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Treating a theological disease

2023 BOOKS OF THE YEAR | Critical Dilemma offers a rich, Biblical engagement with contemporary critical theory

Treating a theological disease
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While critical social theories increasingly divide Americans, Critical Dilemma by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer can uniquely equip—and possibly heal—the Church on this topic. At roughly 500 pages, its hundreds of quotes from primary sources may be too much for the casual reader, but those who want to dig deeper will find it an insightful guide.

In the first section, readers learn about key terms and creators of what the authors call “Contemporary Critical Theory” (CCT). While critical theory grew out of Marxism and critical legal studies, at least four of its central ideas now mark many academic disciplines today: (1) the social binary (oppressor/oppressed framework), (2) hegemonic power (cultural dominance by the majority), (3) “lived ­experience” (above other ways of knowing), and (4) social justice (not the same as Biblical justice). A chapter called “Positive Insights” offers careful affirmations of CCT’s limited overlap of Biblical truth—e.g., “Some aspects of gender expression and gender roles are socially constructed.”

Next, readers get a detailed “evangelical worldview” ­critique of CCT. Quoting voices like Carl Trueman, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Thomas Sowell, Shenvi and Sawyer help readers discern the dangers of CCT with Biblical proofs, scientific studies, and commonsense arguments. For instance, those who fully replace Biblical truth with “lived experience” will be “left with the twenty-first century American version of the book of Judges, in which ‘everyone did what was right in their own eyes.’” They also note the recent “horrific” impact of CCT on interpersonal relationships, including calls to black Christians to leave “the white church.”

In a final section, the authors wrestle with CCT-based “Ideas That Will Devastate Your Church.” Those include popular claims like “Whiteness is wickedness” and “Justice is part of the gospel.” In response to the latter claim, Shenvi and Sawyer affirm “all of God’s good and righteous commands should be obeyed. But they are an implication of the gospel, not part of it.”

Shenvi and Sawyer both hold Ph.D.s from elite universities, so that may help explain why their writing is overly academic at times. Two other mild criticisms: The book admonishes the reader quite a bit, which can feel patronizing, and the authors criticize prominent influencers and politicians, which may turn off some readers on both sides of the political aisle.

That said, Shenvi and Sawyer largely avoid needless political debates. At its best, Critical Dilemma offers rich, Biblical engagement of CCT, pulling no punches against anti-Christian views. For instance, they write of Jesus, “he did not sin, was in no sense complicit in sin, and did not attempt to directly dismantle the systems … that provided him with male privilege. Therefore, the experience of privilege … cannot entail guilt or the need for repentance.”

Yet, Shenvi and Sawyer wisely note that “a solely negative critique” isn’t all Christians have to offer. They place special emphasis on the Christian need for wisdom regarding true racism, offering sections that can help liberal and conservative readers engage one another wisely. CCT has fanned the flames of racial conflict in churches, but the “biblical answer” in the face of such conflict is “bearing with one another in love.” That doesn’t mean allowing evil to flourish. “When the church is explicitly or implicitly endorsing … unbiblical beliefs … then Christians must speak up. But when the issue is merely one of emphasis, a Christian’s first instinct should be toward forbearance and peace.”

CCT is in many ways a theological disease. In order to do good to our neighbors, especially the younger generation among us, Christians need to fight it as such—charitably and factually. Critical Dilemma can help church leaders, cultural critics, and university students do just that.

Honorable Mentions

The Blazing World

Jonathan Healey
(Knopf 2023)

“Moderate men are suspected, while violent men are thought saints.” Those words come from The Blazing World, a new book by Oxford professor Jonathan Healey about revolutionary England. The book begins in 1603 when James I succeeded Elizabeth I, and it ends in 1689’s Glorious Revolution in which William and Mary replaced James’ ousted grandson, James II. In between we get Charles I’s execution, the Puritan-led republic, and the restoration of monarchy. Religion is at the heart of this excellent, if overwhelming, narrative. Healey shows how various versions of Protestantism sought to reshape the state into their own ideal. These disagreements sparked political tumult, and left a legacy for the West’s understanding of the relationship between government and governed. —Collin Garbarino

This review has been corrected to reflect that the king who died by execution was Charles I.

To Be a Woman

Katie J. McCoy
(B&H Books 2023)

To Be a Woman is an essential if emotionally difficult read. The last decade has seen an astonishing uptick in young girls undergoing gender transition. McCoy urges Christians to understand the terrible pain of gender ­dysphoria while pointing its victims to God’s good design for the sexes. We oppose gender ideology “not because we hate humanity but precisely the opposite. … Because we love God, we love what God loves—people.” McCoy helpfully explores brain ­science, ethics, and the theological foundations for gender. McCoy points out that God has called us to live a holistic life. What makes a man “more of a man” and a woman “more of a woman”? Nothing. God has made people men and women. They’re born that way.—See Chelsea Boes’ full review in WORLD’s Oct. 21 issue

Science After Babel

David Berlinski
(Discovery Institute Press 2023)

Berlinski’s introduction explains this book’s title: Until recently, capital-S Science was supremely confident of reaching godlike status with a materialist understanding of Everything. But instead of a unified structure, such developments as algorithms and quantum theory have gone off in divergent directions. Science does a good job of explaining natural phenomena, but scientism is bumping up hard against realities it can’t fully comprehend. Berlinski employs a series of essays to make his case. Some of these are quite technical and require a degree in chemistry or microbiology to follow, but the structure of the book makes it possible to skip or skim those chapters and still get the gist. He’s at his best when holding doctrinaire Darwinism to account.—See Janie B. Cheaney’s full review in WORLD’s Oct. 21 issue

The People’s Justice

Amul Thapar
(Regnery 2023)

Thapar is a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, and he sets out here to disprove a frequent liberal canard: that Justice Clarence Thomas and his conservative brethren are in the pocket of big corporations and special interests. By telling the stories of 12 everyday Americans whose cases made their way to the top, and then explaining how Thomas ruled in their appeals, Thapar endeavors to establish a new narrative with Thomas as champion of the little guy. A book written about everyday people like them is also a book written for everyday readers, and Thapar avoids legal lingo. These opinions set forth Thomas’ views with clarity as he explains, often with great boldness, how his understanding of the Constitution’s original meaning resolves the case. —See Daniel R. Suhr’s full review in WORLD’s July 29 issue

Next in this 2023 Books of the Year special issue: “Anatomy of a shipwreck.”

Emily Whitten

Emily is a book critic and writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Mississippi graduate, previously worked at Peachtree Publishers, and developed a mother’s heart for good stories over a decade of homeschooling. Emily resides with her family in Nashville, Tenn.



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