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?