Often, and particularly recently, I have been faced with distaste at the idea of critical thinking in a life context and an arts context. Given this, I offer a cautious defense of critical thinking (hopefully, it doesn’t get too bogged down in theory and lit crit jargon [oops] that it becomes inaccessible. It should be pretty clear, but maybe pray for understanding before you start to read 😉 ).
So this is going to have two basic parts, one that’s more general and religious and a second that will be more about analyzing books, film, etc., what we can refer to as close reading, with some religious overtones. Ok, so I’m clearly partial to this approach to life and entertainment, partially because I analyze literature for school and my planned future profession, but that just means I have skin in the game, as they say. A passion driving my commentary. Anyway, here we go.
First, I have found great value and insight by thinking critically. Now, by this I do not mean thinking negatively or thinking in a way to criticize (although I probably do my fair share of that, snarkily tearing down what otherwise may have been thoughtful and sincere commentary). Critical Thinking in this context means looking at things with the eye of an analyst, trying to understand how things work, how comments fit into a larger framework of ideas and perspectives, how the argument is structured, how the logic flows from the assumptions to the propositions to the conclusions, etc. This type of thinking relies on asking questions and seeking understanding. Some claim that the Church discourages such thinking, which culturally is true to a certain extent. After all, there is a danger in beginning to think critically, if you do not understand the proper application of the skills. To borrow a phrase from Bruce C. Hafen, it can become like a shiny, new pin of skepticism used to burst the bubbles of faith and sincerity of all around us.
I know because I have been guilty of wielding my critical thinking skills like a shiny pin of skepticism. While it would be awesome if everyone understood logical fallacies and proper argumentative structure, they don’t (I’d like to think that basic argumentative structure is a key to fully grasping celestial knowledge, but don’t know of any such strict requirement). So people can teach and make comments that are illogical or can be picked apart by those of a more intellectual bent, such as myself. However, to do so frequently misses the point of having such comments and conversations in the first place. They aren’t meant to convince us logically of something, it’s meant to convey a set of feelings and experiences that the individual feels are right.
So, why is it good to think critically if we shouldn’t at Church? Well, the Truth withstands critical thinking. So, while we shouldn’t let it distract us from the sincerity of others, we can use our critical thinking skills to process information and fit things into our own understanding. We can realize how the scriptures work together, the relationships between individuals and stories and principles, piecing together an understanding of the entire Gospel framework.
Having questions can spur our study. As we all learn from primary forward, questions spurred Joseph Smith to action and without that, I wouldn’t be writing about this right now at BYU (questions for the win, despite any later cultural pressure against asking questions).
Now, on to Part Two.
This bit may be slightly less accepted. I think analyzing and looking for themes and messages in books, songs, films, plays, etc. is valuable. I mean, of course I do. Would I study English if I didn’t?
An important question and argument comes up here about authorial intent, which has been happening for a long time and has a variety of answers. The main facet of the argument, at least for my purposes, is two-fold: one, that it matters what the author intended and two, that any interpretation of a work should be based around the intentions of the author.
Those who dismiss any attempts at reading into a work as frivolous, often suggest that the author never intended for that meaning. That may very well be true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning is no longer there because it was unintended. To illustrate think of a time you said something that carried a different meaning than you intended for the people that heard it. Is the meaning that others interpreted less-valid because you didn’t mean it that way? No. Once a work involves an audience, it becomes something separate that relies upon the audience in part to create meaning. An author may have intended for something to mean one thing, but if no one ever reads it, it is meaningless. At least in part, meaning is derived from the reader interacting with the text.
That got a bit bogged down with some critical theory, but hopefully we mastered the secrets of the fire swamp and made it out alive, unless you found it comfortable enough for a nice summer home.
The point of all that is to say that the author’s intent is much less important than the reader’s response. However, the best response is an informed response that understands some of the author, her background, his cultural context, her societal and historical pressures, etc. All of us are shaped by the time we live, the cultures we surround ourselves with, etc. so to ignore the impact that they have on a work of art is to do a great disservice to the labor that went in to producing it.
Some things may be created primarily to entertain, but they still convey messages implicit or explicit that we receive. To not analyze our entertainment is to be intentionally ignorant of what we partake of and what cultures are influencing and shaping our own thoughts and behaviors.
None of us want that, do we?
There are some caveats to that and some clarifications. First, there are levels of analysis and critical thinking. Not everyone needs to analyze Henry James’ use of free-indirect discourse in Washington Square to create an unreliable and self-undermining narrator or to be dissatisfied with How To Train Your Dragon because the ending undermines the entire narrative arc of the film, destroying what appeared to be the intended moral of the story.
Second, there may be a line where analysis can go overboard and read more into something than is useful. This is particularly true when you begin to see negative frameworks in everything to the point that they restrict your ability to enjoy the works at all. That line varies and is different for different people.
So that’s it. Think critically and much joy will be yours.