Part 1 – What is critical theory and why should we care?
Part 2 – Conflicts Between CT and Christianity
Part 3 – Critical theory in the church
Part 4 – Advice for dialogue
V. Critical theory in the church
Just as critical theory has a growing influence in our culture, it has a growing influence in the evangelical church as well. This topic is a very sensitive one and -for that reason- I’m not going to name any names or provide any identifying information for the authors I’ll quote. If you’re skeptical or think that I’ve fabricated these statements, I’ll be happy to give you the references in private. However, I don’t want people to be distracted. My goal is not to ‘call out’ certain Christian leaders. I only want to show how the ideas of critical theory are not only having an impact ‘out there’ in the culture or ‘out there’ in progressive Christianity, but also ‘in here’ in the evangelical church.
First, here’s a passage from a series of articles entitled ‘Listening Well as a Person of Privilege” written by a Christian divinity school professor.
The fingerprints of critical theory are all over these statements. People are categorized as either ‘oppressed’ or ‘privileged.’ Privileged people have ‘lost their right to the prophetic megaphone’ not because they have personally treated anyone cruelly or unjustly but because they ‘knowingly or unknowingly participated in societal systems that benefit some people and oppress others.’ In contrast, the oppressed person is ‘angry (and rightfully so)’ even when that anger seems to be directed against the privileged person or privileged people in general, as an entire demographic group.
Another example. This quote is taken from Whiteness 101, a document written by a Christian racial reconciliation group that was featured in Christianity Today.
The article provides tips for whites (not blacks, or Hispanics, or Asians, but only whites) who are involved in racial reconciliation. Whites are told that people of color should be given space to ‘wail, cuss, or yell’ not at injustice in general but ‘at you’ – at the white person. In the guidelines provided by this explicitly Christian group, there’s a clear asymmetry between whites and people of color.
Here’s a statement by a popular author whose work is still featured on the ERLC website and who was self-identifying as an evangelical as late as 2017.
The author lists “male privilege, abled privilege, cishetero privilege, citizenship status privilege, and so on” as privileges granted by “societal systems of oppression and supremacy”. A few months ago, this author published a list of recommended children’s books which included “A is for Activist”, an alphabet book recommended for children 3-8, which includes statements like “L-G-B-T-Q! Love who you choose” and “T is for trans… Trust in the True: The he she they that is you.” Also recommended for children ages 5-8 was “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.” These books were included alongside books about slavery and the civil rights movement precisely because the author accepts the idea that sexism, racism, ableism, heteronormativity, and cisgender normativity are all forms of oppression. That’s an idea that is borrowed wholesale from critical theory.
Here are two tweets taken from a thread written by a seminary student with a large social media following.
The author is responding to the death of missionary John Allen Chau, who attempted to bring the gospel to the Sentinelese and was killed. The author writes: “I’m sad that Chau’s stupidity and colonialist mindset got him killed and that his family is mourning him. But he was not a martyr. The colonialized rhetoric that I’m hearing from Christians is appalling. Y’all really believe that God would just send someone to go into someplace balls to the wall with all of their diseases and everything just to preach a colonized Jesus?” Note that Chau was Asian. But because he was a Western missionary evangelizing a non-white unreached people group, he had a ‘colonialist mindset’ and was preaching a ‘colonized Jesus.’
Here’s a tweet from the graduate of a conservative evangelical seminary who has contributed to several conservative evangelical websites:
“The Bible is written from the lens of the marginalized. If you come from a group or community that is historically not marginalized, you need these voices and perspectives or else your understanding of the Word, the gospel, and the Christian life will be thin and weak.” In this Tweet, the author signals that people from oppressed groups have special insight into truth that is unavailable to people from oppressor groups.
Here’s a long quote from an article entitled “Decolonized discipleship” by a writer who graduated from a conservative evangelical seminary and who has over 12,000 Twitter followers.
The author talks about how ‘urban disciples’ often have ‘colonized minds’ which cause them to ‘internalize their oppression.’ Consequently, they need to ‘decolonize their discipleship’ by remembering that Christianity is an ‘Eastern religion,’ and by “reading Bible commentaries, books, articles, and theology written by women and men who are natives and descendants of Africa and the Middle East.”
Here’s a popular evangelical pastor with almost 100K Twitter followers:
“As white men move from an entitled majority and our country is increasingly led by women and people of color, a future without nuclear weapons feels within reach. A world where the weapons of colonialism and subjugation are confined to museums seems plausible.” Note the presumed moral asymmetry here. While the world is dominated by white men, we’ll never get rid of colonialism, subjugation, and nuclear weapons. But once people of color and women take positions of leadership, there’s a real chance for moral improvement.
Finally, many of you might have seen evangelical pastor Tim Keller’s op-ed piece in the NYTimes in which he argues that neither political party is in perfect alignment with Christian values. I agree with that statement, by the way. Here are a few excerpts from the response of a popular evangelical author who has 16K followers on Twitter:
“Tim Keller has NO AUTHORITY to teach on justice – NONE.” What’s the author’s reasoning? Keller is, in the author’s words, “a RICH WHITE MAN WHOSE MINSITRY TARGETS RICH PEOPLE… The only ones with divine authority to define the bounds of oppression are the oppressed themselves.” The post continues: “Oppressed and colonized people wrote every single word of the Bible… The only person in all of scripture who came close to the social location of Tim Keller was Pilate… Keller has NO authority to speak or teach on justice.”
If you comb through these statements (and there are many, many more I could provide) you’ll see that every single one of the core tenets of critical theory is expressed in them. What’s more, you’ll even see the logical implications that I warned about. To take just one example, notice the repeated insistence that oppressed people have unique insight into theology that is unavailable to dominant groups, that our understanding of the gospel will be ‘thin and weak’ if we don’t listen to the voices of the historically marginalized, that Tim Keller has “NO authority to speak or teach on justice.” Are these statements true? Was Luther’s grasp on the gospel thin and weak? Calvin’s? Spurgeon’s? Lloyd-Jones’? What does give a person authority to speak on justice? Is the Bible and their call to pastoral ministry sufficient authority? Or does their ‘social location’ undermine their authority to preach the whole counsel of God?
Friends, these are extremely serious issues. Ideas have consequences; the bigger the idea, the bigger the consequence. We’re just now beginning to see the cascading implications that the acceptance of critical theory will have on the life and health of the church. We need to wake up.