Thankfully, we don’t have much of a “town square” where I live in downtown Atlanta; and, besides, in the gritty, adjacent neighborhood of East Atlanta, where I do much of my writing hunkered over bottomless mugs of Joe’s coffee, running naked through the streets is probably not as unheard-of as it might be elsewhere. I’ve seen some pretty scantily clad individuals shuffle past the window on any given Saturday morning as I type away.
Still, the analogy resonates.
The more I behold the prospect of sharing my spiritual journey with the world, and doing so in print, the more vulnerable and self-conscious I feel. The more I feel inclined to look for fig leaves. Maybe you can relate. When we write, we leave ourselves open to being criticized for what we say and do not say. I’ve discovered this already at least to a degree when I meet you here at this intersection between life and God. (Take, for example, the article I wrote on Facebook’s “Disappearing Mothers.”)
Nowhere is this vulnerability more evident to me than in the act of reading and reviewing books. Just the other day I wrote a pretty critical review of Sandy Ralya’s recently released book, The Beautiful Wife. Before reading the book, I wanted to write a stellar review- precisely because as an aspiring writer I’m discovering how much love, sweat and tears (not to mention rough drafts) go into writing a book.
In the end, I wrote a review that unintentionally took a bit of a mean-spirited tone- and for this I apologize. Sometimes humor has its limits, and this was an example. I began my review with an analogy to preparing to fly through turbulence, and in hindsight, took the metaphor of needing a sick bag too far; in actuality, the “flight” Ralya directs is often interesting and enjoyable, even if it leaves me feeling very uneasy in places.
So much of the time, the how of a project is as important as its aim. In the interest of full disclosure, and having read Ralya’s book from cover to cover, I wanted my readers to know where I take issue with her approach. It is beautifully ironic (and beautifully humbling) that I learned something about the limits of my own approach in the process.
My own best learning these days, when it comes to giving and receiving constructive criticism, has come in the classroom. Listening to seminary students preach some of their very first sermons is a lesson in giving feedback that goes beyond the garden-variety exclamations that we preachers typically hear in the receiving line after Sunday morning worship.
“Thank you for your sermon.”
“You have a gift.”
These sorts of comments may build up our egos, but they’re not ultimately going to further our preaching.
In actuality, some of the best feedback I’ve heard is the kind that causes me to rethink my approach in such a way that I am better able to hit my mark. In the land of preaching, we call this mark our “focus and function.” What do we, hopefully inspired by the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit, aim to say, and what do we want our hearers to do as a result of our words? These are the questions I ask when I prayerfully approach the writing of a sermon.
Maybe the same could be asked not just in the world of preaching, but in writing, too- maybe it could be asked of life itself.
For Christians, broadly speaking, our focus and function point back to God’s initiating love for us. Our chief aim is to love God and love our neighbor. To the degree that my review of Ralya’s book may have fallen short of this mark, I am genuinely sorry. To the degree that it offered some helpful constructive criticism, I hope it can encourage Ralya in strengthening her approach to the worthy cause of repairing broken marriages.
On this note, I’m off to go bare my naked soul in the town square, in hopes that one day others will read and critique my finished product. Until we meet again, have a great weekend, all!