Book Reviews

Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society

Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer

“A particular set of ideas has overtaken our culture and has begun to overwhelm the professing church. These ideas, as we’ll show, are seriously detrimental to the common good and to basic Christian theology. To the extent that we embrace them wholeheartedly, substantially, or even moderately but uncritically, we’ll sow discord in society and will undermine sound doctrine. Eventually, left unchecked, they will tear society apart and will decimate the visible church.” [6]

In Context

Between 2014 and 2020 media use of the words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ surged, and instances of the words ‘systemic racism’, ‘institutional racism’, and ‘structural racism’ increased by a factor of eight in four of the top circulating national [US] papers. [38] This was aided by some high-profile killings of black men, the most notorious being the George Floyd killing. The critical race theory (CRT) that had been common on university campuses from the 1980s had informed the minds of a generation of journalists who went on to employ it as a lens of analysis in their writing. Much of this culminated in the 2020 Black Lives Matter riots and protests.

But the BLM movement did not emerge in an ideological vacuum, nor, for that matter, did the LGBT and especially the Trans movement. They flow out of ideologies whose genealogy can be traced back to the early 20 the century Frankfurt School, which became very widespread and popular in the 1960s and 1970s, and morphed into postmodernism especially in the 1980s onwards.

All of this so-called critical theory seeks first and foremost to inspire a cultural revolution that undoes every remaining vestige of Christianity. Unfortunately, much of this ideology has entered in to theological seminaries, Christian colleges, and thereby the churches. Critical theory in all its varieties must be fairly set out, carefully understood, and surgically critiqued in light of the Bible. This is exactly what Critical Dilemmas accomplishes better than any other book to date.

Big Ideas

  • Critical social theory is not merely a tool of analysis, it is a comprehensive worldview with premises very much at odds with Christianity
  • CT is very much a modern evolution from classical Marxism
  • CT can never be the solution to social injustice because it misdiagnoses the causes of injustice as external to persons rather than as an expression of internal sin
  • Key terms in CT are intersectionality, lived experience, systemic injustice, and hegemony

What is Critical Theory (CT)?

Shenvi and Sawyer show that the scholarly consensus is that Marx “played a unique role in its development,” [69] and that “Marx has had an outsized influence upon various critical social theories.” [70] The key theorists of critical theory begin with Karl Marx and go through to the members of the Frankfurt School (1923-) (“an extension of Marxism” [89]), Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Kimberle Crenshaw, among others.

CT has four main ideas:

  1. The social binary: “Society is divided into dominant/privileged/oppressed groups and subordinate/marginalized/oppressed groups.” [92] This is one of the key Marxist contributions to CT.
  2. Hegemonic power: “Oppression and domination…include the ways in which dominant social groups impose their values, traditions, norms, and ways of being and doing on society….” All of this is “structural” or “systemic” and “applied via social institutions and systems.” [92]
  3. Lived experience: “The lived experience of minoritized and oppressed groups rivals and at times is prioritized over objective evidence and reason when it comes to understanding the world.” [92]
  4. Social justice: “Social justice is concerned with the transformation of society via the emancipation and empowerment of marginalized and disenfranchised groups.” This requires us “to dismantle the systems, structures, and hegemonic norms that create and perpetuate the social
    binary.” [92-93]

Of these concepts, hegemonic power is worth especially noting, for “The centrality of hegemony is a feature shared by nearly all social theorists.” [109] Hegemony is an idea found in Marx but formulated by Gramsci and adopted by subsequent critical theorists, whether writing about race or sex and sexuality. Hegemony is a “mechanism of oppression” [110] and refers to the cultural symbols, words, images, ways of thinking, habits, traditions, and assumptions that privilege one group over another. For example, according to CT, society until recently had ways of thinking about sex, sexuality, and relations between men and women that privileged heterosexual men over women and same-sex attracted people over homosexuality. The TV shows, sermons, books, advertising, medical profession, laws, and ways of thinking privileged an existing patriarch and oppressed women and sexual minorities. Much the same can be said whites over non-whites.

Note that CT is making a radical claim, that truth itself – or more accurately, truth-claims – is hegemonic and a mere tool of control.

This is important to understand because it makes sense of why so many in universities, schools, legislatures, and corporations wish to see social norms change: they are trying to dismantle a prevailing hegemony. It’s literally a cultural revolution in motion that can be as obvious as BLM rioters and apologists calling to “burn the whole system down” or as subtle as workplaces requiring employees to list their pronouns on their nametags to destabilize the assumption that we can objectively tell someone’s gender from their physiological appearance without asking about their subjective gender identity.


A central concept of all CT is intersectionality. The best way to understand this concept is to imagine someone standing in the middle of a crossroads intersection. Such a person will eventually be hit by traffic coming in all directions. So it is with intersectionality. A black, disabled, lesbian will not just experience racism, she will experience racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. She will be hit on multiple sides of her identity markers. The more intersections one is amid – sexual minority, disability, fatness, female, racial minority, cultural minority – the more of a victim one is. In other words, victimhood status can be ranked from lesser to greater. Also, one can be both a victim and an oppressor: a straight, white woman is a victim of patriarchy, but also a perpetrator of racism and homophobia. [100-5] The epitome of oppression is the middle-class, white, Christian (Protestant), heterosexual man. The epitome of victim is the disabled, gay, trans, non-religious/religious minority, etc.

Critical Race Theory (CRT)

CRT is “an area of knowledge created to challenge and interrogate the ways in which race, racism, racial power, and white supremacy are constructed and manifested, specifically in legal culture and, more broadly, in society.” [143]

The four central tenets of CRT theory are [154]:

  1. Racism is endemic, normal, permanent, and pervasive
  2. Racism is concealed beneath ideas like colorblindness, meritocracy, individualism, neutrality, and objectivity
  3. Lived experience is critical to understanding racism
  4. Racism is one of many interlocking systems of oppression, including sexism, classism, and heterosexism

For CRT, laws and social institutions are not merely mechanisms of social control, but more specifically of racial control. Our laws, systems, and
institutions function to prop up racial disparities. In this respect they are racist and mere expressions of a “white supremacist” culture. CRT permeates social institutions through and through. It is not merely confined to law departments. Its presence may be found in schools from Kindergarten upwards, corporate and public service racial sensitivity programmes, corporate advertising, Hollywood movies, the media, and much activism, BLM in particular.

Common sense would tell many people that Western society is much less racist – systemically and interpersonally – than it was, say 200 or even just sixty years ago. For example, slavery and segregation were dismantled long ago, even if some of their historical legacy remains in forms of disadvantage. CRT rejects such optimism and says that racism has not so much declined as it has adapted. Indeed, “new forms of racism have evolved that are less noticeable but no less potent.” [156]

Critical Gender/Queer Theory

In 2012 a Gallup poll showed that around 3.5% of Americans identified as LGBT, whereas by 2021 that percentage had doubled to 7.1%. The youth were especially affected, with 9.1% of Millennials and a huge 15.9% of Generation Z so identifying. [175-6] The causes of this shift are probably several, but the prevalence of queer theory (QT) must be central.

The four central tenets of QT are:

  1. Sex and gender are distinct
  2. Gender is a complex category that is socially constructed
  3. Sex, gender, sexuality, race, class, etc are interlocking categories
  4. All sex and sexuality norms are oppressive and should be deconstructed

“The central organizing feature of queer theory is the rejection of all norms and the destabilization of all categories.” [182] More fully, we may define QT as “exploring the oppressive power of dominant norms, particularly those relating to sexuality, and the immiserisation they cause to those who cannot, or do not wish to, live according to those norms.” [182]

Queer theory comes especially from the postmodern work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Indeed, “Michel Foucault, in particular, could be considered the godfather of queer theory….” [179, 186] Foucault spent much of his career scrutinizing the way we think about sex, sexuality, and our bodies, arguing that these ways of thinking were hegemonic impositions. And Derrida spent his career showing how language and words reflect dominant power structures. American philosopher Judith Butler took Foucault and Derrida’s ideas and
helped launch the transgender movement. Butler not only questioned the objectivity of sex and gender. Butler said that to be a male or a female was really a matter of putting on a performance. In other words, male and female are not what we are but what we perform in our daily lives. This means that anyone can perform whatever sex they like. [187-88].

Why Critical Theory is Misguided

Lived experience This assumes that one person can speak for all or many within their identity group. But this is only to fall into the grosses of generalization. For example, to assume that a single black man can speak for the diverse range of black people is, to be frank, utterly racist. We would never allow such gross generalizing for white people, so why do it for racial minorities or women? Also, lived experience can be used to justify the worst racism. Imagine a white man in a poor neighbourhood, or a regional Australian town, who’s most memorable experiences of racial minorities revolves around crime, unemployment, and substance abuse. Are they permitted to believe and teach that racial minorities as a rule practice these vices? Of course not. Furthermore, our experiences are filtered through beliefs and prior experiences that we have. We are often not objective. As the Bible says, “The heart is deceitful above all.” [Jeremiah 17:9] This means that our experiences need to be tested and measured against observable facts and data. [292]

Intersectionality In some ways this is a banal observation: people will experience challenges based on certain of their traits. There is much truth in this. The problem with intersectionality is that it so easily mischaracterizes people’s
experiences. For example, a wealthy, well-employed, healthy racial minority is still considered a victim of racism even if the racism that she has experienced – which may have been quite minor – has done nothing to hold her back in life. Furthermore, a poor white man who has little to no racial prejudice is still judged a racist oppressor even though there is little to no evidence that he has ever exercised oppressive power or been the beneficiary of such power ever in his life. If we try to bring intersectionality beyond its banal assertion that life is challenging to nearly all peoples for different reasons – who ever denied this? – then it merely becomes misleading and socially divisive. [320]

Ancestral guilt CRT teaches “white guilt”, that all white people stand guilty as white people for the sins of their white forebears. The notion of guilt for the misdeeds of our ancestors seems intuitively unjust apart from a special revelation from God to that effect (As in Adam being humankind’s federal representative). Scripture teaches in multiple passages against ancestral guilt. Take the following:

“The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”  (Ezekiel18:20).

“Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16)

“…everyone will die for his own sin….” (Jeremiah 31:30)

It is true that we read in Exodus 43:7 of God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children”, but, say Shenvi and Sawyer, this text “has nothing to do with holding someone guilty or morally responsible for someone else’s sin. They simply underscore that the sins of parents often end up being the same sins their children commit.” [361-2]

CRT will respond and say that white people have benefitted from slavery. Yes, some have, but not all, because it was a minority of whites who owned slaves. Furthermore we cannot really know to what extent any individual white person today has benefitted from a racist heritage. Countries that have dispossessed native people’s and/or enslaved Africans have become prosperous, but that prosperity is not so simply distributed according to race. There are many poor whites as well as there being many middle-class and wealthy non-whites. Furthermore, many people have both white and non-white forbears, making them racially mixed. The notion of ancestral guilt is biblically immoral and socially imprecise and highly divisive. [355-74]

The reality of biology The notion that sex and gender are two entirely separate and unrelated aspects of identity is easily disproved by decades of scientific research. This is not to say that there are not many ways in which our tastes and behaviour as male and female are socially constructed. But when we get beyond the “pink is for girls and blue is for boys” surface of sex difference, there is an objective, biological foundation of differences between the sexes that cannot but manifest in different social roles. Psychological and scientific studies have
repeatedly shown that, from birth, males and females think and behave differently, with males being more likely to take an interest in things and females being more likely to take an interest in persons. It is not, therefore, surprising, that men and women will naturally fall into social patterns that reflect these deep differences: men being more likely to enter into mechanical, building, and STEM employment, and women gravitating towards person-focused employment: teaching, nursing, childcare, etc. [386-87] The sheer physiology of men and women also screams objective differences that go to the core of our psychology: women are created to bear and nourish children. The notion that the desire for motherhood is a social construct is as unbelievable as it the notion that desiring to use our brains and intellects is mere social construct. All of this is biologically hardwired into us, and when it manifests socially in terms of women’s careers being interrupted to have and raise children, we are not witnessing oppression, we are witnessing the playing out of the created order.

Incompatibility with Christianity

Arguably, the incompatibilities between biblical Christianity and CT all flow from three deep errors that are essential to critical theory:

  1. Christianity sees the universe and humans’ place in it as part of an intended, good – albeit fallen – created order. CT either rejects this as a
    hegemonic claim or ignores it.
  2. Christianity posits that humankind’s fundamental problem is internal – sin, whereas CT sees humankind’s fundamental problem as external – oppressive institutions. [286]
  3. CT assumes that all prevailing social norms are mere arbitrary constructs of the strong, and are, therefore, oppressive. Christianity says that many prevailing social norms may be expressions of God’s created order and therefore good, not oppressive. [289]
  4. CT says that all hierarchies are oppressive, whereas biblical Christianity clearly teaches the goodness of certain hierarchies: God over creation; humankind over the earth; governments over citizens; employers over employees; husbands over wives; parents over children; elders over congregants. [290]

Shenvi and Sawyer go one to argue that the infiltration of CT into the churches will do little more than divide them, particularly along racial lines. It will prioritise an unattainable perfect justice over forgiveness, social action over evangelism, social justice over the Gospel, and identity politics over unity. [409-31] Biblical Christianity can never be compatible with a worldview so heavily informed by secular humanist philosophies such as Marxism and postmodernism.


From beginning to end Shenvi and Sawyer call for charity in hearing and responding to Christians in the social justice movement, warning readers not merely to dismiss them at the outset. Wisely, they say that “we should focus on ideas rather than labels”. [24] By this they do not mean that categories like critical theory, cultural Marxism, or even “woke” have no analytical purchase, but that they can generate at least as much heat as light and can distract from the task of understanding and critiquing the very ideas that constitute them. They offer a lengthy chapter outlining what they consider to be true and good in CT. Nonetheless, the authors are clear, “contemporary critical theory, the set of ideas at the heart of all these critical social theories today, contradicts Christian beliefs about power, knowledge, oppression, and identity, among other concerns.” [32]

Critical Dilemma is a Christian interrogation that is similar to Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories. It is by far the most comprehensive and even-handed Christian discussion of CT and an essential addition to the bookshelves of pastors, students, and thoughtful Christians. It reads well with Thaddeus Williams’ Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. Given that the first half of the book is a near unrivalled discussion of the history and literature of CT, the book is of immense value to anyone trying to understand the unsettled spirit of our times.


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