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Critical Generosity: Gently Confronting the Sacred

Timothy Muehlhoff

How should we criticize someone else's most sacred beliefs?

Professor of Communication Studies, Biola University
January 24, 2018

What happens when you disagree with the deepest values of another person? In today’s argument culture, is it possible to critique that which is sacred to another person with gentleness and humility? Is it possible to embody critical generosity?

Violating the Sacred Core

The sacred, notes sociologist James Davidson Hunter, “expresses that which is non-negotiable and defines the limits” of what a person or community will tolerate.1 Violating a sacred core typically evokes a harsh response. How might we critique the non-negotiable beliefs of another without it devolving into an argument?

Criticizing Non-Negotiable Beliefs

Peter gives us a clue when he admonishes believers that when presenting our perspective we should do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Let’s consider what gentleness does not look like. In his seminal work on communication climates Jack Gibb noted that if you wanted to provoke anger from a person respond to his or her convictions with detached neutrality. In other words, I treat your conviction indifferently as merely a point being made in a debate. Rather than acknowledging the deep emotions that accompany your view, I dispassionately offer my counter-argument. After all, there is a debate to be won! Regardless of how persuasive our argument is we will undoubtedly come across as detached and harsh. We would do well to remember the ancient writer’s admonishment that a harsh word “stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).

AIDS Theatre: An Example of Critical Generosity

What might gentleness look like when addressing a group’s sacred core? Our answer in part comes from an unlikely source. David Roman is a unique theatre critic who focuses on what has been labeled, AIDS theatre. AIDS theatre is comprised not only of formal staged productions, but short one-act plays, improvisational sketches, and even impromptu performances done outside a theatre.

“An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.” (Prov. 24:26)

The purpose of these performances is to draw attention to the AIDS crisis, challenge misconceptions of those with AIDS, and call people to action. Often, the cast is comprised of those afflicted with AIDS who are in various stages of treatment. Some are investing their last days, months, or years to being part of the production. Now, how would you like to be a theatre critic critiquing these heroic productions? Welcome to David Roman’s world. How do you critique sick or dying cast members who are often too fatigued to produce what is traditionally called good theatre? Roman’s response is to enact critical generosity which he defines as “a new mode of criticism appropriate to the demands of the historical conditions.”2 While as a theatre critic he does critique the actual performance, he never looses sight of the deep passion and sacrifices of performers.

Christian Critical Generosity

As Christian communicators when we address the sacred core of a group we must adopt a form of critical generosity. Such an approach will entail several steps. First, we must communicate to others that we are fully aware we are treading on their deepest convictions and do not take such a task lightly. Second, express to the group that it hurts us to know that we are hurting them. It brings us no joy to critique what is so dear to them. Third, if possible acknowledge what is admirable about their core, or the dedication they have to it. Last, be honest in your critique. In an odd piece of advice, the ancient writer of the book of Proverbs states that an honest answer is like a kiss on the lips (Prov. 24:26) suggesting that honesty—in contrast to speaking of a person disparagingly in private—is as much a sign of respect and intimacy as a kiss. To honestly, compassionately, and gently address the core of another group could surprisingly cultivate begrudging respect.

Tim is a former fellow of the Center for Christian Thought and is a professor of communication at Biola University. To read more about critical generosity and winsome communication see Tim’s newest book, Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence in a Post-Christian World (IVP Academic, 2017).