One of the more frustrating trends in Evangelicalism is the incessant accusation of “Cultural Marxism” or “Critical Theory,” leveled against any who speak of “oppressor” and “oppressed.” This rhetorical move has insidious historical roots, but seems to have gained currency through wide-spread ignorance of both that which is being criticized and Critical Theory itself. We have sought to dispel this ignorance in the last two posts, clarifying precisely what distinguishes Critical Theory from its competitors. But I want here to likewise expose the absurdity of this further claim, viz., that the theme of “oppressor” and “oppressed” is a distinguishing characteristic of Critical Theory, such that all who appeal to the theme are liable to be lumped into this tradition.
No one denies that this theme is important to Critical Theory; it is, after all, a project of emancipation. But it is only one approach among many—many which likewise affirm the historic and persistent tragedy of human oppression via social institutions and relations.
Behind every work of art is an uncommitted crime. ~Theodore W. Adorno
[This post is a continuation of, “Christianity and Critical Theory, Part 1: Marx and Frankfurt.” (And again, this is not an endorsement of these ideas; critique is forthcoming.)]
From Enlightenment to Critical Theory
In what is considered Critical Theory’s most seminal work, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodore W. Adorno critically interrogate the principles, goals, location, and historical effects of the project of Enlightenment. Consistent with the dialectical approach discussed in the last post, they see within the project both the immanent seeds of current human bondage and suffering, as well as the immanent seeds of emancipation therefrom. For Frankfurt theorists in general, social artifacts and systems are not to be analyzed in terms of a-historical transcendent ideologies; rather, they are to be critiqued as the products of contradictory internal forces which produce both the pathologies experienced by its individual actors, as well as the immanent forces of its own dissolution, both of which reside in the tension of existential experience until transformational crisis ensues.
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. ~Walter Benjamin on Angelus Novus (1920)
Introduction to Part 1
I have been asked multiple times for my thoughts on Niel Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s article, “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.” In short, I believe it is a great article and I am genuinely appreciative of the work they are doing. But what has brought me some discomfort throughout their project is the sense that they are offering a characterization of Critical Theory, rather than a faithful explanation or definition; maybe even a caricature? In particular, treating the identification of “oppressor” and “oppressed” as the definitive core, or premise, of Critical Theory seems more a collocation of a common theme pulled from disparate quotes than that which has (and does) distinguish Critical Theory from its “traditional” competitors.
Last week I posted the following thread on Twitter, in response to Justin Peter’s indignant request of Beth Moore:
As discussed in PART 1, the “gospel,” according to the Scripture, appears to be a much fuller concept than the mere facts of Christ’s death for sin and resurrection, though these are certainly of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). Beginning with the New Testament epistles, we saw that the gospel also includes the certainty of impartial judgement on the Last Day, contradicts a host of both personal and social sins, dictates who we ought to eat with, and is actually something to be “obeyed.” Going back to the beginning, it became clear that the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 promised a restoration of all that was lost in the fall; that is, it promised resurrection of both body and soul, return to original righteousness, renewal of mankind’s natural habitation, and the restoration of society with both God and man (and in each case, much more than the original). The Apostle Paul calls this message of the Seed the “gospel” (preached to Abraham), and the author of Hebrews calls the promise of entrance into God’s seventh day rest the “gospel” as well (preached to the Israelites in the Wilderness), both drawing on Garden evangel themes.
The Gospel, therefore, is a public exhibition of the Son of God manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16) to deliver a ruined world, and to restore men from death to life. It is justly called a good and joyful message, for it contains perfect happiness. Its object is to commence the reign of God, and by means of our deliverance from the corruption of the flesh, and of our renewal by the Spirit, to conduct us to the heavenly glory. For this reason it is often called the kingdom of heaven, and the restoration to a blessed life, which is brought to us by Christ, is sometimes called the kingdom of God… . (John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke)
The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. This is Biblically undeniable. But what is the gospel? There appears to be an underlying disagreement among Christians over this definition, fueling charges of both “Social Gospel” from one side and “Gospel-Only-ism” (or the like) from the other. The truth is, both of these systems obscure the true meaning of “gospel”; the former verging on Materialism and the eclipse of the individual, the latter verging on Gnosticism and the eclipse of community. I hope in this short series to offer some clarification, for I too believe that the gospel is the answer to all individual and social ills.
Just as “Blackness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and shades of brown—beginning with Gomes De Zurara’s bogus descriptions of African peoples as a beastly lot, in order to justify Prince Henry’s enslaving prowess—so “Whiteness” was cobbled together out of various nations, tribes, tongues, and lighter shades of brown to form the “White Race.” There simply was no such thing as “White People,” the “White Race,” or “Whiteness” as a concept associated with people groups until the turn of the 18th century.
Prior to the development of colonial governments in North America and the West Indies, people groups were largely identified by nationality; there were Irishmen, Englishmen, Germans, Italians, Slavs, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Malians, etc. At the beginning of the 17th century, these men and women worked side by side in the construction of the New World, primarily as indentured servants subject to the term of 6 years under British common law.