the message to the whole world. I wonder so much what He intended His earlier strategy to produce.

    Another thing. Some criticism can be crippling to the point that the artist should not expose himself to it. Especially if the criticized is sensitive. I remember lots of things folks have said that were maybe intended well, but punched a hole in a space where something gentler or even not at all spoken to would have left me not developing around that hole.

    I play piano a lot, and in this case it wasn’t crippling, but it’s the best personal example I can think of. My teacher wondered out loud that I confined so much of my playing to a few piano keys when there was this whole piano to explore.

    I’ve born that thought in mind, and even still (a few years later) found myself reacting to it when I could otherwise be enjoying what I’m playing. I’m glad I heard his critique, because it caused me to grow. But if the wrong words had been said or the spirit they came in were wrong and her opinion mattered to me, I might be telling a different story.

    And it hurts when people point out weaknesses in your work or thinking. Maybe that’s okay. I think it is. It shows investment on the part of the artist. What she is making is important to her and part of her in some sense. You hear the criticism, you get over it, you learn from it.

    I’m just concerned with artists being crushed by the judgments of others, Christian or worldly.

  6. The big question is: are the people of this world offended because it is true? Or because we set up insulting straw men caricatures of them?

    It bugs me that Christian movies and fiction show such ignorance of how human beings feel, think, and behave. If writers like Leo Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and other “greats” were alive I don’t think the CBA would have anything to do with their manuscripts. Can you imagine trying to sell “Crime and Punishment” to Bethany House?

What do you think?