"Balanced But Biting" Really?

One of the things that worries me most lately is what might be called the Simon Cowell syndrome. I don’t watch American Idol much but even I could tell that Simon Cowell’s role on the show has been to be the one to tell the truth about the contestants. In an age where everyone gets a prize for participating Cowell looks like an ogre for daring to tell people who can’t sing that they can’t sing. This is the weird side of the Orwellian world in which we now live.

The evangelical version of the “everyone wins” phenomenon is that it is virtually impossible today to tell the truth about an error without yourself coming under criticism for daring to do it. It doesn’t matter how carefully one does it. it doesn’t matter whether what was said is true. It doesn’t really even matter how much happy-talk prefaces the criticisms that are made. The sin is that the criticisms are made.

Consider this account, in CT, of Mike Horton’s recent assiduously fair and fairly gentle critique of Rick Warren:

Whatever assurances Warren gave Piper about his interest in Jonathan Edwards and Reformed theology, the Orange County pastor has a track record that suggests a different set of priorities. Facing a tough crowd in Minneapolis, Warren will need to demonstrate that his church’s practices can accord with a healthy regard for doctrinal precision. Past statements, some of which Michael Horton has documented, may dog him. Horton offered a balanced if biting critique of Warren in light of Piper’s invitation.

Now you should read Horton’s critique for yourself. It is quite balanced. It offered genuine appreciation for the positive contributions Warren has made while being pointed in its critique of Warren’s mistakes. The adjective “biting” is quite striking.”Biting.” Really? I’m incredulous.

The Oxford American Dictionary offers the following definition of the adjective “biting”:

biting comments vicious, harsh, cruel, savage, cutting, sharp, bitter, scathing, caustic, acid, acrimonious, acerbic, stinging; vitriolic, hostile, spiteful, venomous, mean, nasty; informal bitchy, catty.

Read Mike’s response to the controversy and ask yourself, is any of these adjectives true of it?  If there is any such thing as objective reality I cannot for the life of me imagine how anyone could fairly take Mike’s comments to be anything but what they were: direct, clear, and perhaps even pointed. They weren’t any of the synonyms for “biting.”  Indeed, his comments were closer to the antonym of “biting,” namely, “mild.”

The only thing I can think is that in our age of “everyone wins” and radical subjectivism (where everyone has his own reality) we may be coming to the place where it is not possible to offer criticism of any kind without being made into a bad person. Colin admits that Mike was balanced, but he had to balance that concession with the recognition that, for daring to point out facts and truth and reality, Horton must be made to pay a price. His comments cannot simply be described as “accurate” or “truthful,” or “balanced” but because are criticisms they must, ipso facto, also be “biting.”

What becomes of Christian truth telling in an age when even the most gentle criticisms are regarded by evangelical leaders as “biting”?

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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14 comments

  1. Is this a biting critique of Christianity Today’s biting critique of Horton’s biting critique of Warren?

    If your post garners much attention then there will be some biting critiques of your biting critiques. Then others will chime in offering biting critiques of the commenter’s biting critiques. Should be fun, if dizzying.

  2. “… it is virtually impossible today to tell the truth about an error without yourself coming under criticism…. It doesn’t matter how carefully one does it. it doesn’t matter whether what was said is true. It doesn’t really even matter how much happy-talk prefaces the criticisms that are made. The sin is that the criticisms are made.” – Well said.

    Reminds me of this Luther quote. It is about the other side those who flatter without it being true. “There is not a more dangerous evil than a flattering, dissembling counselor. While he talks, his counsel has hands and feet, but when it should be put into practice, it stands like mule…”

  3. I think that Hansen is pretty sympathetic to Horton; I wonder if by ‘biting’ he merely meant ‘scathing’ or even ‘stinging’ – referring to the effect of the words rather than their motive.

    Granted, if that’s what he meant, it was not the best choice of a word. And yes, words do mean things.

    Horton’s analysis was spot on. Loved it.

    And I’d never compare it to Simon Cowell. Granted, I haven’t seen a lot of ‘Idol,’ but every time I’m forced to watch even a little reality tv, I can feel brain cells dying in anguish…

  4. Yes, although the author might have confused biting for incisive (as in keen, penetrating, or acute), it is hard to miss this zeitgeist (especially among Evangelicals) that treats all criticism as inherently cruel.

    Simon does seem like a salutary influence.

  5. I thought the CT piece made Dr. Horton look like a stud – fair, truthful, knowledgeable etc.

    It seems to me that we should understand the meaning of a word not just by the dictionary definition but also by the contexts in which it is used. Or more precisely, I would say that the contexts determine the meaning of a word. So, in the CT article I didn’t take “biting” to be an attack on Dr. Horton’s character.

    Dr. Clark, isn’t your post an example of your complaint that we are oversensitve to criticism? It just seems a little over the top to be upset that Hansen used the word “biting” to describe Dr. Horton’s comments.

    • Well, it depends on whether one wants to say Colin is incompetent as a writer or malevolent. If he mean to say “biting” according to standard usage (words are not endlessly fluid) then he was being passive-aggressive. If he doesn’t know what “biting” means, then he needs to improve his education.

      I assume that Colin knows what he’s doing, that he knows the meaning of “biting” and therefore I conclude that he was drawing a little blood from Mike even as he acknowledged that Mike’s post was fair.

      My point isn’t to criticize Colin as much as it is to point out the state of rhetoric in evangelicalism. If what Horton wrote is “biting” then what is “mild” — I’m genuinely concerned because I’m quite sure I don’t know what it is.

      • I can think of several other possibilities for this word choice besides the author being incompetent or malevolent.

        Just a caution — anytime we’re evaluating the word choice of an author in a periodical publication, whether daily, weekly or monthly, consider the possibility that the word choice of the author was changed by an editor working on deadline with no time or opportunity to consult with the author.

        Christianity Today is not a daily newspaper with all the problems that happen regularly on a daily newspaper’s copy desk, but on the other hand, it’s not an academic journal, either.

        Personally, if someone sent me a piece with the word “incisive” I could easily see me using my editorial “red pen” to change it to “biting” for two reasons — first, the average non-professor reading the article is much more likely to understand the word “biting” than the word “incisive,” and second, to say something is an “incisive criticism” implies agreement with the criticism, and that may or may not be appropriate depending on the editor’s understanding of how much personal opinion an author may be put into an analysis.

        Yes, I know this could be taken as an example of “dumbing down” of America’s reading abilities. But I can assure you, after more than two decades working in the media, I’m almost uniformly regarded as an advocate for detailed reporting, careful choices of words, and lengthy articles. The pressures that the average journalist works under to simplify and shorten articles, even in a non-daily publication like Christianity Today, are pretty significant. The results are sometimes real problems.

        If news reporting and commentary is to be viewed as the “first draft of history” — and it is — we need to remember the limitations of first drafts.

  6. I finished a book this morning entitled Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture (Thomas Nelson, 2005). It was written by Jack Cashill. The book is quite critical of multiculturalism, Noam Chomsky, Abu-Jamal Mumia, Margaret Sanger, Afred Charles Kinsey, and Margaret Mead. Like Simon Cowell, This author doesn’t seem too worried about giving incisive criticism.

    I was surprised by the book’s AFTERWORD. It mentions Christ directly only as part of the phrase Judeo-Christianity (whatever that means exactly), but it nevertheless cites the importance of God and the dire consequences of ignoring Him several times (God was mentioned about 3 or 4 times in the rest of book ‘s 307 pages…so that’s why it was surprising that the AFTERWORD draws the absence of God in popular morality as the major reason why there is so much mendacious crap surfacing from the intellectual establishment these days).

    Here’s quotes from pages 272 and 273:
    “* Progressives do not set out to do evil. They set out to do good.”
    “* They do their good in a world in which God is irrelevant, and ‘everything is permitted.”
    “* With God out of the picture, they are free to do good by their own lights, better than it has ever been done before.”

    …”Unchecked by God or tradition, largely unedited by their peers in the academy or the media, [our progressive friends] fall back promiscuously on the one weapon that their opponents are loath to use: fraud. As weapons go, however, it is no match for the truth. At the end of the day, one prays, it is the latter that goes marching on.”

  7. I have always found biting (correctly-defined) criticism appealing. I don’t like ad hominem attacks, but I want to hear the truth and if it has to step on error’s toes, so be it. We have been emasculated as Christians by the PC agenda and mindset that views all criticism as inherently mean-spirited.

  8. “Well, it depends on whether one wants to say Colin is incompetent as a writer or malevolent.”

    I’d identify this as textbook case of over-the-top lack of proportion in blog writing and commenting.

    A 500-word blog post about one word? Methinks the professor doth protest too much.

    BTW, the OAD gives one of the synonyms as “stinging.” I think it’s pretty clear that’s what Collin meant and that he was in no way seeking to “draw blood.”

    JT

    • Justin,

      Thanks for stopping by. That said, you missed the point.

      I addressed Colin’s rhetoric because I think it gets to a basic problem in the evangelical Christian culture, i.e., the law of niceness. My developing thesis is that though “nice” is the reigning law in evangelicalism I do not believe it is biblical. I believe it is a Midwestern, evangelical (largely pietist) cultural creation that too often has displaced biblical ethics.

      I addressed this in another piece that is not online, “Of Nice and Men,” where I defended John Frame’s right to call me stupid. It’s in the Nicotine Theological Journal. It’s the same problem. John’s editors made him publish a quasi-retraction because because he called people like me “stupid” for criticizing Norm Shepherd (for denying the gospel). Obviously I disagree with Frame about Shepherd but I think he ought to have the right to call me stupid if he thinks I am. I worry about a culture where we cannot say unequivocally what we mean.

      I also worry about a culture that regards what Horton wrote as “stinging.” It wasn’t biting, it wasn’t stinging. It was written as gently as is possible to do in this world and still tell the truth.

      I think that Colin used that adjective because it fits a template. Reformed guys are “critical,” they are “negative” and anything they say must ipso facto be “biting.”

      Further, I defended Colin! You seem to have missed that. I don’t think he’s incompetent. I think he meant to say what he said. It was others who were suggesting that he didn’t know what the word meant. I simply pointed out the logical consequence of such an argument.

      • Scott, since you yourself said of Mike’s blog post, “Nail, meet hammer,” do you think Collin perhaps should have said “pounding” instead of “biting”? 🙂

  9. In the spirit of the Tim Tebow football article, this story reminds me of something former Arizona Cardinals Coach Dennis Green once said:

    “THEY [Piper and Warren] ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE! THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE!”

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