Proportional Meanness

This is inspired by trying to calculate the sweepstakes for Christians criticizing Christians. As much as Calvinists may suffer from a reputation for orneriness, some of the folks on the progressive side of evangelicalism have a pretty low threshold for deviation from progressive evangelical norms.

I suspect most people who write critically about others, in venues other than book reviews, have some sense of the critique’s degree of importance. How much of a threat is the person about whom you are posting or writing a stand-alone article? Part of the calculation behind criticism is actually preventing the spread of error or harm. But another side of it — and does it take only someone who believes in total depravity (or has seen The Wire)? — is what notoriety and even recognition an author might receive writing the piece. If it is an easy dismissal, one where most people agree — like Donald Trump is a moral cretin, then you need to add value to have your criticism taken seriously and distinguish your perspective from the herd. But if it requires some work to see the problem in the person under scrutiny, then what you gain potentially by criticizing is a reputation for being smart or clever — thinking outside the box. In which case, if Jonathan Merritt criticizes Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today magazine, he will need to work fairly hard since Galli has received lots of praise for writing an op-ed in favor of Trump’s impeachment (those were the days!). To take on Galli could hurt your own standing. But if someone writes about the frivolity and potential danger of Joel Osteen, you don’t have to work all that hard.

Then the question will be where you publish. If you want to impress editors in D.C. or New York, chances are you can’t simply contend against religious celebrities who may be very popular but are not very well known or very interesting to cosmopolitan readers. You may want to rail against Osteen, but editors at The Atlantic or New Yorker will be right to ask why should we or our readers care? If you want to write for a rank-and-file conservative Protestant outlet, you may not have to work as hard since editors may have trouble finding good copy. But you also need to be careful that editors or readers of the publication may like the person you are criticizing. If so you need to write your critique in a way that is plausible even to the admirers of the person you intend to correct.

That seems to leave three layers of calculus: 1) how big or famous is the person you are criticizing? 2) how national or parochial is the publication to which you are submitting your critique? 3) how do you rate in comparison to either the object of criticism or the authors who write regularly for the publication?

If you are a big fish in a small pond and go after an obvious target, say someone like Carl Trueman writing a critical piece of the atheist Sam Harris for New Horizons, then you may have misfired. Who among New Horizons’ readers needs to be schooled in the dangers of atheism.

But if you are a smaller fish in a bigger pond, say a professor at Westminster Seminary writing a critical estimate of Karl Barth for Theology Today, then you need to walk carefully since the editors and readership are inclined to be partial to Barth.

And if you are a big fish writing in a big pond about a little fish, say Stanley Hauerwas writing at First Things about the impoverished theology of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, you probably won’t do it. You would be wasting your own learning on someone outside the ranks of professional theology. And even if the readers of First Things regularly publish what your submit, you may not want to waste your capital on a subject that is of little concern to the editors or readers of the journal. You start to publish too many pieces on thinkers, writers, or pastors that are not in your league, you may drop down from the Premier League to the Football League.

So why is it that evangelicals who are minor figures in the national pantheon of thought leaders and public intellectuals don’t see how large or obvious the subtext is when they hammer away at the religious celebrities that secular or Christian progressives find so easy to mock? It is not even a question of loyalty to your tribe however thin the ties may be within tribal evangelicalism. It is a question of thoughtfulness. If you want to impress your cultural superiors, do you really take on subjects that are virtually defenseless (other than having standing from celebrity)?

On the other side of the relationship, why do secular editors publish criticisms from evangelical journalists and academics of pastors and Protestant celebrities about whom none of their readers actually care? Maybe it is a way of “otherizing” the religious whackos and allowing yourself and your readers the chance to feel superior to the religious unwashed. That’s not terribly clever or difficult, though it likely explains the logic behind click-bait. But why evangelical journalists or academics ever want to be used that way is a mystery. I hope they are washing more than their hands (early and often).