I’m happy to announce that Bradly Mason has agreed to participate in a blog discussion of the question: “is critical theory a threat to evangelicalism?”
A few preliminaries:
First, I’m not arguing that Christians should not work for justice, or that Christians should not care about racism, sexism, or poverty.
Second, I’m not arguing that critical theory is the only or the worst threat to evangelicalism.
Third, I’m not saying that everything critical theory affirms is false.
I’m solely concerned with the impact that the fundamental tenets of critical theory will have -and are having- on evangelical theology.
In Beyond Critique, Bradley Levinson argues that there are actually many critical theories rather than one critical theory. I agree. Yet I want to focus on the manifestation of critical theory that’s most relevant to our current culture. Contemporary critical theory is promoted by scholars like Robin DiAngelo (who coined the phrase ‘white fragility’), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (who coined the phrase ‘colorblind racism’), Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined the phrase ‘intersectionality’), and Peggy McIntosh (who popularized the phrase ‘white privilege’). The core tenets of contemporary critical theory are:
- Society is divided into dominant, oppressor groups and subordinate, oppressed groups along lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, etc…
- Oppression is not defined only in terms of violence, but in terms of dominant groups (whites, the rich, men, heterosexuals, Christians, etc…) imposing their values on subordinate groups (people of color, the poor, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, non-Christians, etc…).
- We should expose and dismantle the values and structures of dominant groups. Racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia are all forms of oppression that must be dismantled.
- ‘Social location’ determines our access to truth. In particular, oppressed people have special access to the truth through their lived experience, while members of oppressor groups are blinded by their privilege.
Most people will recognize that our culture is awash in these ideas. Are they compatible with Christianity?
First, society is not primarily divided into an oppressed/oppressor binary along demographic lines. Rather, it’s divided into those inside or outside of God’s kingdom. We enter the church as brothers and sisters in Christ, not as ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppressor’ Christians.
Second, the Bible always links oppression to violence and cruelty, because not all dominant values and norms are inherently oppressive. For example, marriage is a cultural norm that perpetuates inequalities of wealth, class, and education. Yet dismantling the institution of marriage would be wicked. Norms and values must be tested against Scripture, not dismantled haphazardly.
Third, all groups are blinded by sin and must be held to the objective standard of Scripture. When it comes to correct exegesis, ‘social location’ matters far less than careful study and a humble heart.
If we concede that contemporary critical theory fundamentally conflicts with evangelical theology, then we must concede that it is a threat in principle, settling our original question.
However, I’d like to go farther and argue that critical theory is also a threat to evangelicalism in practice.
A few examples:
During her talk at the Sparrow Women’s Conference, Ekemini Uwan recommended four resources. Three were important works of critical theory, including DiAngelo’s White Fragility. In that talk, she proclaimed that “whiteness is wicked…It’s rooted in violence,… theft, [and] plunder.” While Uwan was using the word ‘whiteness’ as a synonym for ‘white supremacy,’ she Tweeted after the talk that Sparrow was a “racist space” and a “racist organization” and said in an interview that entering such spaces is “very dangerous” because she is “putting [her ]life on the line.” (Pass the Mic, 4/9/19, 23:42).
After pastor Tim Keller’s NYTimes op-ed affirming that neither political party fully captured Christian values, evangelical author Lisa Sharon Harper wrote a blistering Facebook response, saying that “Tim Keller has NO AUTHORITY to teach on justice—NONE… How INCREDULOUSLY PRIVILEGED for Keller—a RICH WHITE MAN WHOSE MINISTRY TARGETS RICH PEOPLE —to fashion himself as the judge of whether or not injustice rises to the level of OPPRESSION!!! No!!!! The only ones with divine authority to define the bounds of oppression are the oppressed themselves!” (11/6/2018)
In his book Reconstructing the Gospel, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove cited DiAngelo and Bonilla-Silva and wrote: “White people suffer from a malady [called] ‘shriveled-heart syndrome.’ It is rooted in the experience of white people enslaving black people.” (p. 161)
For Lent, Dr. Christena Cleveland wrote a devotional series entitled “Christ our Black Mother”, saying “I’ve been wanting to dive deeper into an intersectional exploration that examines both God’s blackness and femaleness on the cross.”
In his book White Awake, pastor Daniel Hill cited DiAngelo repeatedly and wrote: “The greatest problem of all [for whites is] our conditioned blindness… we are blind wanderers who need help to see a world that functions according to a different set of rules than what we’ve been raised with.” (p. 154)
To be clear, I’m not attacking these authors. Instead, I’m attacking these ideas, which are false and are transparently rooted in contemporary critical theory.
I foresee two possible responses.
First, Brad could argue that there is no ideology like the one I’m describing. If so, I’m happy to provide dozens of quotes from primary sources affirming each of these points.
Second, Brad could acknowledge that such an ideology exists, but could deny that it’s properly called ‘critical theory.’ Again, I can provide quotes justifying this designation, but I’m willing to employ another phrase like ‘critical social justice’ or ‘critical race theory,’ since these are used as well. The key question is: does Brad agree that this ideology, whatever we call it and whatever its historical origin, is incompatible with Christianity?
Repudiating dangerous ideologies does not have to be a distraction from working for justice. Indeed, the claim that “any critique of critical theory is merely a mechanism to preserve power and deflect the conversation away from oppression” is itself a common accusation made by critical theorists! To adopt such reasoning is to close the door to dialogue and -ultimately- to biblical correction.
See my initial post here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 1
And Brad’s first response here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Neil Shenvi, Part 2
See my second post here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 3
And Brad’s second response here:
Is Critical Theory a Thread to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Neil Shenvi, Part 4
See my third post here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 5
And Brad’s third response here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Neil Shenvi Part 6
See my fourth post here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 7
And Brad’s fourth response here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Neil Shenvi, Part 8
See my fifth post here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 9
And Brad’s final response here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Neil Shenvi, Part 10
See my final post here:
Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 11