Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Forging a Good Critique

"As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." (Proverbs 27:17)

When iron is sharpened by coming into contact with more iron, sparks fly. But just because sparks are in evidence, we cannot assume that iron is being sharpened. The iron could just as easily suffer damage from an inexperienced hand. It takes a skilled hand to sharpen iron without destroying it.

Recognizing that I'm only scratching the surface on this topic, I'd like to offer a few suggestions on how to tell a good critique from a poor one:
  • A good critique starts with understanding thoroughly the subject matter being critiqued. If we're going to critique something, it should be assumed that we'd do our homework and be knowledgable about what we're critiquing. There is very little to be gained from a critique that is based on sloppy, slanted, or inadequate research.
  • A good critique will be conversant with primary sources, not relying on other critiques as their basis.
  • There are two kinds of questions people ask when confronted with something that they aren't sure about:
    • Questions that are looking for information -- seeking to understand.
    • Questions that are looking for ammunition -- seeking rant-fodder.
  • A good critique will be evidenced by questions that are seeking understanding.
  • The use of the "false dichotomy" is a sign of a bad critique. A false dichotomy is an exaggerated either/or scenario, where people are given only two diametrically opposed options to choose from. The use of the false dichotomy is actually quite manipulative, and should be avoided.
  • A good critique follows the spirit of Matthew 18:15-17. The broader theme of Jesus' teaching here is that we're dealing with family members, not enemies (cf. Galatians 6:1). A good critique reads like a letter from an old friend who is concerned about us. It's the attitude of a trusted friend sitting across the table from us in a coffeeshop or pub, and loving us enough to ask the tough questions, and listen to what's on our hearts.
  • A good critique is capable of seeing the good as well as sounding the alarm about potential problems. "Wounds from a friend can be trusted..." (Proverbs 27:6).
A good critique may sting at times -- we're all aware that we see through a glass darkly -- but if the underlying attitude is one of redemptive friendship, a good critique will sharpen and strengthen us.

And we'll probably say 'thank you', and in a perfect world, pay for your coffee/beer.

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