What is “Critical Theory”?

Have you ever heard the term “critical theory”? Specifically, have you heard of “critical race theory”?

With all of the discussion about “Black Lives Matter,” many are not aware that the concept of “critical theory” has made “BLM” the watchword for today. For some, critical theory is simply a tool for understanding how power dynamics work between oppressor and oppressor groups, in societies. Historically, this is fairly close to how Christians have talked about “social justice” and “fighting racism,” etc. Yes, there are genuinely oppressed people…. and yes, justice is a theme that runs all through the Bible, as is combatting racism. In this sense, we as Christians can surely affirm the idea that “black lives” really do “matter.” What could be wrong with that?

But is there more to this movement? Many are not aware that “critical theory,” whether it is applied towards race, gender, or sexual orientation, also has its roots in postmodern philosophy (think Michael Foucault, Jacques Derrida, JeanFrancois Lyotard, etc).

(Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images)

As it has been taught in many American universities, since about the early-mid 1990s, “critical theory” in this sense has come across as being very, very different, even to the point of being antithetical to the Gospel. According to James Lindsay, a scholar at New Discources, this version of critical theory has almost become a new religion, where there is no such thing as absolute truth. In this sense, “critical theory” goes even beyond “politics.” Many Christians lump all of this into “identity politics,” but this is merely a symptom of a deeper problem, rooted in postmodernism.

So, what is the fundamental idea, associated with the “critical theory” approach to postmodernism?In a nutshell: Claims to truth are simply attempts by an oppressor group to oppress others, in order to hold onto their power. Gone is the vision imagined by Martin Luther King, Jr., whereby a person should be judged, not by color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Now, the color of a person’s skin means everything. In other words, what Christians have historically meant by “social justice” does not mean the same thing as what “critical theorists” today mean by “social justice.”

So, what do people actually mean when they say, “Black Lives Matter?”  I do not really know. Perhaps it means something like what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned… OR, perhaps it means a NeoMarxist view of reality. The meaning appears to differ from person to person.

Confusion about critical theory is causing a crisis for Christians. Sadly, as a result, critical theory is dividing the evangelical church today. Some, like popular Christian author Jemar Tisby, referenced in an earlier Veracity blog post, believe “critical theory” to be very useful for Christians. Monique Duson, of the Center for Biblical Unity, on the other hand, rejects this use of “critical theory,” as actually undermining Gospel.

What makes this even more difficult is that a growing number of secular thinkers are catching onto what is going on (see atheist, mathematician James Lyndsay, in this provocative and alarming YouTube video) , while many Christians remain puzzled. When we can not even agree on what the words mean, we get into serious trouble (Where is C.S. Lewis, when you need him?).

We need a conversation about this. How should we respond, yet as followers of Jesus?

In recent months, I have blogged about conspiracy theories, on the right, that fascinate a number of my fellow Christians. But the “uncritical” acceptance, without sufficient nuance, of critical race theory, among other of my fellow Christians, has a lot of the same properties of being a conspiracy theory, but this time, on the left. It is as though we are all caught in the middle of ideological cross-fire, where one extreme is the mirror image of the other extreme. We live in strange times, that require great amounts of wise, Spirit-led discernment.

Here below is a helpful video, where Christian apologist Alisa Childers interviews Monique Duson, of the Center for Biblical Unity, who explains, why she, as a black Christian, rejects critical race theory. If the first 10 seconds of the video do not interest you, I do not know what will.

YES: I recognize that the video is an hour long. I am sorry, but this type of stuff is exceedingly complex, and can not be summed up in a Twitter tweet or a sound bite.  But if you really only have 4 minutes to spare, I have also included a 4-minute clip of an interview by Bobby Conway with Neil Shenvi, one of the top Christian thinkers who understands critical theory, where he sums up his advice for Christians and Christian leaders (link to full interview):

Let the conversation begin: What do you think?:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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