Critical Theory and Trojan Horses

A Parable

Let me tell you an updated parable about the Trojan Horse. trojanhorse.jpg

Finding itself unable to conquer Troy by military strength alone, the Greek army has just deposited a giant wooden horse outside the city gates. Greek soldiers are, of course, concealed within.

Inside the city are three of groups of people. The first group consists of Greek sympathizers who would like nothing better than to see Troy turned into a Greek province. The second group consists of ordinary citizens who have no idea that the Trojan Horse is a trap. However, as soon as they see the horse, a third group immediately starts screaming: “It’s a trap! Burn that horse to the ground!”

The first group replies: “Nonsense. What are you afraid of? Once we get this statue inside, we’ll disassemble it. Wood is beautiful and extremely useful.”

Here, the third group hits a snag. Some of them realize that there are soldiers hidden in the horse. Others are rightly suspicious of the Greeks, but can’t quite articulate the danger. Still others are just terrified of wooden horses due to an unfortunate childhood experience at the circus.

Sensing weakness, the first group picks out the least coherent objection: “Ah, an irrational fear of wooden horses. Get over it. We told you, we’re going to disassemble it. Look at the craftsmanship! The scroll work! The shiplap! There are dozens of ways this wood could be useful. Look, you have hardwood floors, and wood furniture, and wood paneling in your houses yourselves. As for these rumors about ‘soldiers’, that’s just a bogeyman.”

The second group turns expectantly to the third group, which is growing increasingly agitated. After all, some of them really are just afraid of horses. And many of them don’t know exactly what’s wrong with the horse; they just recognize that it’s suspicious. So they yell more and more loudly: “Burn it down! There’s nothing about the wood that’s potentially useful. Nothing at all. Wood will only destroy us. If you let the wooden horse in, we’re all going to die!”

“Ah,” says the first group, “now we come to the point. You don’t really know what you’re talking about.  You haven’t studied wood-working, carpentry, or carving. And you can’t even recognize the type of wood (mahogany, by the way). You can’t see all the legitimate ways the wood can be used. Here’s a reading list. Get back to us when you’ve finished it.”

The second group nods solemnly in agreement, and opens the gate.

An Interpretation

I hope you’ll forgive my attempt at humor, but I’m trying to make an important point. The third group was truthful, passionate, and cognizant of a real danger. But they also played right into the hands of the first group.

In their commendable desire to warn, they forgot to convince. They failed to anticipate their opponents’ arguments and therefore handed them the very cudgel with which they were eventually beaten.

And now we come to the unpleasant part. I worry that too many of us are making the same mistake when it comes to the dangers of critical theory.

A few months ago, SBC Resolution #9 “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality” caused quite a stir, both at the convention and on social media. Atheist James Lindsay, whom I consider a personal friend, compared Resolution 9 to a Trojan Horse poised to infiltrate the SBC. Although he recognizes that the resolution’s key statements about critical race theory and intersectionality are “all superficially true,” let’s run with that metaphor and return to our parable.

There are people, both inside and outside the church, who embrace critical theory and consequently would like to synthesize contemporary critical theory with Christianity. That’s the first group.

There are also people who are aware of this danger, who recognize that contemporary critical theory and Christianity are fundamentally incompatible, and desperately want to warn the church. That’s the third group, and I’m unashamedly part of it.

Then there are sincere Christians who are concerned about racism, sexism, justice, and compassion and think that critical theory can help us address these issues because it talks about them so incessantly. That’s the second group.

For those of us in the third group, the crucial question to ask is: what’s our goal? It would be wonderful if we could convince the first group of their error, but that shouldn’t be our immediate objective. It also shouldn’t be our goal to warn the third group because they already agree with us. While we can help them understand the dangers of contemporary critical theory more accurately, we don’t need to persuade them. Instead, the target of our efforts has to be the second group. They are the ones who will decide the direction that the church takes, so we have to address our arguments to them.

In our story, where did the third group go wrong? Paradoxically, they went wrong in refusing to admit the partial validity of the first group’s arguments. Wood is valuable and wood can be useful. By failing to concede this obvious truth, they allowed the first group to cast them as unsophisticated and irrational. It would have been both more accurate and infinitely more prudent to say:

“Yes, this wood is potentially very useful. But it’s not the wood we’re worried about. We’re happy to concede the value of the wood. Now let’s talk about the soldiers.

This brief remark would have reframed the entire debate, refocusing it on the core concern and robbing the first group of its most effective argument.

The application to the debate over critical theory should be clear. As I’ve been arguing since my talk at Defend’19, we ought to present critical theory fairly and accurately not only because we’re committed to truthfulness, but because it’s the most prudent approach:

I’m concerned about the growing influence of critical theory, both in our culture and in the church. But when we offer critiques of critical theory, I want us to be as informed and charitable as possible.  Let’s make sure that we’re not just regurgitating talking points or repeating conspiracy theories. When we fail to represent critical theory accurately or fail to acknowledge the elements of truth that it contains, we actually weaken our case against it and are less likely to reach people who are influenced by it.

I fully understand the “burn it to the ground” instinct. I understand that people are simply trying to safeguard the church. But I fear that their efforts will not just be unsuccessful, but positively counter-productive. If I were a proponent of critical theory, I would like nothing better than to see evangelicals insisting loudly that there is nothing of value in critical theory. Not only is this claim untrue, it allows proponents of critical theory to portray evangelicals as ignorant, reactionary, irrational partisans whose fears are baseless.

The better approach is to acknowledge that critical theory (like nearly every false worldview and ideology) does contain some elements of truth, and then to refocus the discussion on the pertinent issue: at its very core, contemporary critical theory is fundamentally antithetical to a Christian worldview.

As a final note, I’ll observe that my collaborator Dr. Pat Sawyer and I have received numerous messages saying “I was a Christian who was deeply influenced by contemporary critical theory until I found your material. I’m now convinced that the two are incompatible. It was like leaving a cult.” In contrast, in thousands of interactions in person and on social media, I’ve never had anyone tell me that our work has made them more inclined to embrace the ideology of critical theory.

Again, I sympathize with the impulse that drives a blanket condemnation of critical theory. I’m in no way condemning this zeal or the concerns that drive it (concerns that I share). I’m simply urging people to consider their audience and to reflect on whether their effectiveness could be increased by a more nuanced approach. If your efforts are not only failing to reach Christians who are on the fence about critical theory, but are actively supplying its proponents with ammunition, reconsider your strategy.

For all content on critical theory, see here.

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