A Plea to the PCA
If you care to read the architects of Critical Theory—Benjamin, Horkheimer, Fromm, Adorno, Marcuse, etc.— you will find that their project was animated in large part by a desire to undermine Christianity and its moral and philosophical norms. They believed these norms inhibited the sexual and intellectual evolution of mankind. You will also find that many of these scholars coming out of the 1930s Frankfurt School considered Satan an important symbol of mankind’s empowerment and independence.
How strange, then, that some in the PCA are urging us to employ Critical Race Theory (a species of Critical Theory) as an important lens through which we can better understand God, the Gospel, and humanity. They do so under the banner of common grace, which may be one of the most overused yet misunderstood doctrines in our theological toolbox.
As John McWhorter, Carl Trueman, and others have noted, Critical Race Theory has all the marks of a religious system. Indeed, it depends upon certain categories which are unmistakably Christian. There is original sin (whiteness). There are sinners (white heterosexual males). There are saints (everyone who claims oppression from white heterosexual males). There are heretics (those who deny or question CRT). There is penance (admitting guilt, offering reparations, virtue signaling, etc). Curiously absent are any true senses of atonement or redemption. Therefore, the sinner is left in a perpetual state of penance before the saint. This is not only not an application of the Gospel; it is the undoing of the gospel.
In his book American Awakening, the Georgetown University political philosopher Joshua Mitchell makes this very argument, that identity politics (the political application of Critical Theory) trades on Christian concepts, but does so in a way that distorts them:
Like the stain of original sin that marks Adam and all his progeny, the transgressor is permanently marked. He himself may have done nothing to contribute to transgressions that predated him by decades or even centuries. Little matter. He stands for the sum of the transgressions linked to his identity. Pressing Christian imagery further, though distorting it immensely, like Christ, the transgressor stands in as a scapegoat for those who purport themselves to be innocent, but who know in their hearts that they are not wholly so. The transgressor thereby covers over their stains, so that no judgment against them may be rendered (pg. 8, author’s emphasis).
Recently I’ve seen the appropriation of Critical Race Theory in the PCA justified on the basis of the “eat the meat, spit out the bones,” theory. There are good reasons for rejecting this line of reasoning.
1. Few (if any) would say that there are no true statements or insights to be found within Critical Theory or its offshoots. The question is whether Critical Race Theory offers unique and helpful insights without being laden with the profound errors of Critical Theory. I say no. Consider the prosperity gospel. Kenneth Copeland says “Jesus is Lord.” Certainly, that is true. But his problems and those found throughout prosperity teaching are so grave that seeking to pick out the meat would be a hopeless exercise. Or what of Kinism?* I would never tell anyone to pick out the meat and spit out bones of Kinism. As a pastor I would tell the average congregant to avoid such errant teachings altogether lest the enemy use those errors to lead them astray. This ought to be wisdom basic to all pastors.
2. The "eat the meat and spit out the bones" idea is necessary in the classroom. Indeed, scholars are often required to give great attention to the “bones” of various philosophies and ideas. But for pastoral ministry and within the church such a practice can be highly problematic, particularly when dealing with systems as fundamentally anti-Christian as Critical Theory and its offspring Critical Race Theory and Liberation Theology. There are good reasons why the architects of Critical Theory believed their system(s) to be incompatible with Christianity.
3. It is well past time for those promoting Critical Race Theory within the PCA to provide a catalogue of what they believe are both the meat and the bones within that system. Since they acknowledge that there are dangers in Critical Race Theory, wouldn't it make sense that they would want to warn us about those dangers? This absence of qualification is significant, I think.
4. I believe it is terribly unwise for pastors to commend Critical Theory (race or otherwise) to God's flock. The precious souls we pastor are not sitting around all day pondering modernist post-structural philosophy (Thank God they have more important things to do). Why in the world would pastors tell them to search for meat in systems of thought grounded in rather esoteric and aggressively anti-Christian presuppositions? When that happens, Liberation Theology is not far behind. Of course, there are currently some in the PCA who are actively promoting Liberation Theology, so that genie is likely already out of the bottle.
We all know the importance of distinguishing the meat from bones, whether it's when we read books, watch movies, listen to sermons, or receive advice from friends. When it comes to Critical Race Theory, the question is whether we’re dealing with a bony piece of fish, or water from a poison well. I argue it is the later. But even if CRT is akin to bony fish, is that appreciably better as a fitting analogy for something pastors should commend to those they serve? Would we serve guests in our home a piece of bony fish and tell them to simply spit out the bones? Would a wise pastor set before God’s beloved flock a poorly prepared meal with a warning to spit out the bones?
I’m from Houston, Texas. Among other things that means I’m familiar with the fishing in Trinity River. Among the river’s more peculiar inhabitants is the alligator gar, a species of fish which is quite nasty. They are fun for anglers but less so for cooks who have to navigate their incredibly tough exterior and inner bone structure. This has always made them a challenge to prepare for human consumption (indeed, a lot of folks still consider them “garbage fish”). That said, if one is determined enough, it can be done. But if you’re having guests you may want to reconsider and serve salmon or mahi mahi. Better yet, go with filet mignon and forget about the bones altogether. Keep that in mind if someone serves you a plateful of fried alligator gar and tells you to eat the meat and pick out the bones.
While I deplore the theology of Revoice, the adoption of Critical Theory represents an even greater threat to the Gospel. It should not surprise us that the denominations which have taken up the categories and language of “Theory” and Liberation Theology have all died or are dying due to apostasy. I pray that the PCA will learn from their foolishness and not follow their path.
Dr. Neil Shenvi has done a great deal of writing on the subject of Critical Theory HERE.
James Lindsay writes about Critical Race Theory at New Discourses (HERE)
Cynical Theories by James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose
Race and Covenant: Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation, Gerald McDermott, editor
* Kinism is a neo-Confederate interpretation of Christianity which holds that God created nations in such a way that there should be no mixing of the races.