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Everyone's a Critic and No One's a Chef

Everyone's a Critic and No One's a Chef
By Jeremy Linneman • Issue #4 • View online
Nutrients for your spiritual life. An essay newsletter on spiritual formation, community, and culture.

I was having a pretty good week, but then I made the mistake of watching cable news. 
I didn’t intend to: We don’t even have cable TV. I was at the gym, and it was the only option. I should watch the news and read the paper more than I do; I should be more culturally aware. But sometimes it’s just exhausting. Here’s the thing that bothers me most: 
Critique is the dominant spirit of our age
In our world, whether it’s MSNBC, Fox News, or our local network news, the dominant tone in public discourse is critique—a picking apart and pulling down of other people and their opinions. 
As a people, we Americans are quick to see something we don’t like and announce, “that’s wrong!” not simply, “that’s not how I’d do it.” 
Social media exemplifies this posture of critique. Twitter used to be a great place to find new articles, keep up with our friends’ lives, and discover new ideas and voices in the church and the world. But now it seems to be at least 90 percent critique—faceless profiles naming out their opponents’ flaws and throwing truth (opinion) bombs, all while entirely disconnected from relationships. 
(Since social media relationships have essentially replaced local conversations at the market or barbershop, we can now be selective in whose opinions we’re hearing, and as a result, it’s far more common for us as individuals to live in echo chambers. We are still connected to American culture as a whole and to our immediate families, but we have lost what sociologist Marc Dunkelman called “the middle ring” ties in The Vanishing Neighbor.) 
On the news and on social media, it’s rare to see a thoughtful, constructive opinion on how to solve a problem or work toward a common good. 
It’s as if there are a million movie critics and only a few directors. 
Everyone’s a critic and no one’s a chef. 
In an episode of the podcast “This Cultural Moment,” Mark Sayers describes deconstruction as the dominant tone of conversation and public discourse in Western society. The secular West has been deconstructing Christianity for several centuries, picking apart what it finds unhelpful, offensive, or personally limiting. 
It’s important to notice that this is not just a problem of the progressive Left or the conservative Right. As Sayers describes, both the Left and the Right are working out of deconstruction: They’re deconstructing each other’s positions far more than they are building their own. From both the Left and the Right, the only option we’re left with is what to be against. And the result on both sides, again, is the same: We become radically individualistic, disconnected from community and place, and unable to find meaning and satisfaction beyond their immediate experiences. 
Now, I would love to linger on this point and say, “Haven’t you noticed this in the world? Shouldn’t we pray for those folks?” But that’s exactly the problem: Everyone’s focused on those folks
Being Honest with Ourselves
It’s not just public discourse that’s dominated by critique; it’s our own private conversations—even in the church. (You’ll notice I started this article with “Here’s the thing that bothers me most!”)
This posture of deconstruction isn’t infiltrating the church from the dangerous outside world; the spirit of negativity begins in each of our hearts and gets worked out in social circles. 
We frequently hear believers build relationships over shared critique: “My coworkers are just awful people.” And: “That church down the street really doesn’t get it.” And still: “My spouse is terrible at everything.” 
It’s far easier to find common ground with people over shared negativity. 
Critique is so contagious because it keeps the problem out there
It’s far safer to tear something down than it is to build something up. 
It’s a lot easier to condemn that it is to listen and forgive. 
It’s much simpler to pull a person apart than it is to put them back together. 
If you have ever remodeled a kitchen, you know the demo takes a lot less patience and skill than the reconstruction!
When I look at my own heart, I see some terrifying stuff—the negativity, the critique, the snarky-ness. It’s scary how easily my mind goes to deconstruct, pick apart, brush off, or judge. (Some people have creative intelligence, others have analytic intelligence; I think snarky humor is my sharpest form of brain power, yet as I grow up, I can use it less and less.)
It makes me wonder: What is at the heart of all this spirit of critique and deconstruction? 
When I am afraid that I don’t have my friends’ approval, I am tempted to put someone else down. In fear, I will look to find a social tribe who shares my same fears and sins, so that we can collectively feel better about ourselves. If I’m not secure in Christ, I will need to hold people at arm’s length and relate to them as a scientist relates to her petri dishes. 
When fear is a primary motivation, as Tim Keller has written, three effects will follow: (1) Our motivation will wear out over time, because fear is exhausting. (2) Our fear will never lead us to repentance, because fear is self-protective. (3) We will never be able to endure suffering, because fear plus hardship equals despair and bitterness. 
What does Jesus offer instead? He offers grace which leads to gratitude.
As Christians, we have been saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The only proper response to grace is gratitude—because we have done nothing to earn our salvation. There’s nothing to boast about. And there’s nothing we can hold over anyone else. 
Grace is a gift, and a spirit of gratitude is the evidence that that gift has been received. This is what I love about God:
He is the Creator, not the critic. 
He is never reacting in fear; he is only creating, sustaining, guiding, forgiving, and constructing in love. 
And an important question for us in the age of deconstruction is this: What we building?
Three Good Reads on Virtue
Virtue is something of a lost word in our day and age. But virtue, and it’s opposite, vice, is due for a comeback. We live in vicioustimes, and we need virtuous souls. Here are my three favorite books on virtue:
Back to Virtue by Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft is a wonderful review of Jesus’s ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Kreeft notices that modern Christianity (granted, he was writing in 1992) measures Jesus against its own standards rather than measuring itself by Jesus’s standard. Most of this book is a profound comparison of Jesus’s Beatitudes to the seven deadly sins, and how each of Jesus’s blessings form as an antidote to our common sins. 
Humility by Andrew Murray is a book you’ll find me mention A LOT. Murray was a South African pastor and author in the 19th Century, and this little book is a convicting and inspiring work of spiritual writing. He describes humility as the chief of all virtues and the doorway to the other virtues. If you find humility, you’ll find everything else. Get this book and read it slow
No Three Good Reads would be complete without a Dallas Willard, and The Divine Conspiracy belongs here twice over. Willard also uses Jesus’s Beatitudes as a framework for a whole new sort of Christian formation. His longing to discover and live by “a curriculum for Christlikeness” (and the urgent belief that it is possible) has become a driving motivation in my life, ministry, and writing. 
A Place to Belong
It’s August in a college town, and as relieved as I was to see students leave town in May, I’m even more excited to see them return this week. At Trinity, we are starting a new series this Sunday called A Place to Belong: Discovering the New Testament Vision for Community.
Over the course of six weeks, we will set a course for the future of our young church. But we’re not operating from an ambitious, self-generated vision; we are led by set of biblical convictions about what it means to be a church and to do life together in Christ. As always, pray for Young Trinity!
Fidelity Sports: It Was Not Meant to Be
Fidelity Sports has always been about the underdogs, the outsiders, and the overlooked. So it’s natural that our savvy sports insight includes a familiarity with failure and defeat. Or maybe it’s just that I spent 30 years of my life watching the Royals and Chiefs and Mizzou Tigers not win a championship—until the Lord made his face to shine upon the 2015 Royals.
So, I shouldn’t be surprised that my Tour de Colorado was not meant to be what it could have been. Last Thursday, with my cycling team and a couple support vehicles, I set out to ride up Mount Evans—the highest paved road in North America. I pedaled uphill for more than three hours and reached over 13,000 feet, but as a thunderstorm rolled in, wisdom called aloud that I should turn around and get to safety.
The view from Mt Evans: We started at the bottom now we here.
The view from Mt Evans: We started at the bottom now we here.
Then, unfortunately, one of our sons had severe altitude sickness and sharp chest pain throughout the week, and after an ER trip and some rest for him, the only reasonable thing to do was to travel back home the day before the Copper Triangle race. So I didn’t get to tackle my great white whale.
But as I think about it: The work is the reward. I’m in the best shape of my life, I have loved taking on this new challenge, and I have a few other races in mind.
Oh, and our kids are fine now. ;)
Benediction: A Blessing for the Road
From King David in Psalm 16, on loving God and receiving what’s given:
Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
  You have made my lot secure. 
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
  Surely I have a delightful inheritance.
Thanks for reading GOOD SOIL. Much love,
Next time (Friday, September 6th)—The “Wish-Dream” and True Belonging, Three Good Reads, and Fidelity Sports: An NFL Preview. 
Did you enjoy this issue?
Jeremy Linneman

Nutrients for your spiritual life. An essay newsletter on spiritual formation, community, and culture.

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