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Critical Theory as Method, Metanarrative, and Mood

May 3rd, 2021 | 18 min read

By William Murrell

In a recent article in First Things, “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” Carl Trueman enters into an increasingly contentious intramural debate amongst American evangelicals about the place of Critical Race Theory (and Critical Theory more broadly) in the life of the evangelical mind. Trueman echoes the concern of many evangelical commentators that CRT is not only “promoted by progressive activists” but is also “adopted by many evangelical intellectuals”— even in the pages (or webpages) of mainstream evangelical outlets like Christianity Today or The Gospel Coalition.

While Truman’s piece in First Things may be the one of the more prominent shots fired into the public sphere of late, it comes in the context of several years of growing evangelical engagement and concern with Critical Theory. To highlight just three noteworthy yet diverse examples, one might point to Neil Shenvi’s prolific and widely-cited blog on Critical Theory; Owen Strachan’s (in)famous five-part teaching on YouTube, “Christianity and Wokeness;” or the statement by the six SBC seminary presidents that “any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.”

Of course, these varied critiques of Critical (Race) Theory from an evangelical perspective have been met with nuanced counter-arguments from other evangelical thinkers like Alan Jacobs, John Piper, Rasool Berry, and Kelly Hamren. In a rare head-to-head debate on the issue, Rasool Berry and Neil Shenvi appeared on the Unbelievable apologetics YouTube channel to debate the question: “Is Critical Race Theory Compatible With Christianity?” The hour and eighteen-minute video, which was posted on October 16, 2020, has over thirty-two thousand views as of this writing (in April of 2021).

If you take the time to follow this debate, you’ll quickly realize that many of the evangelical commentators on both sides of the issue seem to be talking past one another. They largely agree on key biblical critiques of Critical Theory, but the divergence lies in what they actually think Critical Theory is. Evangelicals who are open to thoughtful engagement with Critical Theory tend to see it simply as an academic method — one that can be employed, benefitted from, critiqued, and set aside. On the other hand, those who wholeheartedly reject Critical Theory as “incompatible with Christianity” see it fundamentally as a totalizing metanarrative — one that shapes (and distorts) the way we view all of reality.

It is tempting to stop there and see this crucial distinction between method and metanarrative as the fault line in this consequential intramural debate, but there is one further distinction that I would like to propose: Critical Theory as mood.

As I’ve followed the debate over the last few years, I’ve observed that there are manifestations of Critical Theory in the evangelical public sphere that fit neither the method nor metanarrative framework. If the former describes an academic activity (asking empirically verifiable questions about power and oppression along particular axes of inequality, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, etc.) and the latter describes a secular worldview (seeing and interpreting all phenomena through the lens of power, race, gender, class, etc.), what do we do with apparent expressions of Critical Theory that neither advance empirical arguments nor articulate a comprehensive worldview? How should we think about apparent expressions of Critical Theory that are fundamentally (and perhaps even exclusively) operating in the affective domain?

Before providing examples of what I would label Critical Theory as mood, allow me first to briefly map the contours of the first two (and most commonly understood) expressions of Critical Theory: method and metanarrative.

Critical Theory as Method

It is not surprising that the evangelical thinkers who have argued against the outright rejection of Critical Theory have been academics. When Alan Jacobs first engaged this debate in the summer of 2020, he found the debate “puzzling.” In a series of blog posts over the summer, Jacobs attempted to clear up some of the terminological confusion and provide Christians with “a response to Critical Theory.”

In a series of hastily written yet erudite and insightful posts, Jacobs made two main arguments. First, Jacobs argued that “some of the questions raised by ‘critical theory’ are empirical ones’” and thus should be “assessed by gathering and sifting evidence.” For example, “has the history of what became the United States been deeply, indeed essentially, implicated in the slave trade since 1619?” or “is our society still dominated by white supremacy?” Second, Jacobs argued that one could be a “deeply orthodox Christian and answer ‘Yes’ to all those questions” and that one could be a “deeply orthodox Christian and answer ‘No’ to them all. It would depend on the evidence you gather and how you evaluate it.”

To anyone trained in a graduate program in the humanities or social sciences, Jacobs’ insights seem obvious and uncontroversial. For example, as a historian, I was introduced to a panoply of Critical Theories in my PhD course work. Never once did the faculty members at my secular R1 research university assume or imply that adopting these theories was required or that employing these theories would necessitate a worldview shift. I vividly remember sitting in a faculty mentor’s office sharing a concern that my work was “undertheorized” (a critique I had received from a fellow graduate student). The well-established historian of medieval Italy looked at me across his thick glasses and said in his disarming Brooklyn accent, “Theories are like glasses. Some of them make your historical subjects and sources clearer while others distort them. Try some on and see how things look. And never feel like you’re stuck with any of them.”

After that liberating conversation with a dear mentor, I felt freed to “try on” a wide variety of analytical frameworks for my dissertation research, but at the same time, I did not feel compelled to adopt or embrace any of them as life philosophies. (Aside: If you want to know why a medievalist would read Walter Benjamin — of the Frankfurt School! —in an effort to crack a centuries old question regarding Franco-Syrian numismatics, then read chapter four of my dissertation).

In fact, this was the conclusion of the Southern Baptist Convention — at least in the summer of 2019 — when they passed a resolution “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality.” The resolution acknowledged the concerns “raised by evangelicals over the use of frameworks such as critical race theory and intersectionality” but ultimately concluded “that critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture—not as transcendent ideological frameworks.”

Of course, this was not the end of the story.

Critical Theory as Metanarrative

The slow-motion train wreck that is the SBC’s debate over Critical Theory took another significant turn when, as I mentioned above, the six SBC seminary presidents issued this joint statement about Critical Theory and intersectionality in late November of 2020:

In light of current conversations in the Southern Baptist Convention, we stand together on historic Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in any form and we also declare that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.

Though they never elucidate how exactly CRT is “incompatible” with the Baptist Faith and Message, what is abundantly clear in the presidents’ statement and in their individual comments attached to the statement was that they viewed CRT exclusively as a metanarrative and not a method. While the labels “worldview” and “secular ideology” appear frequently in the statement, not once was Critical Theory referred to as a “method” or “analytical tool” as it had been in the 2019 resolution.

This apparent reversal of the 2019 resolution prompted several prominent African American pastors to leave the SBC because it appeared that the SBC seminary presidents had unnecessarily (and unilaterally) removed a useful tool for understanding racism in the American past and present. In an op-ed in Religion News Service, Charlie Dates articulated the frustration of many of his fellow African-American evangelicals: “How did they, who in 2020 still don’t have a single black denominational entity head, reject once and for all a theory that helps to frame the real race problems we face?”

In an article in Mere Orthodoxy, Anthony Bradley also responded to the SBC seminary presidents’ statement making a detailed case for why “Critical Race Theory isn’t a Threat for Presbyterians.” In short, because of their confessional framework and theology of common grace, Presbyterians can take an “‘eat the meat and spit out the bones’ approach to cultural theories like Critical Race Theory” (as can, I would argue, any thinking Christian).

Once again, we see a tragic instance of evangelicals talking past one another. While the SBC presidents were clearly (but strangely) only engaging Critical Theory as a metanarrative, Charlie Dates and Anthony Bradley clearly were viewing it as a method — a set of lenses that made at least some phenomena clearer.

Even Neil Shenvi, one of evangelicalism’s most prominent critics of Critical Theory, praised the 2019 SBC resolution as “careful, charitable, and nuanced.”  Elsewhere he has conceded that “As a tool, critical theory is useful in its analysis of power dynamics between groups.” Shenvi’s primary caution with Critical Theory as a method is that it can easily morph into a metanarrative — especially when Christian thinkers assume that “CRT is the only serious way to talk about race, and then go on to adopt it wholesale as a comprehensive ideology.” Additionally, Shenvi is right in pointing out that many of the original “Critical Theorists” (to use a helpful anachronism) were in fact “individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith.” Indeed, what is admittedly slippery about the distinction between method and metanarrative is that the early practitioners of the method were fully immersed in the metanarrative and hoped to use the method towards their secular eschatalogical ends.

Perhaps this is why most of Shenvi’s articles, talks, and book reviews on Critical Theory focus on its manifestations as a worldview and its revolutionary utopianism that is undoubtedly incompatible with a Christian doctrine of sin and redemption (I have made similar arguments myself). He, along with secular commentators like John McWhorter and James Lindsay, have made compelling arguments that Critical Theory (manifested on a popular level as social justice culture) does in fact operate as a comprehensive worldview. For many secular millennials, it is their fundamental metanarrative — a secular religion that offers community, meaning, purpose, and ritual. (No one describes this emerging phenomenon better than Tara Isabella Burton in her book, Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (2020).)

Though I maintain that Critical Theory can be safely and profitably used as an academic method (contra Mohler, et al), I am well aware that most secular millennials on Twitter are not manifesting Critical Theory as a method. For many, it is clearly a metanarrative — the big story that gives them a sense of identity and mission in a secular age.

But where I think this binary model breaks down is when we are analyzing evangelical discourse. I will grant that what we are seeing is certainly not Critical Theory as a method (as empirical evidence never seems to make it into the 280 characters limit), but I also contend that what we are seeing with most evangelicals (contra Shenvi and Trueman) is not Critical Theory as metanarrative. Rather it is Critical Theory as mood.

Critical Theory as Mood

The evangelical debate about Critical Theory has stalled because too many of its public intellectuals are (still) operating out of a truncated anthropology — one that is predominantly cognitivist and undervalues, even ignores, affectivity. As a result, white evangelical thinkers often misunderstand their black and brown brothers and sisters because they still think about humans as fundamentally “thinking things” rather than “liturgical beings” as James K.A. Smith so persuasively pointed out over a decade ago in his seminal work Desiring the Kingdom (2009).

In short, what we are actually seeing in current evangelical discourse is not the adoption of Critical Theory as metanarrative but rather Critical Theory as mood.

Before I provide examples of this phenomenon as I see it, let me first explain what I mean.

If Critical Theory as a method is an academic activity (asking questions and gathering evidence about power and oppression along particular axes of inequality) and Critical Theory as metanarrative is a totalizing worldview (interpreting all of life and history through the lens of power/race/class/gender etc.), then Critical Theory as mood is an affective response to perceived systemic injustice (feeling and expressing anger, sorrow, and weariness about oppression on the basis of race/gender/class etc.).

With this definition, I am suggesting four things. First, Critical Theory as mood is occasional. We see it manifest in response to something. Second, it operates in an affective register. Though not completely disconnected from our thoughts and our beliefs, the raw emotions people feel in response to perceived systemic injustices are visceral and subjective. In other words, when (if) we watched the excruciating eight minute and forty-eight second video of George Floyd dying under the knee of Derek Chauvin, it affected not just (or even primarily) our minds but rather our emotions (and our bodies) in ways that our mind could not comprehend. Why? Because images influence us on the affective level, they speak to our bodies — to our gut — not (fundamentally) to our minds.

Third, these emotions arise from perceived injustices. This is not to say that this perception is necessarily (in)correct, it is just acknowledging that this mood typically occurs in the early stages of our understanding of a given event or situation — typically before there has been the opportunity for “all the facts to come out.” Finally, this mood functions in the context of an “imagined community” to borrow Benedict Anderson’s well-known concept. Because the particular form oppression is perceived to be systemic and widespread, there is an underlying assumption that other people (often of the same status) have also experienced it and share similar feelings of anger, sorrow, and weariness.

To see what Critical Theory as a mood looks like (and how it is distinct from method or metanarrative), let’s (re)examine one of Carl Trueman’s key examples of CRT’s infiltration into mainstream evangelicalism — an article by African American pastor and Gospel Coalition Council Member K. Edward Copeland. Copeland’s article, “Why I Hate August,” is a personal reflection on traumatic events the black community has experienced in the month of August over the last four centuries — events that all remind him “that some view bodies like mine as disposable.” From the first African slaves brought to Virginia in 1619 to the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955 to the stark inequities of Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005, Copeland narrates how he personally learned about and interpreted these traumatic events at different stages in his life. Reflecting on the (then recent) police shooting of Jacob Blake this past August, Copeland writes, “my heart hurts all over again… I was once again reminded of something August won’t let me forget.”

Of Copeland’s cri de coeur, Trueman writes, “Copeland’s passion is justified. But his approach is troubling.” What Trueman finds troubling is Copeland’s pre-emptive pushback against those who would “try to justify the seven or eight bullet holes in Jacob Blake’s body.” Copeland argues vehemently that we don’t actually need “all the facts” because of “the facts we actually do know about Kyle [Rittenhouse]. He took lives in front of physical and digital witnesses. He’s alive. No bullet holes in his body. He will be charged and tried in court, not on the streets, as it should be in a just society.”

Trueman argues that Copeland’s racialized comparison of Blake and Rittenhouse’s encounters with the Kenosha police coupled with Copeland’s apparent dismissal of those who want to wait for “all the facts” is unmistakable evidence of the “flat moral register” of CRT. Condescendingly, Trueman writes of Copeland, “A Christian with a Pauline understanding of the fallen human condition should, of all people, be aware of the moral complexity of human agency.”

While Trueman is right that those who are influenced by Critical Theory as a metanarrative often do display a “flat moral register” (where “everyone is complicit, even if no one in particular is responsible,”) Trueman is wrong to pin this on Copeland. Why? Because Copeland was not ultimately making a legal or moral argument about the Blake or Rittenhouse cases — he was giving a personal reflection on why he hates August. He was offering an affective response to perceived systemic injustice. He was not saying that the Kenosha police department or the courts should not look into the facts of these two cases nor was he saying that Christians should be unconcerned about the moral complexity of human agency. He was simply saying that these particular events evoked in him certain emotions —visceral reminders of a real history of discrimination and oppression on the basis of race.

Anticipating Trueman’s (mis)reading of his article, Copeland concludes, “Those who claim my same convictions about Christ will be the first and loudest to castigate me for these observations… [and] the most eager to somehow find a ‘Marxist’ or ‘Critical Race Theory’ connection in my reflections.” However, rather than fight this anticipated criticism, Copeland remains steadfastly in the affective mode and simply says, “And that hurts my heart, literally and profoundly.”

Trueman misreads Copeland like an inexperienced Bible-reader who tries to read the Psalms the same way they read Pauline epistles. He expects a cold analytical argument even when the author has signaled explicitly that he is writing a hot affective reflection. He looks for CRT as metanarrative when what he’s actually encountering is CRT as mood. To use Rasool Berry’s apt metaphor, this is “Like a man [Copeland] who tells you he is bleeding, and you [Trueman] ask, ‘How did you come to that conclusion?’”

Reading While White

For many years, I read imprecatory psalms (like Psalm 137) with a squeamish discomfort—a sense that the author’s rhetoric was too emotionally charged, too sweeping in its judgement, too morally flat. Were all Babylonians to blame for the desecration of Jerusalem? Was the author suggesting a moral equivalency between the Babylonians (Israel’s actual invaders) and the Edomites (Israel’s mocking neighbors)? Was it morally sound to wish for such gruesome revenge — the brutal slaughter of innocent Babylonian babies?

As an upper-middle class, privileged white male, I struggled to connect affectively with the imprecatory psalms. They felt like alien literature. I didn’t understand that psalms like this one were, in the words of Esau McCaulley, “trauma literature” — the “kind of song you write if you are forced to watch the murder of your wife, your child, your neighbor.” The author of Psalm 137 never intended to account for the moral complexities of the Babylonian conquest in this short poem. He was attempting to give voice to the pain of invasion, pillage, and cultural erasure. He was offering an affective response to a deeply felt injustice that was much bigger than the sum of its individual actors and events.

In a New York Times article, entitled “What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger” and written shortly after the death of George Floyd, Esau McCaulley points out that the “Bible is not silent about the rage of the oppressed.” However, psalms like Psalm 137 are “more than an expression of rage,” they are a call “to remember the trauma that led to their composition.” This, I would argue, is what is going on in Copeland’s article. Contra Trueman, who (wrongly) interprets Copeland’s article as a sign that CRT as metanarrative has indeed infiltrated mainstream evangelicalism, Copeland’s rhetoric and expressive mode are more akin to the psalms or the prophets than to the Frankfurt School or the woke secular academy. What we are seeing in Copeland’s article (and dozens of similar social media posts and articles from black and brown evangelicals) is Critical Theory as mood.

Some may rightly wonder if this mood (which admittedly can be unsettling for white people to encounter) in an inevitable pathway to CRT as metanarrative.

The answer is no. It really can go either way.

Critical Theory as mood is a place of profound subjectivity and contingency. The raw emotions and anger about systemic injustice can lead to a reflexive tribalism and a hardening posture of suspicion towards perceived oppressor groups.

However, this move is not inevitable. McCaulley observes,

For Christians, rage (Psalm 137) must eventually give way to hope (Isaiah 49). And we find the spiritual resources to make this transition at the cross. Jesus could have called down the psalms of rage upon his enemies and shouted a final word of defiance before he breathed his last. Instead he called for forgiveness… The cross helps us make sense of the lynching tree… Jesus’ resurrection three days after his crucifixion shows that neither the lynching tree nor the cross have the final say about those whom God values.

In other words, for the evangelical, the cross is literally the crux of Critical Theory as mood. It is the difference between righteous anger and self-righteous anger; healthy skepticism and deadly cynicism; wounds that heal and wounds that fester. If we are cruciform people (as all evangelicals by definition should be), then we not only can enter this affective register, we should — because God did not make us “heads on a stick.” We are embodied, liturgical beings who have been endowed with deep affectivity. The biblical solution to injustice has never been to think our way through the pain and suffering but rather to channel it into an expression of worship (which is what the lament and imprecatory psalms are).

As Christians, we should see manifestations of Critical Theory as mood (even when expressed by non-Christians) not as a red flag but as a series of opportunities. First, it is an opportunity to engage in community. When people, like Copeland, enter into this affective register, they are not looking for someone to argue the evidence with them (at least initially), they are looking for someone to weep with them. We are called to mourn with those who mourn. Consider this an invitation.

That said, we must never assume that affective responses are unimpeachable and immune to moral, empirical, or rational critique. Even the psalmist interrogates his own emotional state (“Why are you downcast, O my soul”) and invites us to ask similar questions of ourselves and one another. Authentic biblical community requires both listening and speaking, empathy and truth-telling, affirmation and confrontation. Maintaining this complex but necessary relational tension requires Spirit-led discernment and mutual trust.

Second, this is an opportunity to bring worship into the evangelical conversation about race and injustice. It is a call to (re)engage in embodied liturgical practices as a counterintuitive and countercultural act of resistance against the principalities and powers of this present age (the very forces of evil, I would argue, that secular Critical Theorist are attempting, but only partially succeeding, to describe and combat). Worldviewism is insufficient to help us reckon with racism in society and in the church.

Our diseased social imaginations will not be cured merely by shoring up our “thinking” on these matters; it will only be cured by following and worshipping a brown, Jewish messiah along with other people who don’t look, think, or feel like us. While debate and discussion with trusted friends is an important place of engagement, it is in corporate worship where the Holy Spirit consoles, corrects, and heals our hearts. Until worship enters our conversations about race and racism, we will only have a partial cure.

Finally, when we encounter Critical Theory as mood, it is an opportunity for us to return, as McCaulley suggests, to the cross — a place of justice and mercy, trauma and healing that welcomes both victim and oppressor, black and white.

If Critical Theory as method is like looking at particular bits of evidence through new glasses and Critical Theory as metanarrative is like looking at all of life through a set of contact lenses, then Critical Theory as mood is like looking at the world through one’s tears. These tears — which can at times distort our vision — should not be ignored, denounced, or rationalized. They should be recognized for what they are — profound but not permanent, a true word but not the last word. Eventually, they will be wiped away — first by our hands and one day by our Savior’s.

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