TSR interviews Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer about the foundations of Critical Theory. Come join The Socially Remote!
In this episode, we begin a two-part interview with Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer about Critical Theory. The first portion of the interview is primarily about defining and understanding Critical Theory, which is at the foundation of the conversations happening in our current cultural moment. Pat helps us define what it is, and Neil examines how it manifests itself in our current cultural moment. We end the first portion of the interview with the question, “How should a Christian respond?”
We began by discussing the utter strangeness of this year. Steven talked about his first vacation getting cancelled due to California shutting down again. Their family rescheduled for Florida, and now there’s a hurricane. Steven also told a funny story about his seven-year-old son claiming to see COVID in the parking lot of the church.
From there we mentioned that last episode we covered 1 Peter. It was a little different from our normal episode, but it’s a format we might return to after we finish a book of the Bible in Sunday school. Last episode we also said we would discuss missions; however, we were able to secure two guests to talk about Critical Theory. We’ve been talking about wanting to address this topic, and these two guests are going to help us do that in detail. The names of our guests are Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. However, we acknowledge that in our current cultural climate, this conversation is not an easy one, so we want to take a moment to set it up adequately in our Sneak Peek.
Critical Theory and the Cultural Moment
On the heals of the tragic death of George Floyd’s death, there seemed to be peaceful protesting and some good conversations about the nature of law enforcement in our country. But the moment dramatically escalated and the discourse began to change. You started hearing phrases like “white supremacy,” “social justice,” “white privilege,” and “systemic racism.” And the conversation changed to defunding police and removing monuments, etc. To be fair, this was building for a while, and the death of George Floyd started the avalanche that had been snowballing for some time.
What is concerning about the current narrative is that disagreement is being met with “cancel culture.” In other words, if you don’t subscribe 100% to the ideologies bein espoused, we’re cancelling you (i.e. shut-up). More recently, there’s been push back on the “cancel culture” via an open letter in Harper’s Magazine which is entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” and has been signed by a wide variety of people (J.K. Rowling, John MacArthur, Malcolm Gladwell, et. al.) who are generally worried about free speech.
Taking a Step Back
So we wanted to take a step back to ask the question, “What is really going on here?” And, to be honest, part of our initial conversation was a recognition that we on The Socially Remote are three white males. Should we even talk about it? And we felt like we didn’t have the right to talk about it according to the individuals who are talking about it. As we were trying to figure out the best way to approach this conversation, Matt shared an article with us from The Gospel Coalition called “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.” The article was really well done, and despite having been written before much of the tension in our culture began bubbling to the surface, the authors were incredibly generous in how they handled the topic. And they agreed to come talk to us about this topic.
The Goal of Examining Critical Theory
The purpose of this episode is not to enter the fray of the political conversation. Rather, our focus is to discuss what the conversations going on in our current cultural moment mean for Christianity. Because, as Christians we believe that the solution is Jesus. Yet a lot of the ongoing discussion in our culture right now is part of a metanarrative or worldview that is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
So the goal of this episode is to answer the question, “What is Critical Theory?” And then, in our next episode we’ll look to answer the question, “As Christians, how should we then live?” And while this conversation may be a difficult one, we believe that every human being is created in the image of God. Every individual no matter their color (black, white, brown) are of equal dignity, made in the image of God. They are our neighbors and we love them and we pray with them and we weep and lament when they face discrimination.
For the Counselors
Steven quoted Martin Luther saying, “If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not professing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” I feel compelled to address this in a loving way.
However, if you feel in any way attacked, marginalized, or otherwise uncomfortable by what is said on this show, reach out to us. Let’s talk. If you’re in the area, we’ll go get coffee or lunch. If you’re not, we can talk on the phone. There are ways to have these conversations, and screaming at each other on social media is not one of them.
David feels really grateful that we found a way to discuss this. Because this is an important conversation to have, and we can speak into this as Christians who believe and affirm the Gospel. Our race or our gender or our position doesn’t keep us from being able to speak Biblical truth into what is going on right now.
We might not be able to fully understand, on a personal experience level what folks are facing right now, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t speak Biblical truth into the situation by looking into God’s Word and asking, “How does the Bible speak into this and how can we respond in a Biblical manner?” Our cues should come from Scripture, not from an organization. And our response should be God honoring, filled with love for neighbor, and attempting to right wrongs and instances of injustice. We need to know what to speak against and what to affirm.
Matt agreed and reminded our listeners that we are unabashedly Christian and we believe that Christ is all-sufficient on everything. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is active and it saves lives. It brings us to live how God created us to live. This is a great conversation, so let’s dive in!
Neil Shenvi is from Griffin Delaware. He grew up in a loving and moral household. But it was not a Christian household. He became a Christian during graduate school when he was doing his PhD in Theoretical Chemistry. After grad school he did a post-doc at Yale. Following Yale he moved to NC where he currently resides.
He attends Summit Church, homeschools his four children, and his wife is a doctor. Neil became interested in apologetics very soon after becoming a Christian, because he was trying to reach his colleagues for Christ. In fact, he has a great website: https://shenviapologetics.com/. He began investigating the area of Critical Theory about 5 years ago, because he began seeing a shift – even in conservative circles – towards progressive theology. So he began asking “why?” And that is when he met Pat and started connecting the dots. What Neil was witnessing in the culture, Pat was researching academically.
Pat Sawyer was a banker for about 20 years prior to going into the academy. He went to undergrad at UNC Chapel Hill, has a BA in psychology. His career in banking had been going well, and he had been doing lay apologetics for a while. God began to press him to get more officially into the arena of ideas, so he got a Master’s in Communication Studies from UNC Greensboro. He then continued on to get a PhD in Education Studies and Cultural Studies with a concentration in Critical Philosophy. The central framework of his PhD was Critical Social Theory which builds to Critical Pedagogy and then to Cultural Foundations.
He did his graduate work in his 40’s. He’s married and has 3 kids. And he currently teaches in the Communications Department at UNC Greensboro. His current research is three-fold. First, it is based on critiquing neo-liberalism in the context of higher education. Second, Pat does media analysis of cultural artifacts (movies, tv shows, etc.) to look at how they drive and reify certain ideas, perspectives, and beliefs in our society. Third, Pat does textual analysis on white power and white nationalist propaganda that is disseminated on college campuses. They analyze it, problematize it, critique it, and then repudiate it.
Pat was first introduced to Critical Theory in graduate school. He prayed a lot about which direction to pursue. Ultimately, he wanted to make a difference for Christ in the academy by shepherding his students and being a witness to his colleagues. So he chose to engage an arena where there would be a push back against Christian epistemology. He has to trust that Christ will protect and guide his mind.
An Introduction to Critical Theory
What is Critical Theory? What are its origins? Critical Theory is interested in interrogating hegemonic (dominant) power wherever it manifests itself (so for instance, white men). Critical Theory can be understood in three broad ways.
A Theoretical Approach
Critical Theory is a reflexive theoretical approach to social analysis that analyzes and understands all of society through the lens of power, privilege, oppression, and disenfranchisement. It is an effort to understand the social organization of everyday life lived out in the various systems and institutions of society in which we find ourselves. It is concerned with the ideological lines of authority that underlie and shape social conditions.
As a theoretical approach to social analysis, Critical Theory contends that manifestations of oppressive power exist through all areas of society (from labor, to the corporatization of work, to science, to education, to technology, to various customs and norms and traditions, to art, to fashion . . . everywhere). As a theoretical approach, Critical Theory is also distinctly praxis oriented. In other words, it seeks to emancipate those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Critical Theory at it’s core is an emancipatory enterprise.
A Large Body of Knowledge
We can think of Critical Theory as a large body of knowledge. It is not a single academic discipline or academic field. Rather, it is a large area of knowledge that influences a range of academic fields and disciplines. Two primary terms within Critical Theory today are Critical Social Justice and Critical Social Theory (CST). Critical Social Theory is manifested in a number of Critical Social Theories (i.e. Feminist Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Pedagogy, Critical Race Theory, Post Colonial Theory, etc.).
Furthermore, Critical Theory is not static. It is fluid and defies essentialism (the notion of a permanent unchanging nature). Yet, it does consist of related ideas, claims, and suppositions. And these are represented in the literature in the form of key tenants or key characteristics or core features. So although Critical Theory resists essentialism, it can be meaningfully identified and understood across a range of things that permeate across a range of social theories that make up Critical Social Theory.
In its most robust forms, Critical Theory seeks to operate as a worldview. Therefore, because of the nature of it’s telos (full expression and ultimate goals), Critical Theory provides a way of seeing, understanding and interpreting the world. In its most robust form, it seeks to provide answers along the lines of phenomenology, ontology, and epistemology. So answers about the nature of being human and how to interpret our daily lives and our lived experience (identity, notions of self, etc.).
Are there red flags for Christians right off the bat? Since Critical Theory attempts to speak to epistemology (how we know what we know), it gets to the core of how we come to understand what we know; it gets to the core of what it means to be in the world; it gets to the core of answering questions about lived experience. So the answers that Critical Theory provides are largely opposed to the biblical answer to those questions. And so that should be a strong red flag.
Critical Theory Then and Now
Critical Theory in its contemporary manifestation has redefined a lot of key vocabulary. To be clear, the Critical Theory that does this is not the outset of Critical Theory from Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Benjamin. Rather, it is today’s contemporary Critical Theorists like DiAngelo, Bonilla-Silva, and Charmaz who are setting about redefining terminology. Thus, when they use the word “oppression,” for instance, they’re not referring to tyranny. From a dictionary standpoint, oppression is prolonged unjust treatment or control. It is cruelty and violence.
Critical Theory Redefining Terms
Contemporary Critical Theorists, on the other hand, have redefined that word to include ways in which dominant groups impose their values on culture. Those dominant groups dictate what is considered to be “normal” and “natural” and “common sense.” When a dominant group does that, they impose a hegemonic discourse upon that culture (hegemonic/hegemony meaning “dominant power”). Thus, the group that is “in control” is the one that wields the hegemonic power (and that doesn’t always have to be the majority culture). The norms and values which the hegemonic group creates, justify and perpetuate that dominance. For instance, “the rich” – the owning class – is a dominant group, a suppressor group, and they produce discourses about meritocracy and hard work (and it’s value), capitalism, property rights, etc. It is those discourses which then, in turn justify why they deserve to be on top.
Or, as another example, “men” will create discourses about how they are natural leaders, naturally stronger, naturally rational; whereas women are weaker or need to be protected, or are emotional, and that discourse is a way for men to explain why they deserve to be at the top of the heap. So Critical Theory sees that social binary between oppressors and oppressed along all kinds of axes like race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, physical ability, and a host of other identity markers. This is the key difference between Critical Theory and Classical Marxism. In Marxism, the oppressor/oppressed binary was primarily identified along economic terms. But another theorist came along (Antonio Gramsci) and actually identified the discourse as the primary means of oppression.
An Irony of Critical Theory
The irony of this viewpoint is that Critical Theory has achieved a staggering amount of power. Particularly within the last six month, it has arguably become the dominant power group. Just look at the words that are beginning to permeate our culture: intersectionality, white privilege, white fragility, white supremacy, the patriarchy, heterosexism, and transphobia. These are all words that have come from Critical Theory discourses. Thus Critical Theory has now become a group with hegemonic power. However, proponents of Critical Theory will claim their discourse is emancipatory. Their discourse is aimed at true democratic participation and true equity. Therefore, they are exempt from the critique of their own theory on power. All other discourses are oppressive, but theirs is different, because theirs is emancipatory.
Critical Christian Thinking on Critical Theory
The notion of hegemony is not 100% flawed, and we as Christians should recognize that hegemonic power is a real thing, and it can be used to oppress (even marginalized Christian viewpoints). So we need to be discerning and understand exactly where discussions concerning hegemonic power within Critical Theory are problematic, but where it is also true and accurate. So for instance, it is true in the United States that white people have oppressed black people more than black people have oppressed white people. That is true and undeniable in the history of our nation. However, what Critical Theory seeks to do with that truth is advance it way forward and then say that intrinsic to whiteness, therefore, is oppression and intrinsic to blackness is being oppressed. That is when the binary becomes false. See McWhorter’s recent article in The Atlantic “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility.”
Lived experience has an exalted role in Critical Theory that enables the oppressed to tell a counter-story. The idea is that the dominant culture (people with hegemonic power) tell a story about reality (i.e. this is how our culture works). That is the narrative spun by the ruling class. However, the marginalized have the potential of realizing that this story is not true. Their lived experience allows them to see how that is not true and they achieve liberatory consciousness or critical consciousness . They are awakened to the reality that the hegemonic narrative is not true. They are “woke.” Thus their lived experience allows them insight into dominant groups that are generally not available to the dominant groups themselves.
Oppressor groups tend to be blinded by their privilege; whereas subordinate groups tend to be enlightened by their lived experience of oppression. This is borrowed from Standpoint Theory. And Standpoint Theory posits that your standpoint (i.e. your social location) is indicative to how you are going to understand and discern the world. If you are in an oppressor category, your understanding is veiled. If you’re oppressed, you see more clearly.
Questioning Lived Experience with Empathy
So even by calling into question people’s lived experience stories in light of objective studies or facts shows that you are participating in the hegemonic discourse. However, we need to remember that we are dealing with real people who have had real experiences. Be empathetic. Sit and listen. Try to understand. Weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15) when dealing with genuine issues of horrific and egregious racism and bigotry that can take place in our society with individuals.
So our posture towards individuals needs to be one of love and care and listening and empathy. Then we want to unpack the differences between anecdotal experience and universal reality. Anecdotal experiences may not translate to empirical and universal reality about the topic we are talking about. So by listening with empathy, we can explore whether that anecdotal experience is true in a universal way or not.
Questioning Lived Experience without Empathy
However, “objective evidence” often gets problematized as being a “white,” “Western,” “post-enlightenment” approach to reality. So it’s not really objective at all, but rather part of ruling classes rules about what counts as knowledge. And there are other ways of knowing that are equally valid. In a Christian setting that can actually translate in a skepticism about Scripture. It’s not Scripture itself, but rather your white, Western, male interpretation theory of Scripture.
And this is ultimately the difference between Critical Theory and Postmodernism. Postmodernism would acknowledge many metanarratives but express skepticism towards all of them. Critical Theory conversely would express certain ideals (“justice,” “equity,” “emancipation” etc.), but the question is who has the best access to that truth (epistemology). Here the Critical Theorist would say that hegemonic authority needs to take a back seat to experiential authority (women of color, LGBTQ people, etc.), because their views are not shrouded and veiled in the power structures that yours are).
How Should We Then Live?
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)?
Go back and listen to the show again. There is a lot of good stuff here, and it sets the foundation for the second half of the interview. He is encouraged that there are men and women studying and able to speak boldly, intelligently, and with the right heart attitude. I’m reminded of the Men of Issachar who understood the times and knew what to do (1 Chronicles 12:32). On a personal level, he’s grateful, because it’s helped bring some clarity to a topic that he’s been wrestling with a lot lately.
What drew us to Neil and Pat in the first place is the generous tone of the article in The Gospel Coalition. In fact, before we started the interview, the first thing we did was pray. We prayed for discernment and for the Holy Spirit to guide the conversation. We have an open invitation for Neil and Pat to come back to dive deeper into Critical Theory because we really did just scratch the surface.
This was just really cool, because we often hear terms thrown around. The tendency is to think they just came out of a vacuum. But hearing some of the history has helped provide context for ideas and concepts which are having huge ramifications in our culture. And the church needs to know how to respond Biblically with love and with grace to this issue. So, we’ve got a lot of learning to do to understand the position and the worldview behind this. We also need to understand the pain and the hurt that’s driving a lot of the conversations right now, so we can better respond Biblically and interact in a way that’s helpful, loving, and winsome. A way that shows Christ.
You’ll have to tune in to the next episode if you want to hear how Neil and Pat answer the question Steven posed at the end of the podcast: how then should Christians respond if our voices have no influence?
In the meantime, feel free to reach out to us at our email address.
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
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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.
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