Few books show the havoc that “wokeness” will wreak on your theology like Christena Cleveland’s God is a Black Woman. Dr. Cleveland was a rising star among evangelicals involved in discussions of race during the 2010s. As she relates in her book, she was platformed by major evangelical organizations, including Intervarsity (she was the keynote speaker at the 2015 Urbana conference), CRU, Lifeway, and Christianity Today (where she was a columnist until 2016). Since that time, her beliefs have changed dramatically. She now rejects the being she calls “whitemalegod” whom she associates with historic Christianity and worships “the Sacred Black Feminine,” depicted by various Black Madonnas whom she christens “She Who Cherishes Our Hot Mess,” “She Whose Thick Thighs Save Lives,” “The Virgin-Warrior God of Consent” “the Mother of All Bling”, “Our Lady of the Side Eye”, etc.
Below, I’ll simply share selected quotes from the book and will then speak plainly to fellow believers and especially to pastors.
Quotes from the book
Interlocking systems of oppression
“whitemalegod’s toxic trifecta of racism, sexism, and classism landed on my Black female body and kept me on his plantation” (p. 174)
“I increasingly recognized that [Intervarsity Christian Fellowship] was homophobic, anti-Black, money driven, and imperialistic” (p. 179)
“white feminism is just whitemalegod in a pussy hat” (p. 214-215, from the chapter “god of white women” in the section “white femininity: whitemalegod’s secret weapon”)
“The liberation of all Black women requires the dismantling of all systems of oppression–white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and more” (p. 223)
“more than anything, we must eradicate the transphobia within ourselves and our communities. For if God is a Black woman, then She’s a Black trans woman. Obviously.” (p. 232)
Oppression through ideas
“the white christ is still alive and well, collaborating with male god to breathe white patriarchy into our spiritual imaginations… whitemalegod continues to justify the silencing, exclusion, and oppression of Black, Indigneous, and people of color–specifically, Black, trans, and non-binary people” (p. 41)
“internalized fat phobia didn’t just keep Black women in their subjugated position; it kept white women in their place as well” (p. 126-127)
“We don’t get to embrace our divinity-humanity and make our own choices about what is good, what is true, and what to do with our bodies because independence is a threat to [whitemalegod’s] patriarchal power” (p. 169-170)
“As the godhead of the white patriarchy hierarchy, [whitemalegod] alone gets to decide what is good and what is evil…He alone determines what forms of gender and sexual identities are acceptable–cisgender and heterosexual.. He gets to decide which interpretations of scripture are orthodox–the interpretations of cis-het white men” (p. 167)
“[In my dream] Confederate whitemalegods towered over the neighborhood, each one bearing a different brass plaque that paid homage to toxic masculinity’s idols of knowledge: logic, reason, tradition, certainty, and consensus” (p. 54)
“Though she can rock with the best of the intellectuals, [the Sacred Black Feminine] exists beyond the edges, beyond the orthodox ways of knowledge, and beyond traditional logic. She beckons us in dreams and speaks to us through our embodied experiences.” (p. 56)
“Womanists [i.e. black feminists] ask, ‘What nurtures hope in Black women? What is life-giving to Black women? What heals Black women? What liberates Black women?…The answers to those questions and others help womanists know what is Good News and what is not, what is good and what is evil, what is true and what is false” (p. 59)
“As I continued my spiritual path toward the Sacred Black Feminine, I wanted to stop asking, ‘What can I prove? What is orthodox? What can be substantiated by history or scripture?’ Instead, I wanted to ask ‘what nurtures hope in my Black female embodied soul?…What liberates my Black female embodied soul?‘” (p. 60)
“I recalled the numerous beatings I had endured as a Black woman much like this one: I can’t tell if you’re sloppy or mischievous. Those were the words a male audience member publicly said to me at the end of my academic lecture at Cambridge University… [This statement was] a racial-gender slur that cut to the core of my identity as Black and female.” (p. 3)
“A member of [my matriarchal spiritual] community eagerly agreed to help me process my pain, and I began making a list of all the white men who had directly oppressed me over the course of my life. My initial list was over four hundred names long” (p. 115)
“Black people in my generation were violently forced to recognize that America was no safer for us than it was for our parents and grandparents” (p. 143)
“serving my career [for ten years] as christianity’s house n—–…There’s quite a bit of money to and power in being a modern-day house-n—–. I was speaking on some of the biggest stages, offered a seat at some of the most exclusive boardroom tables, and earning a six-figure income. But the thing about being a house n—– is that you’re still enslaved” (p. 176, 180)
Based on these quotes alone, which are merely the tip of the iceberg, I can’t imagine that any conservative Christian will endorse either this book or Cleveland’s theology. She has rejected any semblance of historic Christianity and is worshipping idols of her own making. And I mean that statement quite literally. She explicitly affirms that she has “a right to a relationship with the divine that is self-defined and self-guided” (p. 152) and structures the book around her pilgrimage to France to visit Black Madonna statues, which she prays to, bows down to, and caresses as representations of the Sacred Black Feminine.
Nonetheless, I’d like to address several objections.
“Cleveland is clearly hurting and has been traumatized. You need to show her grace rather than criticism.”
Some of the treatment Cleveland discusses in her book is indeed heart-wrenching. As she describes it, she was physically abused by her father (although they still maintain an affectionate relationship), she suffered from an eating disorder, she had to care for her mentally-ill sister, and she clearly has a very legalistic understanding of Christianity. Her craving for affirmation and unconditional love is evident throughout the book. However, I’d offer two responses.
First, we should remain open-minded about her retelling of these events (c.f. Prov. 18:17), particularly because her statements often involve hyperbole (at one point, she calls Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye a “terrorist manifesto,” p. 187). In particular, I would not want to pass judgment on her parents before hearing their side of the story.
Second, condemning ideas is not the same as condemning people. Cleveland’s book teaches readers to worship a self-created god who will never meet their needs and will ultimately lead them into misery. For all Cleveland’s talk of love and healing, her book is filled with passages of unbridled rage, bitterness, and scorn, and torrents of profanity. It is a poor kind of compassion that would rather see people suffering both now and eternally than warn them of the path they’re on.
Furthermore, there’s a significant difference between how Jesus and the apostles handled broken, hurting people and how they handled false teachers who were openly mocking God and teaching others to reject Him. Cleveland has moved well beyond the former category. The love and acceptance that Cleveland is seeking in idols can only be found in Christ. Therefore, rebuking and warning her is no less appropriate than rebuking and warning a husband who has forsaken his loving wife to seek comfort in mistresses.
“This isn’t critical theory or critical race theory or ‘wokeness.’ This is something else.”
To put it mildly, I’m surprised that we’re still having the “wokeness is a fundamentalist bogeyman” conversation, but let me address it.
First, as I’ve said before, it’s the ideas that matter, not the labels we use to describe them. Notice the ideas invoked by Cleveland throughout her book: 1) society is divided into oppressed groups and oppressor groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. 2) Oppression occurs when one group imposes its norms on society via white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, fat phobia, etc. 3) Lived experience gives marginalized people special access to truth. These ideas suffuse our culture and contemporary discourse around race, class, and gender and can be found in nearly every summary I’ve ever provided of contemporary critical theory. You can find them in dozens of books I’ve reviewed on this website. Call it what you want but recognize that it is present.
Second, it’s possible that Cleveland first learned these ideas not from critical theorists but from womanist authors like Audre Lorde or bell hooks. Or maybe she learned these ideas from a knitting group. Or from a yoga class. But listen to how Cleveland describes critical race theory in her 2019 lecture “Missions as Heroicization of Whiteness: Newbigin through a Critical Race Lens”, which she delivered to the Lesslie Newbigin Summer Institute:
Critical race theory takes at its starting point that we live in a racialized world. That we are all shaped by racial inequality, regardless of what our race is. If we’re white, if we’re Asian, if we’re Black, if we’re Hispanic, we’ve all lived in a society where there is a racial hierarchy, where there are white people at the top, black and indigenous people at the bottom…
whiteness is not just about skin color. Whiteness is about ideas. Whiteness is about culture. Whiteness is about power. I like to say that whiteness is power with skin on. And so the more that you have power, there’s a good chance that you have been participating in whiteness..
So that’s why I have more power in our society. And so a critical race theory enables me to name that. And to locate myself. And I’m thinking about myself in the context of how much power do I have with white, cis, heterosexual, married, middle-class, formally educated men…at the top. And everybody else all the way down at the bottom, which would probably be black, transgender women. Would be the total bottom.
A critical race lens asks us to look at that [disparity], to see the world through this oppressive ladder, where some people are invited to participate at higher levels than others.
At this point, it seems preposterous to still claim “this is not critical theory.”
“Cleveland is an outlier. No one is going to take things this far.”
Yes, thank God that in His grace, He often prevents us from following dangerous, false ideas to their logical conclusions. Thank God that He daily restrains our errors from bearing fruit and sending us spiraling into darkness. But it’s absurd to think that no one else is on the same trajectory as Cleveland. To provide just one other example, consider Michelle Higgins, who was once a member of a PCA church and who spoke at the same Urbana15 conference as Cleveland. She also still co-hosts the Truth’s Table podcast with two conservative Christians. But she recently became the senior pastor at a pro-choice, LGBTQ-affirming UCC congregation where, in a now-protected clip, she preached: “Let the Lord lead you to queer parenting. Let the Lord show you the queerness of the Trinity in ways that you had not felt welcome to before.” Her organization Faith for Justice offers trainings based in “Black Womanism + Liberation Theology” and a “Black queer feminist political lens.”
UPDATE: on the same day that I posted this review, Danté Stewart, who has written several articles (now removed) for The Gospel Coalition, Tweeted that “we don’t need more white or evangelical theology. We need more womanist, black liberation, and queer theology to show us how to be better humans and embody a more loving and liberation faith. We can only get better if we expand the voices that lead us.”
If you’re a pastor, I have to ask you honestly: what is your “woke theology” breaking point? What would it take for you to recognize the danger of these ideas and the influence they’re having among evangelicals? Moreover, how do you intend to warn people about them? Once someone has internalized the idea that they are being daily oppressed by “whiteness,” that they need to “decolonize their theology” from the “oppressive forces of imperialist patriarchy,” and that anyone who corrects them is merely trying to “protect their power and privilege,” how will you reach them? Once someone believes that their lived experience gives them special access to truth that you should defer to, how will you correct them? After all, Scripture can be dismissed as “your white male interpretation of Scripture.” Creeds and confessions can be dismissed as “Eurocentric, colonialist artifacts.” The gospel itself can be dismissed as “slaveholder theology.” Consequently, you need to be proactive rather than reactive. The time to speak is not when someone is a few inches from the precipice, but before they even stray from the path. Warn people about these ideas now. Do so graciously, patiently, and lovingly. But do it.
God is a Black Woman demonstrates what happens when you follow the tenets of contemporary critical theory to their logical conclusions. I am begging evangelicals to take this issue seriously. Your church members, especially your church’s high school and college students, are being bombarded with these ideas on a daily basis. As I already documented in my review of Sechrest’s Can ‘White’ People Be Saved? the idea that “wokeness is a fundamentalist bogeyman” or that “this is a problem in the culture, but not in the church” is pure fantasy. Please wake up.
- The “Woke Theology” Breaking Point
- A Short Review of Sechrest’s Can ‘White’ People Be Saved?
- Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible? – Part 1
- What is Critical Race Theory?
- Can We “Eat the Meat and Spit Out the Bones” of Critical Race Theory?
- Quotes from bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress