Gender, Race, Oppression, and Critical Theory (Shenvi/Sawyer)

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Hearing about many recent cultural issues and happenings has left me somewhat confused. I am wondering why some people today think it’s ok for a person to condemn violence by engaging in violent acts himself. I’m wondering how someone can think an entire group of people is guilty if only some members of the group have done evil. I’m also wondering why one group will absolutely not listen to or dialogue with a group it opposes.

Here’s a short booklet that has answered a lot of my questions: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. (As a side, having studied postmodernity in seminary, it’s fascinating to me to see how critical theory’s epistemology seems to be a child of postmodernism.) Here’s an excerpt I marked up:

Because contemporary critical theory divides society into oppressed groups and oppressor groups, many critical theorists insist that our identity as individuals is inextricably bound to our group identity. From the perspective of contemporary critical theory, our experience of reality, our evaluation of evidence, our access to truth, our moral status, and our moral obligations are all largely determined by our membership in either a dominant oppressor group or a subordinate oppressed 􏰙􏰆􏰂􏰔􏰚 group. It’s important to note that the definition of “oppression” in critical theory differs markedly from the definition one finds in the dictionary, where “oppression” refers to “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.” According to critical theory, “oppression” should additionally or even primarily be understood in terms of “hegemonic power,” the ability of a particular group to impose its norms, values, and expectations on the rest of society: “In any relationship between groups that define one another (men/women, able-bodied/disabled, young/old), the dominant group is the group that is valued more highly. Dominant groups set the norms by which the minoritiized group is judged.”

Given this definition, contemporary critical theorists view racism, sexism, classism, ableism, capitalism, heteronormativity, and cisgender privilege as forms of oppression: “People [in the U.S.] are commonly defined as other on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, and physical or mental ability. Each of these categories has a form of oppression associated with it: racism, sexism, religious oppression/anti-Semitism, heterosex- ism, classism, ageism, and ableism, respectively.”  In saying that a particular man is an “oppressor” the critical theorist is not saying that the man has personally ever abused his power or, for instance, mistreated women in ways that are traditionally understood as unjust. Rather, the critical theorist is asserting that the group to which the man belongs (men) has imposed its views on society regarding what is normal, expected, and valuable, thus making the man an oppressor. By establishing hegemonic norms, dominant groups conversely characterize the “Other” as abnormal, unusual, deviant, or worthless. Of course, a particular individual can participate in both oppressed and oppressor groups simultaneously, but this overlap does not reverse or overturn the respective social position of the groups to which she belongs. For example, a white woman is oppressed in terms of her gender but is still privileged in terms of her race.

One of the most important implications of contemporary critical theory’s emphasis on group identity is the moral asymmetry it assumes between different groups. Because of its collectivist outlook, members of oppressor groups are not seen as morally neutral, even if their individual behavior has been unimpeachable….

I’ll come back to this book later, but for now if you’re interested you can find it online in several places as a PDF: Engaging Critical Theory and the Social Justice Movement by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. I also appreciate how this book shows some positives of critical theory but then contrasts it with the Christian worldview and apologetics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Evangelicals, Sexual Revolution, and Roadkill (Guinness)

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by [Guinness, Os] As I’ve said before, Impossible People by Os Guinness is an excellent book in many ways.  One reason I appreciate it is because Guinness calls the church to stand firmly, carefully, and purposefully on the truths and teachings of Scripture.  He laments how some evangelicals have waffled and wavered when it comes to sexuality, gender, marriage, and other similar topics.  What is so clear in Scripture has been abandoned, explained away, or simply ignored by evangelicals trying to keep up with the sexual revolution.  Guinness’ words are helpful:

“Today’s evangelical revisionists should take sober note.  Time and again I tremble when I hear or read their flimsy arguments.  They may be lionized by the wider advocates of the sexual revolution for fifteen minutes, because they are siding with that wider culture in undermining the clear teaching of Jesus and the Bible that stands in their way.  For there is no question that Jesus, the Scriptures and Christian tradition all stand resolutely in their way.  But in truth, the sexual revolution has no real interest in such Evangelicals, and they will be left as roadkill as the revolution blitzkrieg gathers speed.  But that is nothing compared with the real tragedy of the revisionists.  It is no light thing for anyone to set themselves above and against the authority of Jesus and his Scriptures.  The apostle Peter betrayed Jesus and was restored, but Judas stands as the warning for all who betray Jesus for their personal, sexual or political interests and condemn themselves for their disloyalty.”

“Both Jesus and the apostle Peter tell us to ‘remember Lot’s wife’ (Lk 17:33), but our Christian revisionists should remember Lot himself.  Having chosen the benefits and privileges of living in the well-watered garden country of Sodom, having married into their social circles and having worked his way up to into the inner leadership of the city, Lot was suddenly confronted by the moment of truth.  He had been utterly naive and deluded in trusting the Sodomites.  When the chips were down, they had no respect for his hospitality, no time for his different moral standards, and they threatened to deal with him as brutally as his guests: ‘This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them’ (Gen 19:9).”

“Poor Lot became a joke even to his in-laws.  In spite of all his efforts and contrary to all that he imagined, he had still not arrived, and he was never accepted as he imagined.  He was always the alien – as Abraham never forgot that he was and was respected for being.  We of course should always be resident aliens as faithful Christians who are in the world but not of it – regardless of the world’s pressure on us to change with the times and line up with the so-called right side of history.”

Os Guinness, Impossible People, p. 74-5.

Shane Lems



Gender Confusion, Authority, and Irony

I appreciate how McQuilkin and Copan discuss transsexuality and gender change on pages 270-272 of An Introduction to Biblical Ethics:

“One of my (Paul’s) friends was teaching a philosophy class.  He showed a video clip of a man who wanted surgery to remove a leg because he felt like ‘a one-legged man trapped inside a tw0-legged man’s body.’  The professor asked the class if he should have his leg amputated.  The class though this ludicrous and that the problem was in the man’s mind.  Interestingly, they knew how the body ought to function, that it had a certain purpose or goal, and that this normal-sounding idea was not an idea socially constructed by human bipeds.  Then the professor asked, ‘So what do we do with a woman who claims she is a man trapped in side a woman’s body?’  The class was silent.”

“…By what authority would a sex-change be justified?  Typically it is one’s own feelings (‘I feel; therefore I am’).  So the man who ‘feels like a female’ is therefore justified in going through with the drastic operation.  The reality, however, is that any such operation is actually anti-creational; it produces a body incapable of procreation.  In other words, we cannot change the created order.  Our sexual identity is not up to us to decide.  In trying to find ourselves, we may actually lose ourselves.  Indeed, the fact that so many transvestites remain deeply unsatisfied with their sex-change operations should serve as a caution against such a procedure….”

The authors also point out a few ironies in the transsexual argument; I’ll summarize two of them here:

“A commonly accepted view in today’s society is that sexual identity is simply a social construct and not something given at birth.  But if this is the case, then why all the fuss about, say, women’s rights?  Why press this if there is nothing intrinsic or distinctive about being a woman?”

“Another cultural irony is this: we’re told we can readily change our sexual identity by having a sex-change operation; biology can be altered to fit one’s psychological frame of mind.  However, as we saw above, those struggling with same-sex attraction are told that they can’t ever change, that they were born gay: biology/genetics determines inner awareness of sexual identity.”

These are some helpful points to ponder as we find ourselves in a culture of gender fluidity.  I don’t have time/space to mention it now, but for the record McQuilkin and Copan do point out the truths of forgiveness, healing, and a positive Christian view of sexuality and gender in other parts of this helpful book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI






Marriage & the Mystery of the Gospel: A Review

Since our culture has a very distorted moral compass when it comes to marriage and sexuality, many Christian authors and publishers have been giving us quality resources to help us think biblically of these things.  Ray Ortlund’s new book, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel is one of these quality resources.

This book isn’t a lengthy and detailed exploration of what the Bible says about marriage.  Instead, it is a short and concise overview of the Bible’s teaching on marriage.  In the first and longest chapter, Ortlund walks through Genesis 1-3 to talk about marriage as instituted before the fall and what happened to it after the fall.  The second chapter, which is around 2o pages, is a brief look at some marriage texts in the Law, the Prophets, and Wisdom literature.  The third chapter is where Ortlund explains a few prominent NT texts that talk about marriage, ending with Revelation 21.  The final chapter is a six page defense of biblical marriage in light of culture today.

I appreciated this book because it is what it says it is: a short (100 page) study of the biblical view of marriage.  Ortlund takes the historic Christian view of gender and marriage, a view that is a minority position today.  He does a nice job centering the book on the gospel and the fact that marriage is not a prison, but a God-given blessing.  The contents of this book are solid and based well on Scripture.

I have to admit that this book covers the same material that many other Christian marriage books cover.  Other marriage books on my shelves are very much like Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel.  If you’ve read other books on the historic view of Christian marriage, you might not need this one (unless you want to review what you’ve already read elsewhere).  Sorry if I’m being too blunt, but I like to point out what endorsements usually don’t!

In a word, although this book is like other books on the topic, it is a solid, concise resource that summarizes the biblical view of marriage.  May God use these good books on marriage to help his people stand firm on the truth, believe it, live it, and love it!

Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).

Shane Lems

Human Gender: Fixed or Fluid?

Are human genders fixed or are they fluid?  Is the distinction between male and female something essential to human beings or is the distinction a product of culture or personal choice?  In the United States – and other Western cultures – there has been a movement to erase gender distinctions.  From gender neutral housing on college campuses, to new gender free pronouns, to TV and movie screens, to new terms like “pansexual” and “metrosexual,” our culture is quickly moving to get rid of gender distinctions.  On this topic, I appreciate Daniel Heimbach’s essay called, “The Unchangeable Difference: Eternally Fixed Sexual Identity for an Age of Plastic Sexuality” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood.

Heimbach argues that “today the ‘essential’ or ‘fixed’ nature of human sexual identity is under fire mainly because it stands in the way of the social and moral deconstructionism that underlies hardline feminism and homosexual militancy.”  The ‘essentialist’ or ‘fixed’ view of human sexual identity is the historic Christian position that God made male and female different and distinct.  “While men and women share a common humanity, there is something fundamental about human sexual identity that is not the same when men as men are compared to women as women.”  Part of the Bible’s fabric is that God made man and women distinct and different – both are made in his image, yet men and women have unchangeable differences.

A recent view of sexuality is called the ‘constructionist’ view, and it says “that human sexual identity is something conditioned entirely by the social and cultural history of a people and by personal choice.  Constructionists claim there are no fixed features that define or restrict who we are as sexual beings, and so of course there can be no moral boundaries that depend on thinking sexual differences are actually real.”  This is also called ‘plastic’ sexuality – it is malleable and moldable like soft plastic.  This view believes you can choose whatever gender you want – even make up a new one if it suits your fancy!

Heimbach later explains the biblical view that gender distinctions will not even be erased in the new creation – they are fixed eternally.  First, God created Adam and Eve as man and woman, physical and spiritual beings with distinct and different sexual identities.   Second, when God created Adam and Eve, he demonstrated the fact that human sexual identity was distinct even before sin entered the world.  Because there was a gender distinction before sin entered the world, it is reasonable to believe there will be gender distinction in the new creation, where there is no sin.  Third, in the resurrection ‘we will be changed’ (1 Cor 15).  ‘We’ will be changed – the subject remains the subject.  There will be continuity of personal identity.  Like Augustine said, ‘He, then, who created both sexes, will restore both.’  Fourth, when Jesus addressed the Sadducees about marriage after the resurrection (Mt. 22), he did not say the question was irrelevant because there will be no distinction in the resurrection; rather, he said there is no marriage after the resurrection.  The Bible doesn’t hint that God’s people will be genderless in heaven.

Heimbach says more in this essay; the above is just a summary.  I have to admit I can’t believe people today seriously deny gender distinctions, but since they do, and since our culture is moving that way, it’s good for Christians to have a biblical mindset and response to this movement.  Heimbach’s essay is a good place to start!

Daniel Heimbach, “The Unchangeable Difference: Eternally Fixed Sexual Identity for an Age of Plastic Sexuality” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood.

shane lems