Critical Evangelical Theory

My pastor sent me a paper to read about racism in the church. It is not short but I believe is worth your time (it took me under an hour to read). It states with scholarly approach, careful clarity, and supporting data some of the problems that I’ve been struggling to verbalize in various conversations about race issues in the church.

Note that this was published in 2008 – it’s not a response to the current racial unrest or CRT, even though it discusses CRT and critical theories in general.

Here’s my response to him:

That’s an amazing paper..

Up front, I should say that I expect that the author’s use of the word “critical” in the title and a number of their summary statements will put them at odds with quite a few conservatives. Recently, everything “critical” is suddenly suspect or presenting a false doctrine. That’s unfortunate.

I really appreciate the identification of the “cultural toolkit” by which white evangelicals understand the world. That was my entire sociopolitical worldview just two years ago, and from the other side of a dramatic worldview shift, I can state with utter clarity that they have it exactly right when they describe “accountable freewill individualism” and “anti-structuralism.”

I find deep agreement with Emerson and Smith’s analysis. It completely squares with my life-long personal experience in white evangelical churches. I would not have believed that I agreed with those things before the last year, but in retrospect, that’s exactly how I was thinking.

But I also find deep agreement with Tranby and Hartmann’s critiques of E&S’s analysis. I think they’ve completely nailed the issue and identified some real challenges for the white evangelical church.

Ironically, I believe this article does what critical theory itself aims to do: to uncover the structural issues and their causes within a group of people. In this case, it’s “critical evangelical theory,” to coin a phrase.

Finally, it’s interesting to me that the things that Tranby, Hartmann, Emerson, and Smith are saying are completely in line with what a number of Black Christian authors are saying lately – including people like Jemar Tisby – but these four men (all white, by the way) have done so without the Black-centric language wrapped around it, that so many evangelicals and conservatives have found offensive. They’re all seeing the same problems, but the Blacks are being less nuanced in their critique – and I think it’s because (as some of them openly state) they’re tired of trying to quietly convince white evangelicals of a truth, and have moved on to more direct action and speech.

Because I’m a bit of a stickler for “who are we listening to here?” these are links to some info about Tranby, Hartmann, Emerson, and Smith. Each are respected scholars in sociology and religion.

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