Episode 10: Critical Theory and the Christian

Description:

TSR interviews Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer about Critical Theory and the Christian. Come join The Socially Remote!

Summary:

In this episode, TSR follows up their critically acclaimed episode on the Foundations of Critical Theory by considering how the Christian should think critically on this topic. It’s a critical conversation to have, and two critical points emerged from our discussion. First, keep first things first. Continue in the Gospel and don’t be taken in by the assertion that the Gospel of Jesus isn’t enough to remedy our sin problems. Second, even if you disagree with the ideology behind much of what is taking place in our culture, it is still the Christian’s responsibility to listen to those who are hurting and respond with Christ’s love in every interaction.


The Podcast:

Introduction

We began by telling a funny story that happened at a recent family movie night that was put on by the Boyd Team Upstate Realty. If you need to buy or sell a home, check out the Boyd Team Upstate. They’re awesome (and they give back)! When they introduced the movie, they mentioned that it would have a “curse word” and Steven’s seven-year-old son was laser focused trying to figure out what the word might be. After several attempts, he finally gave up, and then missed the word when it came.

Then, David did a very strange bit about Lucky Charms cereal, and we discussed whether that was cultural appropriation (which was a good segue into the episode). If you didn’t read or listen to the previous episode, please go back and listen. You can find it here: Foundations of Critical Theory.

Last episode we started a conversation with Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer who have studied Critical Theory extensively. And this episode builds off that. In the previous episode, we discussed the foundations of Critical Theory and ended it with the question, “How should we then live?” The previous episode has a lot of terminology which we will build on in this one, so go back and read it.


Sneak Peek

This episode will cover how we as Christians can speak truth into Critical Theory, but really into any narrative that is not the Gospel. Towards the end of this episode, we discussed the recent spo. The solution to everything is Christ. There is a popular Hillsong song that has the lyric “Now this Gospel truth of old/SHall not kneel, shall not faint.” Check it out here:

And that is what Christians need to remember in the midst of competing ideologies. We’re not going to kneel to any ideology or any narrative that is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s clear that in many instances those who are kneeling feel very strongly about the issue. But it is important, too, that these other individuals are taking a stand to say Christ is the answer. Anything other than Christ is insufficient and Christ is all sufficient on this topic. Christ needs to be in the center of this discussion.


For the Counselors

David

Today’s episode really gets to the crux of the issue. We can’t just ignore what is going on in our culture. But we also need to know how to engage it Biblically with love and grace while standing fast on the truth. We need to be having conversations and listening, particularly as people express real hurt and frustration.

But we need to think about how the church responds, because it’s where the culture is right now. And we need to be able to show how the Gospel speaks into this. It may be applied in many ways, but for the outreach of the church, we can’t simply ignore it. We need to affirm the dignity of all human life and the image of God in every individual; but we cannot move off the Gospel. That’s our foundation. And if we believe it’s not good enough then we’re in a really bad spot.

Matt

Matt was really pleased by the conversation. The work that Christ did is eternal and is all sufficient for all time. This cultural moment is not a surprise to God. To illustrate this, Matt quoted from a newer release that contains letters from a mother to her black son called Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope:

Cultural differences are beautiful, but they aren’t ultimate. I see one side of this discussion clamoring to flatten the differences and the other crying out for their supremacy. Neither approach will do. Without the balancing influence of the Gospel of Christ we become unable to empathize with other believers whose struggles and personal triumphs differ from our own. We will become unable to lay aside those differences when appropriate and embrace our sameness as blood bought children of the most high God.

Jasmine L. Holmes, Mother to Son: Letters to a Black Boy on Identity and Hope

Steven

Steven was very encouraged after this conversation that there are strong believers who are diving into this topic and carefully studying these things through the lens of Scripture. It is very apparent that both Pat and Neil know their stuff. And I am grateful that they encourage people to read source material. They invite people to engage the topic and bring a Biblical lens to the topic.

It’s always very encouraging when people do this sort of thing with a spirit of generosity and winsomeness, and I think Neil and Pat bring that spirit to this dialogue. And again, if you don’t agree with us or you think we’ve overlooked something, reach out. You can email us, call us, whatever. Just don’t cancel us. That is the wrong attitude. Let’s talk and explore these ideas together.


Deep Dive

How Should We Then Live

At the end of the last episode about the Foundations of Critical Theory, Steven asked, “So what is a Christian to do?” “Should we take a back seat?” “If we do speak out, how can we do so in a way that will be respected and heard (giving an answer for the hope that we have – 1 Peter 3:15)?”

Flipping the Script

And Pat begins by discussing how we might get a “window” into the conversation as white males. Because of Pat’s research on white power and white nationalists, he goes to alt right meetings. He reflects that nearly all of the genuine hate which these groups feel is also experiential. They don’t like other races because of experience that they or their family members or friends have had. It is individual, anecdotal lived experience that has provided insight and truth about their viewpoints. So the idea of lived experience is not foreign.

In the above instance, we know that the universal principles which they have gathered about another race based on their anecdotal, limited experience are absurd and false. So we can introduce this reality and flip the script about how we cannot rely too much on lived experience when it comes to interpreting universal, empirical data. For if these are false, might there be other anecdotal, limited experience that reach wrong conclusions as well?

Additionally, we need demonstrate that our understanding of Truth (Biblically) is not limited by social location, our gender, our race, or our wealth. Our insight of what is true Biblically comes from the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and He does not discriminate. Once we are born again, we are in Christ regardless of our ethnic backgrounds. We have full access to Truth. That undercuts the notion that if you are a white male, you are somehow deficient in the counsel and advice you would be giving around these topics.

A Wake-up Call to Church Leaders

Neil picks up on this argument by asking how leaders in the church who are buying into the lived experience narrative would do if a marginalized individual (i.e. a queer woman of color) comes to them and says, “I just know that the Bible teaches LGBTQ affirmation, I just know it. And if you deny that’s the case, you’re invalidating my identity, you’re erasing me as a queer woman of color.” In other words, how would you respond when someone has heterodox views, but the “correct” identity categories? Which wins out? We have the God-given responsibility and authority to exercise discernment. You can sympathize with people’s lived experience and still keep a foothold on the right approach to epistemology. That should not be forsaken in favor of aligning ourselves with the correct identity markers.

You don’t have to hold a polarized viewpoint. A lot of people seem to be defaulting to the position. Either you agree that your knowledge is completely conditioned on your social location. Or, conversely, you claim that you have perfect, unbiased access to all knowledge. But this is not an either/or situation. We do have blind spots that are shaped by social location. We should be reflexive and self-critical and acknowledge that we are sinners. Maybe we do have a prejudicial view of a certain text of Scripture.

So we need to approach interpretation with a spirit of humility, empathy, and a willingness to listen. But so, too, we should not be fearful of proclaiming the Holy Spirit’s illumination of a passage of Scripture to us simply because we feel it necessary to cede God-given authority based solely on their social location.

Interpretation vs. Application

In some ways the church is failing in these areas due to a lack of strong teaching around orthodoxy, sound doctrine, and a proper understanding of systematic theology. This really centers around the sufficiency of the Scriptures. There is one meaning, one correct interpretation to any text. There are multiple applications to a text, but only one interpretation. And that interpretation does not reside in me or anything about me. The filter of identity (my money, my gender, my class location, anything) is unnecessary for interpretation of what that singular meaning of any text is. That interpretation comes via the Holy Spirit. It is outside of and not contingent upon anything about my location.

Now it could be that the life experience of a certain person could give some extra insight into how to apply a certain text that might be helpful. We need to listen to one another and strive to understand what others say about application. Even that, though, should be humbly weighed against other Scripture. But we need to make sure we’re keeping interpretation and application separate. This often gets massively confused – even among Evangelicals. But it is something that can help protect us.

Now it could be that the life experience of a certain person could give some extra insight into how to apply a certain text that might be helpful. We need to listen to one another and strive to understand what others say about application. Even that, though, should be humbly weighed against other Scripture. But we need to make sure we’re keeping interpretation and application separate. This often gets massively confused – even among Evangelicals. But it is something that can help protect us.

Identity in Christ

Viewing the world through the lens of identity is anathema to a Christian faith.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

Our identity is in Christ. The number one category is our identity in Christ. However, this has gotten lost because some of our brothers and sisters of color feel as though their ethnic identities have been erased. And then they see in Revelation 5:9 and Revelation 7:9 that ethnic identity will be present in heaven. And those individuals really want to grab hold of that (and its an understandable impulse, because they feel their identities have been erased). That’s the problem with colorblind racism, because it’s the notion that you don’t see me know and that is not what I want. And that’s understandable.

Subordinate Identities

So we need to acknowledge that dynamic and that reality. But then we need to press that Revelation 5:9 and Revelation 7:9 are subordinate to Galatians 2:20. I no longer live now! My identity is in Christ. I live in Him and through Him. That is our highest identity. Everything is rubbish and dung (Philippians 3:7-8). We have to fight for retaining ethnic identity but understand it for what it is and celebrate it for what it is (i.e. we wouldn’t say, “I actually don’t see gender”). Indeed, Paul even gloried in his ethnic identity (Philippians 3:4-6, Romans 9:2-5, Romans 10:1-2, Acts 22:1-3). But it cannot override our premium and highest identity in Christ.

The ideas of Galatians 2:20 are crucial for our posture towards other subordinate identity markers. If we lean into Jesus for our identity, this will provide a solution for all sorts of differences and difficulty among us then a lot of these things will take care of themselves as we love each other in Christ.

Antiracism

We need to remember that Critical Theory manifests itself as a worldview. There seems to be some thinking that we can limit this to just race, but it is broader than that. It’s hungry. And it’s seeking to devour your thinking and your ideas. It wants to colonize your thinking. Ibram Kendi says as much in his book How to Be an Antiracist. He rejects the idea of only taking bits and pieces of the worldview. And he even discusses how his parent’s spiritual yearnings that were fulfilled in Christianity are fulfilled for him in Antiracism.

And Antiracism is an identity that is described as being “put on,” just as the New Testament refers to our identity in Christ (Colossians 3:9-10 and Ephesians 4:22-24). It is a fool’s errand to think we can just borrow a little bit from Critical Theory. And just to be clear, Antiracism is defined as an active commitment to dismantling the systems and structures that produce racism and white supremacy. And all those words are important. You must buy in to all these concepts about systemic racism and structures and ideologies in order to not be considered a racist.

Critical Theory in the Church

What is so disturbing is how quickly this is permeating the church. There’s a recent book that is not even about Critical Theory or Critical Race Theory. At the end of the book she has a section on what true racial reconciliation does not mean. She claims that it does not mean that you have a multi-racial church, a multi-cultural church with leaders of color who are all worshipping happily together in unity. Rather, she says that it must be a disruption of power structures in order to have a truly racially reconciled church. She claims the church must unearth and dismantle these white supremacist power structures in order to achieve racial reconciliation.

Defending against Critical Theory: Preach the Gospel

If you simply stand firm about your basic Biblical convictions about everything. And if you don’t use the right Critical Theory jargon and try to sound “woke.” And if you keep preaching the Bible and keep preaching the Gospel you’ve always preached, eventually those who subscribe to another “gospel” will leave. You don’t have to be a controversialist or even address it. An Antiracist is not going to be content going to a non-racist church. If we keep preaching the gospel and if we love God and we love others, that will solve a lot of problems.

However, in our current cultural climate, saying “Love God, love people, preach the Gospel” sounds like a cop out. But if that’s not the solution to the problem then what is? It’s the solution to combatting Critical Theory and the solution to racism and the solution to disunity and the solution to every other form of sin. If we even give an inch to adopt something else to say we need that to come alongside then we’ve undercut ourselves and abandoned our only hope.

Defending against Critical Theory: Know the Topic

We need to protect the Gospel for what it is. Social justice is not part of the Gospel. We want to lean on preaching the Gospel. We want to lean on preaching exegetical sermons relative to the text in front of us. But downstream from the Gospel, downstream from conversion are social justice and racial issues. So we don’t want to lose sight of that, but we can’t flip the script and put one before the other. Nor can we conflate them as the same thing.

Similarly, we don’t want to be stunted or dense in our approach to these things and say to our brothers and sisters of color, “We’re just going to preach the Gospel and these things will take care of themselves without any active involvement on our part to see to it.” We do need to be active against racism and bigotry, and we will if we are captivated by the Gospel.

Defending against Critical Theory: Engage the Topic

However, if you want to minister to people who espouse Critical Theory views like Antiracism, then you should study and speak up. Unfortunately, even then they will likely see you as “racist.” Because according to Kendi you are either Antiracist or racist. He would say that you either buy-in to the whole worldview or you are against it. And adherents to this view would suggest that to be “non-racist” is a cover for racism, so to be non-racist is to be racist. Therefore, according to those who hold these views, even to preach against racial hatred and for unity in Christ would not be enough.

Remember that Critical Theory is praxis and activism driven. There must be meaningful action in terms of emancipating and empowering the marginalized and disenfranchised. If you decide that you are simply not going to be an oppressor, then you’ve set yourself on the sidelines and you are part of the problem.

Going Forward

Recently there have been two sports figures who have refused to “bow the knee” (literally) to this movement. Both of them cited their Christian faith. The first is a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, Sam Coonrod and the second is a forward for the Orlando Magic Jonathan Isaac. The backlash in at least one of these cases was tremendous. There will be a push to ideological conformity to these ideas as they continue to become more mainstream (and therefor achieve hegemonic power).

Christians need to start standing up and saying “I can’t support this.” But the narrative is going to be that you are a racist, so we need to be ready to say and to show that we abhor racism. We need to be ready to give a response for the hope that is in us with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Our credibility and ethos is going to come from being outspoken against racism and that our churches are welcoming and hospitable. They need to see our good behavior in Christ despite their slander (1 Peter 3:16).

Additionally, don’t get forced into a sound bite. Have in depth conversations. Highlight points of agreement so that points of disagreement become more empathetic.


Parting Shots

Neil

We can’t lose sight of the Gospel. The Gospel and the Christian worldview is so good. We seem to think the Gospel is not enough, and it seems that even some Christians are beginning to think that. We never want to downplay injustice, but there are Christians today being tortured for their faith.

And we have an eternal kingdom that Jesus won for us and gave to us. And that doesn’t seem compatible with the level of bitterness and misery and grievance that is being expressed in this movement. He urged us to ask the question alongside Paul (Galatians 4:8-20), “What has happened to all your joy?” If Critical Theory is the way to social justice and that’s part of your Christian faith, ask yourself “What happened to my joy in the Gospel?” Because if it’s not there, you’re doing something wrong. And you need to ask yourself, “What is that?”

Pat

Origins of Critical Theory

The origin of Critical Theory resides at the Frankfurt School from 1923 in Frankfurt, Germany. A school of social inquiry and analysis and critical philosophy. Critical Theory was originally a Marxist enterprise that morphed into a neo-Marxist enterprise. And neo-Marxism is an extension and an amendment to Marxism, but it was primarily concerned with . Similarly, Critical Theory was a reaction against Traditional Theory. It was a push back against the positivism of Traditional Theory. A lot more can be said about the history, but just understand that things have morphed to an understanding of Critical Social Theory as manifested in a number of Critical Social Theories.

Stereotypes

One of the things that often hurts conversations about Critical Theory is that Christians often truncate it and stereotype it as “Cultural Marxism.” So he would urge Christians to lean into the broad understanding of the three ways to think of Critical Theory (see Foundations of Critical Theory for a reminder) as a theoretical approach, a large body of knowledge, and a worldview.

Pursue Justice

We as Christians need to be concerned about justice relative to our black and brown brothers and sisters of color and non-Christians with whom we have community. We need to be showing them the love of Christ as well by being concerned about their marginalization and their disenfranchisement.

Don’t let your legitimate concerns over “woke” ideology and robust forms of Critical Social Theology keep you from doing active work against bigotry and racism. True Biblical justice is about moving systems and institutions in our society towards more equity for all. And there are many ways that Christians can get involved in moving social systems. And there is a time and place for protest and activism. When it is truly a righteous cause, there are times for us to hold a sign to fight against bigotry and racism.

See Pat’s contact information below. His DM’s are open. He’s happy to talk with anyone about getting meaningfully involved in their communities. And to do it with the integrity of what the Bible says about how to approach these things. It is possible to be in community doing this kind of action and remain faithful to our Christian witness.


Conclusion

What a great episode. As we’ve said several times throughout these two episodes, if something we’ve talked about doesn’t sit well with you, please reach out. It’s a lot easier to just ignore or “cancel” what you don’t like. Don’t do that.

Reach out to us at our email address.

Additionally, if you’ve got a topic that you’d like to hear us address, please reach out to us. Similarly, if you have a comment and have one of our cell phone numbers, please leave us a message, and maybe we’ll play it on air!

Don’t forget to rate and review us on whatever platform you listen.

If you want to reach out to Neil Shenvi, you can just Google his name. You can reach out on Twitter @neilshenvi. He posts articles as he writes them and excerpts from books as he reads them on his website: https://shenviapologetics.com/.

If you want to reach out to Pat Sawyer, you can find him on Twitter @RealPatSawyer. His DM’s are open, so if you want to start a discussion, don’t hesitate to DM him. Or you can catch up with him by searching for his email at UNC Greensboro.


Links and Stuff

The Podcast

Thanks for reading about this episode, and don’t forget to listen on:

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About The Socially Remote

Does it ever seem like the longer you adult, the less social you become? The responsibilities of being a spouse, a parent, and an employee often leave us with little time for meaningful interaction outside our home and office. As a result, many of us aren’t even remotely social. We try to fill the void with outlets like Facebook and Twitter, but we soon discover social media isn’t as social as it sounds. And the effort we put into soliciting likes and comments doesn’t produce stronger relationships with other people like we’d hoped.

This podcast is an attempt by a pastor, a lawyer, and a generalist to combat the growing culture of social isolation by making time for meaningful conversations about life, theology, and the church. We want to create space in our lives to engage in regular discussion and debate with those around us, and we hope this podcast will encourage you to do the same.

So join Matt, David, and Steven as we take a deep dive on the issues that matter to us and try to put real conversation back in its rightful place.

We are The Socially Remote.

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For the Lawyers

Legal Disclaimer: The views expressed on this podcast belong solely to the individuals expressing them and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs and opinions of their respective employers.

Deep Dive segment introduction from “Dive” by Steven Curtis Chapman on the Speechless album. Used with permission courtesy of the Stable Collective.

About the Author
Steven Halbert is a husband, father, son, and brother. He has held various roles in children and family service organizations and currently works as a product manager for an industrial manufacturer. He enjoys teaching adult Sunday school, which is where the idea for his book - The Relational God - materialized. He has an associate degree in Bible and a master's degree in English; and he blogs about business, relationships, and the church at stevenhalbert.com

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