Since our dialogue on critical theory ended, Brad has been emailing scholars to ask whether my characterization of “contemporary critical theory” is accurate. For the record, I have no problem with this action. However, when Brad first posted the email that he was sending, I commented that it contained several errors. The email incorrectly stated that I “attempt[ed] to characterize critical theories [plural]” and that my core tenets are “misrepresentative of critical traditions [plural]” and that they “do not represent the actual ‘core’ of Critical Theory [or] critical social theories [plural].”
I noticed these errors and cautioned Brad on Twitter that they were likely to confuse the scholars he was emailing because I never made any of these claims. Brad didn’t acknowledge these mistakes and, when I asked him where I had made such claims, he repeatedly declined to answer.
One of the negative responses Brad received was from Prof. Stephen Bronner, the author of Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction, one of the first books I read on critical theory. When I suggested that Dr. Bronner’s negative comments were due to his understandable, but incorrect, belief I was attempting to characterize the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, Brad responded: “I assure you [Prof. Bronner] did not think I was just asking about Frankfurt. Rather, he believes Frankfurt is foundational, again, as per my questions and his response.”
Consequently, I decided to email Prof. Bronner. When I provided him with accurate information about my position, Dr. Bronner withdrew his objections and affirmed that my four categories “make sense” given the critique I’m making.
Below are the emails we exchanged in their entirety (again, I ask Brad to release the full text of his emails to Dr. Levinson). In them, I explain the position that I have consistently held throughout this dialogue: that there are many critical theories and that I am only characterizing a particular manifestation (“contemporary critical theory”) as it is expressed by particular scholars like DiAngelo, Bonilla-Silva, McIntosh, Adams, Collins, and others.
Among other things, Prof. Bonner writes: “Thanks for your note: it clarifies a good deal. Its quite true that ‘critical theory’ in its popular usage extends beyond the Frankfurt School and that there are multiple ‘critical’ theories in circulation today… Insofar as you are basically considering a host of ‘post’-structuralist and identity thinkers in your outlook then your four categories make sense.”
I then asked him: “2. To clarify, was I correct that your original comments were applicable to the ‘classical’ critical theory of the Frankfurt School, but were not as applicable to ‘critical theories’ in the broader sense, such as those advanced by the scholars I cited?”
He responded: “2) Yes: my original comments were applicable to classical critical theory rather than ‘critical theories’ in the broader sense.”
Finally, I asked: “3. Finally, would be ok to share these email? Since your public comments to Brad were largely negative, I worry that people will think that I’m caricaturing the scholars I’m citing or am spreading misinformation. I’d like to show them that my summary is at least reasonable, even if not every scholar will agree with it.”
He replied: “3) Yes: feel free to share my thoughts.”
The full text of the emails can be found below.
Here are a few of the Tweets that Brad has posted over the past few days:
Brad, you’ve said repeatedly that I am “misleading folks”, that I am “misinforming people,” and that I’m continuing to “falsely characterize CTs, claiming a false ‘core’ and misrepresented ideas as ‘tenets.'” These claims are false.
There is an important distinction between the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and the broad critical tradition, which includes the scholars whose works I am correctly characterizing. As I cautioned you, failing to make this distinction misled Prof. Bronner and it will likely mislead the other scholars you’re emailing.
For the sake of honesty and clarity, I urge you to retract the false statements you’ve made. Thousands of people are reading these Tweets, and several prominent evangelicals have Retweeted your articles, thus passing along the false statements you provided them. As a result, they are dismissing my warnings that these four ideas are very present in academia, are deeply antithetical to Christianity, and are harming your brothers and sisters, for whom Christ died.
Brad, I’m happy to continue to dialogue with you or, if you prefer, to talk with you on a podcast and discuss these issues.
Regardless, I urge everyone to seriously reflect on the four ideas that I discussed in our dialogue. Or to read the article that Dr. Pat Sawyer and I wrote at The Gospel Coalition. We don’t have to choose between embracing injustice and embracing contemporary critical theory. We can reject both.
Addendum: Before posting this article, I privately sent it to Brad. I requested that he affirm that 1) his email contained several errors and that 2) my characterization of “contemporary critical theory” was not “misleading” “misinformation.” He declined to do so.
- More Caricatures? A Response
- Is Critical Theory a Threat to Evangelicalism? – A Dialogue with Bradly Mason, Part 1
- The Incompatibility of Christianity and Critical Theory (at The Gospel Coalition)
The full text of my emails with Prof. Bronner:
Shenvi to Bronner:
Hi Prof. Bronner,
My name is Dr. Neil Shenvi. I’m an evangelical Christian who’s become interested in critical theory over the past few years. Consequently, I have been studying it extensively in my spare time. Your book was one of the first I read, followed by Levinson’s Beyond Critique, and Ingram’s Critical Theory: The Essential Writings, along with many others on particular subfields of critical theory (e.g. Delgado and Stefancic’s CRT, Crenshaw’s CRT, Jagose’s Queer Theory, Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, etc…)
I’m writing to you because I was surprised to see your email exchange with Bradly Mason, a fellow evangelical with whom I’ve been having a friendly dialogue about the compatibility of critical theory and evangelicalism. I was puzzled that your response seemed to focus so narrowly on the Frankfurt School, because I had made it clear to Brad that I was interested in contemporary critical theorists like Robin DiAngelo, Ozlem Sensoy, Peggy McIntosh, Patricia Hill Collins, Maurianne Adams, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Kimberle Crenshaw, and others. I singled out these scholars precisely because books like DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists are being circulated in the evangelical community, with accompanying concerns about the division of society into dominant and minoritized group, oppression through hegemonic power, and so on.
However, when Brad eventually shared excerpts from the email he sent you, your response seemed to make more sense, given the limited information provided. In Brad’s email to you, he didn’t mention that I had stated that there are many critical theories, not just one critical theory. I had also differentiated between the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and the ideology of the contemporary critical theorists (DiAngelo, Collins, Adams, etc…) that I was describing. Obviously, the two are related but distinct and are characterized by different core concerns. In the same way, although queer theory is generally acknowledged to be a type of critical theory, it presumably wouldn’t be characterized by the same core tenets as the Frankfurt School.
Given that I made these distinctions, do you still think that the work of -say- Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy in “Is Everyone Really Equal?” is best characterized by the tenets you mentioned? Or do the four tenets I described better summarize their work (and those of the other scholars I listed)? Or neither? It seems to me that while my four tenets certainly don’t characterize all critical social theories (something I never claimed!), they do accurately characterize the views promulgated by the contemporary critical theorists I cited.
I welcome dialogue, because I still have a lot to learn. I’m collaborating with Dr. Pat Sawyer, who has a PhD in Education and Cultural Studies and whose dissertation interacted substantially with critical theory. He’s in agreement with me about the ideology of the authors I mentioned, but we’re always open to feedback.
Bronner to Shenvi:
Dear Dr. Shenvi,
Thanks for your note: it clarifies a good deal. Its quite true that “critical theory” in its popular usage extends beyond the Frankfurt School and that there are multiple “critical’ theories in circulation today. Whether they are actually “critical” — or, better, whether they privilege “critique” and the dialectical method is another matter. Insofar as you are basically considering a host of “post”-structuralist and identity thinkers in your outlook then your four categories make sense (hough, its important to add, they don’t really apply to classical critical theory and other figures who have been included like Sartre or Henri. Lefebvre. You might be interested in the first chapter from Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists in its 2nd Edition. Your newfound commitment is, incidentally, very impressive and there are a host of critical theorists of religion such as (my old teacher) Ernst Bloch and even Horkheimer’s “longing for the totally other.” Good luck with your work.
Shenvi to Bronner:
Hi Prof. Bronner,
Thanks so much for your prompt response. I had no idea you studied under Bloch!
Just a few quick questions:
1. Could you recommend any good books on what I’m calling “contemporary critical theory” which does, as you say, borrow heavily from post-structuralism, as well as from thinkers like Gramsci and Freire? I’m always looking for resources to understand these ideas better.
2. To clarify, was I correct that your original comments were applicable to the “classical” critical theory of the Frankfurt School, but were not as applicable to “critical theories” in the broader sense, such as those advanced by the scholars I cited?
3. Finally, would be ok to share these email? Since your public comments to Brad were largely negative, I worry that people will think that I’m caricaturing the scholars I’m citing or am spreading misinformation. I’d like to show them that my summary is at least reasonable, even if not every scholar will agree with it.
Either way, I greatly appreciate your feedback. There are indeed some very interesting connections between Christianity and Critical Theory. Certainly, they both recognize the evil of bondage, both physical and ideological, and share a concern for liberation and human flourishing.
Bronner to Shenvi:
Hi Dr. Shenvi:
1) I cant think of a good work on “contemporary critical theory” off hand— if I do I will send it along
2) Yes: my original comments were applicable to classical critical theory rather than “critical theories” in the broader sense
3) Yes: feel free to share my thoughts.
I wish you only the best