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

The “Broken” Evangelical Buzzword (Wells)

I recently finished reading a very popular evangelical Christian book.  It wasn’t too bad, but when I finished reading it struck me that the author used the terms “broken” or “brokenness” way too much.  After doing a word search on my Kindle, I found that these words were used around 100 times in 300 pages!

It would be interesting to do a sociological study on these terms.  I’m guessing that “broken” and “brokenness” are evangelical buzzwords that have become very popular just in the last 10 years or so.  (Are these words used mostly by GenYers/Millenials?  I can’t imagine my grandpa using these terms!)  I’m also guessing that older generations of Christian writers rarely, if ever, spoke of being broken or facing brokenness.  Speaking of this topic, here’s a post I did in May.  I’m re-blogging it here because I thought of it after reading the book I noted above.

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David Wells did a nice job of explaining and critiquing postmodern spirituality in the first chapter of Losing Our Virtue.  At one point he says that postmodern spirituality doesn’t really talk about sins in moral terms but in psychological terms.  In other words, instead of talking about sin as breaking God’s law, disobeying God, and a rupture in the relationship between God and man, people talk sin by way of personal experience:

“It begins with our anxiety, pain, and disillusionment, with the world in its disorder, the family or marriage in its brokenness, or the workplace in its brutality and insecurity.  God, in consequence, is valued to the extent that he is able to bathe these wounds, assuage these insecurities, calm these fears, restore some sense of internal order, and bring some sense of wholeness.”

So in evangelicalism today you’ll notice words like broken, numb, shattered, and wounded.  Wells quotes one praise song to prove his point:

“He heard my cry and came to heal me / He took my pain and He relieved me;
He filled my life and comforted me / And his name will shine, shine eternally.”

What’s the big deal?  Why can’t we just talk about being broken and bruised instead of sinful and wretched before God?  Isn’t it OK to say we’re “numb” instead of saying “my sin is ever before me (Ps.51)?  Here’s Wells again:

“This psychologizing of sin and salvation has an immediacy about it that is appealing in this troubled age, this age of broken beliefs and broken lives.  The cost, however, is that it so subverts the process of moral understanding that sin loses its sinfulness, at least before God.  And whereas in classical spirituality it was assumed that sinners would struggle with their sin, feel its sting, and experience dismay over it, in postmodern spirituality, this struggle is considered abnormal and something for which divine relief is immediately available.  That is why the experience of Luther, Brainerd, and Owen is so remote from what passes as normal in the evangelical world today.”

This is important to note!  I’m not saying that everyone who uses the terms “broken” or “brokenness” rejects sin in a postmodern way.  But we do have to be sure we talk about sin in biblical terms and not define sin based on our psychological experiences or emotional feelings.  Sin isn’t first about our feelings, experiences, and emotions, it is first about disobeying God, doing what is evil in his sight, falling short of his glory, and being accountable to him for it (Ps. 51, Rom. 3, etc.).  And the remedy for sin is not something that we feel or do, it is Christ crucified for sinners, doing what they could never do themselves!

David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Pragmatism and Postmodernity (Groothuis)

In chapter six of Doug Groothuis’ helpful book, Christian Apologeticshe does a nice job explaining and refuting postmodernism from a Christian point of view.  He notes that in postmodernity, “dialoging about one religion being true or another false is beside the point.  All are ‘true’ in the postmodern sense because they give meaning and direction to people’s lives….”

“The postmodernist view also bears on the increasing tendency of some contemporary people to create their own religions (or ‘spirituality’) by mixing and matching elements of several religions, however incompatible these may be.  If spiritual truth is a matter of social or individual construction, then one need not be constrained by logical consistency or adherence to a received tradition (say Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, or Islamic).”

“There is an element of pragmatism here as well.  If it ‘works’ for someone to combine elements of Hinduism (the practice of yoga) and Christianity (church attendance, the golden rule, and prayer), one need not worry about intellectual consistency or spiritual fidelity to an ancient tradition or revealed authority.  But this smorgasbord approach lacks intellectual integrity because it makes religious belief something to use instead of something to discover and live by.”

Excellent points!  And of course, postmodernist and pragmatic views of religion and spirituality fall short:

“Postmodernity often erodes religious confidence.  What results is a free-floating spirituality largely devoid of certainty or sustained convictions.”

The Christian faith, however, isn’t free-floating, nor is it devoid of certainty, sustained convictions, or truth.  Because the gospel is true, it gives us direction, certainty, and convictions.  You can find this entire excellent discussion in chapter 6 of Groothuis’ Christian Apologetics.

Shane Lems

The Hermit Crab Church (Wells)

Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (This is a re-post from July 2012)

In Losing Our Virtue, David Wells explains how many aspects of modernity and postmodernity have crept into the church to the point where any talk about sin is avoided and talk about self is central.  From watered down emotional praise songs to therapeutic sermons to the loss of reverence and awe in worship, Wells calls out the sins of the modern church.  This book is a sort of trumpet call for churches to repent of their worldliness and reform according to the word (rather than culture).  I appreciated these paragraphs near the end of the book.

“The wisdom common to many of our marketers is that, if it wants to attract customers, the Church should stick to a positive and uplifting message.  It should avoid speaking of negative matters like sin.  Not only so, but what has distinguished the Church in its appearance and functions should now be abandoned.  In order to be attractive to people today, church buildings should not look different from corporate headquarters, malls, or country clubs.  Crosses and robes should go; dress should be casual; hymns should be contemporary and empty of the theological substance by which previous generations lived, because this is incomprehensible today; pews should be replaced by cinema-grade seats, organs by synthesizers and drums, solemnity by levity, reflection by humor, and sermons by light dialogues and catchy readings.  The theory is that people will buy Christianity if they don’t have to deal with what the Church has traditionally been.”

“The best construction that can be put on this is that these market-driven churches have become like hermit crabs, which walk around concealed within a shell.  Hidden beneath the outer shell – the corporate style that disguises the churchly business that is supposed to be going on , the mall-like atmosphere in which faith is bought and sold like any other commodity, the relaxed, country club atmosphere – is the little animal who supposedly is really evangelical.  As it moves from rock pool to rock pool, all we can see are the little legs – the most minimal doctrinal substance – that protrude from under the shell.  Is this substance enough to sustain people amidst life’s fiery trials?  Is it enough to preserve biblical identity in these churches in the decades ahead?  I think not.”

Well said.  As you may have guessed, I highly recommend this book.  If your church is a hermit crab church, or if you’ve left one, or if you want to be sure your church doesn’t become a hermit crab church, get this book today (and give one to your pastor!).  Be prepared to be challenged, prodded, encouraged, and motivated to get back to Scripture and the historic Christian faith.

David Wells, Losing Our Virtue (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 201.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

An Interpretive Realist

Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge Here are some great words about texts and their meaning in our postmodern context.

“The basic problem with the postmodern liberation of the reader from dominant interpretations is that it fails to free readers from themselves. The irony of this liberation from fixed orders is that the postmodern self becomes free and responsible only by emptying out everything that opposes it. That meaning is not ‘really’ there, but only an imposition of institutional ideologies and practices, is a liberating insight for the postmodernist; for if nothing is really there, then nothing can make a claim on my life. Must we say, amending Derrida, that there is nothing outside oneself? This does seem to be the logic behind much postmodern thought. An independent reality with its own intrinsic order would limit my creativity and call my freedom into question.”

“Theological hermeneutics, on the other hand, is unabashedly realist about meaning.  A theological interpretation of interpretation contends that there is something in the text that transcends me.  It believes that readers can receive something from the communicative act of another that can engage, and perhaps enlarge and enhance, their being.  How do hermeneutic realists deal with the phenomenon of textual otherness?  If there is indeed a meaning in texts that transcends the process of interpretation, what is the readers obligation toward it?  Just this: the reader ought to acknowledge it as other, to respond to what is there, to what Steiner terms its ‘real presence.’  Concretely, this means acknowledging a communicative act for what it is, namely, a verbal work whereby an author says something about something to someone.  It means acknowledging the text’s matter (the sense and reference), energy (illocutionary force), and teleology (perlocution).”  For example, with regard to Jesus’ parables, one must acknowledge that these texts metaphorically describe the kingdom of God and challenge the reader to espouse a way of life commensurate with it.  Thiselton rightly highlights the speech act nature of the parables: ‘They attack, they rebuke, they claim, they defend.’  …The ethics of the interpretive realist is characterized by responsibility to another, not freedom from it (p. 394-395).

Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

shane lems