A conversation with Owen Strachan - S9.E3
WORLD Radio - A conversation with Owen Strachan - S9.E3
Taken to their logical conclusion, critical race theory and intersectionality stand in direct opposition to the gospel
OWEN STRACHAN, GUEST: Fundamentally, the imago dei means that every person has dignity and worth that is God-given. So you don't look at somebody and see them as subhuman. Even a person who has done something terrible in this world, a convicted murderer, let's say, is not subhuman. They may be acting in a subhuman way, a beastly way, if you will. But they're still a full fledged image bearer, which is a really shocking thing to think through on the face of it. But what wokeness does is it robs some people of that dignified status. And it basically teaches white people in particular, or if you go to intersectional, intersectional categories, those who are in that oppressor position, the power of authority position, it teaches that those people are without dignity. So Warren, what I'm saying is the hard edge, I'm using that phrase very intentionally, the hard edge of an ideology is where you go to see what it is really pushing. Many people don't end up in the hard edge. Many people for various reasons end up backing away, praise God. But the hard edge of this movement, in secular terms, is evil. It's it's imago dei denying, and therefore, when Christians embrace this system, again, they may not know this, but if they do, they're ending up embracing a system that will take them captive and cause them ultimately to deny imago dei truths.
WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Owen Strachan, author of the New York Times best-selling book, Christianity and Wokeness: How The Social Justice Movement is Hijacking The Gospel – and the Way To Stop It.
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WS: What does it mean to be “Woke”? And who is “woke” and who is not?
These questions have become a part of our national conversation in the past few years. In some evangelical circles and in conservative media, the label “woke” has been used like a weapon to wound one’s ideological enemies, to marginalize them, to dismiss them when it is hard to dismiss their arguments.
On the other hand, anti-biblical ideologies, including Marxism, Liberation Theology, and Critical Race Theory, do present dangers to the church and often fit under the labels of “wokeness” and “intersectionality.”
If some of these expressions, these terms, are already causing your eyes to glaze over, fear not. My guest today, Owen Strachan, has researched them all and has written a book that unpacks these ideologies in plain English, and – because he is also a theologian – he compares them to a biblical understanding of the world and identifies where they fall short.
Owen Strachan is provost and research professor of theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary and a senior fellow with the Family Research Council. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. And he has written or co-written more than 20 books, including “Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind.”
WS: [1:08] And Owen, I want to kind of, you know, begin at the beginning, or, or start with some sort of basic principles, because, you know, and we're gonna, I'm gonna push on this from a couple of different directions in the midst of our conversation. But you know, the word woke and wokeness. It's kind of a an amorphous word. It's kind of a, you know, like nailing jello to a wall to get a good valid definition of it. So why don't we start there? How would you define wokeness, or what it means to be woke?
OS: Basically, wokeness means being awake or alert to the nature of a society as systemically racist, and systemically unjust. I'm building, there off of a reference, like the Cambridge English Dictionary. And what that translates to in human experience is that you, you basically have kind of a secular conversion, when you're woke. You were looking at society through one lens, and you thought that society was a generally just order. But now you read these voices through critical race theorists and others, and you come out on the other side, seeing that that order that you thought was peaceful and equitable, and just is actually shot through with racism and sinful inequality, and is infested really at every level, with with evil. And so the world as you used to see it is gone. And now you have gone through this conversion experience and see it in a new way. And it really turns you into an activist against the existing order, whether you're talking about society, or the church.
WS: Well, help me understand this. I get that, you're, that definition in many ways, but you are not in any way, shape, or form, denying the reality that we do live in a broken world. That God made the world good, but that our rebellion against God broke that world. And so so you can be not woke, and still have an understanding of the world as as good but flawed, good but marred, good but broken. Is that fair? Is that accurate?
OS: That is fair. You have to you have to step carefully at this point, with with regard to terms, but absolutely. You think of Egypt and and the Israelite bondage under Pharaoh early in the scripture in the Old Testament, for example. And that is showing you that sin is not just going to be private, it's not just going to be Cain slaying Abel, because he's angry, wickedly angry. It's going to be public, it's going to be institutional. So someone like me recognizes, yes, that governments oppress people. And there are unjust laws and unjust policies. And I talk about that in this book, Christianity and Wokeness, about slavery, for example, or Jim Crow segregation. But I want to be very careful in in one key sense. The term systemic racism is a term that comes out of the milieu of critical race theory, and ultimately stems back to a Marxist or Neo Marxist understanding of how systems work. And so that is where people will say, well, we should just affirm systemic racism, we're Augustinians or something like this. And I want to say yes, I'm an Augustinian. Yes, I understand that the world is pervasively corrupted, though, still a good world. But I'm not playing with the Marxist playbook. I'm not using their terms. I'm using my terms, which is part of why, Warren, I wrote a whole book about this. I didn't write a blog post. These are hard issues to sort out as you alluded to, and I wanted to, I wanted to take the board myself and set up the checkers per my Christian worldview.
WS: Well, I get that and I see the wisdom in that. I mean, after all, in Genesis chapter two, God told Adam to name the animals. What we call things really does matter. And and it's also, I think, important to note that Genesis chapter two is before Genesis chapter three, the fall. And therefore, this relationship of words to reality really does matter that that, that Adam was asked to name the animals while he still had that intimate relationship with God. And he was able to see into the nature of things. So I get that I affirm that, and I agree with that. And I want to come but I will do want to come back to these ideas a little bit later about in what specific ways wokeness is an affront to Biblical doctrine and biblical theology. But before we do that, there are a couple of other terms that I want you to define for us. Wokeness, I got. But you've introduced two other terms, certainly you talk about them in your book, but you've even mentioned them here in the short time we've been talking. One of them is critical race theory, and one of them is intersectionality. Critical race theory you say derives from a Marxist worldview. And you introduce later in your book, Christianity and Wokeness, James Cohn, who was I guess, in some ways considered to be the father of liberation theology, from which a lot of you know the the 20th and 20, early 21st century Marxist theory and critical research comes from. But but say, say just give us a rather than sort of parse the history, just give us a couple of quick definitions. How would you define critical race theory? How would you define intersectionality?
OS: Critical race theory is the academic system that trains you to see how society is structured along racist power dynamics, such that white people are the oppressor class. And people of color are the oppressed class. So if you study critical race theory, if you read the texts of CRT individuals, then what you're going to come up with, what you're going to land understanding, is how society, according to them, that is, it is really a power game. And it is a power game rigged to benefit whiteness. It has been that way for centuries, beginning with American chattel slavery. And it has proceeded in that form and continues to let white people so called win, in our time. It doesn't do so anymore, at least in a lot of cases, through direct laws and policies. Some crits, as they're called, will acknowledge that. Instead, different voices emphasize that racism, systemic racism is in many cases hidden, and invisible, and underground, which, for those who are listening with discernment already to us talk Warren, triggers you because you recognize I mean, intellectually wakes you up a little bit, because you realize, this is a system that is saying that racism is everywhere. But then when you ask CRT advocates to show you where it is, they'll point to some different matters of society, stats, and so on. We can talk about that. But they'll also be very clear to cover themselves and say it's also everywhere. So I can show you here, but it's also invisible. And when when you start to track a system like that, you realize they have all the exits covered. You can say prove prove systemic racism to me, they'll point you to some things. You may say, I'm not sure that proves it. And then they'll say, but it's everywhere. And so it's it's a bit of a catch 22 of a system.
WS: Well, that's right. It's even the fact that you don't see it is evidence that you yourself are racist. Right.
WS: And and of course, one of the ironies is that, that it's a, it's an anti racist ideology that is, depends upon racism, right? In other words, our very whiteness is what makes us racist. In other words, it's a determination based on race, which is the very definition of racism, it seems to me.
OS: Yes, critical race theory is making race essentialism, as it's called, in academic circles, hot again. We're back in other words, to being the society that Martin Luther King Jr. was opposing, rightly, agree with him on all matters or not. And there there are numerous matters we can't agree with him, as a neoorthodox theologian. But one thing he got right in common grace terms, was that it was wrong to think you know, somebody according to their skin color. You don't know them and you shouldn't, you shouldn't operate as if you know them and treat them in a certain way based on their skin color.
WS: Well, that's much more I'm sorry, finish your thought Owen.
OS: Yeah. So that he was opposing what is called race essentialism, at least in practice. And we today have a revived race essentialist order where if we are white, we are a certain person. And people can assume they know us stereotypically and vice versa with people of color. So racist essentnialism is back. Racist essentialism is not grounded in Scripture. It's not a sound idea. And it further, as you said, rightly, easily yields racism. You know who somebody is and not just that, you know, they're guilty if they're white, based on this view, and that's just wrong.
WS: Okay, so you've defined for me, wokeness, you defined for me critical race theory, obviously, let's just stipulate for the record, there's much more that we could say about that. And you say a good bit more in your book, but we're going to have to, for purposes of our conversation, pause on those two definitions for the moment. What's intersectionality?
OS: Intersectionality is the view that there are minority groups in society and along the lines of that oppressor-oppressed dynamic per race, those groups that are in minority positions are basically in oppressed positions, per numerous category markers, sexuality, earning power, ableism, being being able bodied, thin, versus fat. And it goes on. So there are intersecting minority group interests, that people who have been oppressed have. And so intersectionality is the drawing together of those minority groups to make common cause against a white heteronormative capitalist patriarchalist, ablest order.
WS: You know, Owen, there's a part of me that in some ways, I don't want to say I don't care. But let me just say that I expect pagans to act like pagans. That I expect atheists to act like atheists and think like atheists. I expect people that don't subscribe to Orthodox Christianity to behave in ways that reflect that worldview. However, what's, and it's not that I don't care about those people. I mean, but you know, as a as a human being, and as a follower of Christ, I'm called to love them, in spite of the fact that we might be ideological opponents. So I'm going to stipulate it for the record. But what's more important to me, and this is what I'd like for you to speak to, is, um, wokeness in the church. And of course, that's specifically the, you know, the title of your book, Wokeness and Christianity. You, at what point in your book you describe, evangelicals have typically one of four responses to wokeness. And I'm just going to quickly read them if I could, if I can pull them out of your book. One, one is the first category is non woke. In other words, they reject being woke. The second category is the confused and the undecided. And I would have to say that maybe I don't know that you say that more fit into one category than the other. But I would say, there's certainly a whole lot of people that fit into that category.
OS: Totally. Yep.
WS: And the third would be the engaged, yet cautious, pro-woke. So they're leaning a little bit more towards woke, but they're cautious. They understand the dangers. And then finally, the convinced and the committed, pro-woke group. So you have these four groups. I made a judgment that I think most people are kind of dazed and confused when it comes to these and they maybe fit into that second category. But I get the idea from your book that you think a grow a troubling number and a growing number are in that third and fourth category. First of all, am I accurate in in assessing what you think? And number number two, can you say more about that?
OS: Yeah, great question. I do think a lot of people have been and even to a serious degree are in the confused category. So let that be said, outside the church and inside the church. Although when you look at stats in the broader society about how people view CRT after they have been informed of its basic tenets, I saw a poll that basically said 23% of people after learning about CRT are favorable, and 53% are unfavorable. So there is a real effect that that happens when people get their arms around this system, even beyond the church. I think in the church, yes, there are a lot of confused people. I wrote my book to warn the third group, those who are drifting, there's always those who drift toward ungodly ideologies and are in danger of those ideologies. Colossians two, eight, taking them captive. So there are plenty of people who are in danger today, I believe firmly. And then there are there are a smaller group of people who are absolutely committed to the cause. They are diehard woke advocates, they are pastors, who are who are assigning so to speak Robyn D'Angelo to their congregations. They are calling white people to repent of white supremacy. They are they are very much promoting the view that America is a racialized society. They're reading Divided by Faith with the intern group, from Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, on and on it goes. And that group is the hard edge in the Christian world that is really following the hard edge of the secular world, Abraham Kennedy and others. And I am trying to get my arms around the hard edge, because the hard edge is the one you have to watch. That is the group not necessarily that everybody belongs to, but that is the group that pulls the rest of the groups in the direction of that ungodly ideology. So my, my book mostly addresses the fourth group, but is concerned about the second and third.
WS: Yeah, well, let let me maybe, to a certain extent, play devil's advocate with you, Owen, and get you to respond to this a little bit. Because in some ways, within a lot of conservative circles, and I now have to say that I traveled in those circles. Wokeness has become a pejorative. It has become a label. It has become, you know, a word that you will use to describe somebody who just doesn't agree with you about something. And you know, I've heard the, you know, the word woke, the label woke, hung on people, not, not, you know, just the James Cohen's of the world and his, you know, intentional, and, and, you know, very aware, spiritual and theological descendants. But also people like Russell Moore. People like Ed Stetzer. People like David Platt. First of all, do you think those guys are woke? And is there a danger in using the word woke as a label to paint our enemies in much the same way that thatyou know that a lot of folks would label white all white people racist? In other words, is there not a danger that we might become what we hate in mislabeling things here?
OS: Yeah, there's always a danger when you're trying to lead out against falsehood. And then you think about Luther going too far in the Reformation era, for example. So we affirm so much of what he stood for, and then we don't affirm his anti semitic comments and his hihs is opposing the peasants leading to 1000s of deaths. So we recognize with any, what I would say is righteous counter action against ungodly ideologies like wokeness, that there, there could be an over extension of that and a carelessness within we want to watch that. And that's why, for example, I can't speak to those individuals per se that you mentioned. But with my book, what I do in Christianity and Wokeness, is not what some people expect me to do, which is to blast anybody to the left of me, as woke. For example, I have a chapter in which I directly walk through quoting at length, numerous evangelical authors, who very clearly, by their own admission, like Emerson and Smith, are on the left side of these matters. And so, yes, I do think that we have to be careful about our usage of terms. But I also think there's been major drift in the evangelical movement. And those who are trafficking in woke categories deserve the label of woke. You know, you don't want to just be walking around, you know, labeling the soda machine repairman as woke, you know, because he looked at you wrong, that's not a good situation. But if somebody is embracing systemic racism as a concept, if someone is talking a lot about white fragility, and white guilt, and white supremacy, if somebody is commending authors, who by their own admission, you know, buy into CRT, then there is a definite advantage and need even to say, this person is drifting. They're outside the bounds of Orthodoxy. This is woke ideology, I need to warn them in love. And I pray God will bring them back. That's that's what I'm after.
WS: Well, and I will say that in your book, I was impressed by the fact that you were very, very careful about naming names. You know, some of the names that I just mentioned, I want to be clear, Russell Moore, and Ed Stetzer among. Well, you did actually mention Ed Stetzer in your book. But you, you did single out Christianity Today and The Gospel Coalition as entertaining authors, who are you would describe as woke. Is that fair?
WS: And that's all you want to say about that?
OS: Well, I mean, what I said in my book is, is what I wanted to say. I stand by it fully. Yeah, both Christianity Today and Gospel Coalition, sadly. I've written for both publications in the past, and they both have featured numerous pieces that are not controversially woke. Not because I say they are, but are openly espousing this ideology. This is this is what we have to do, Warren. We who are in the ministry of truth, I'm a systematic theologian, right? So so what we do, and what systematic theologians do, now and in past days, is we try to identify not only biblical truth in a systematized form, but we try to perform a service as best we can, imperfectly to the church by systematizing unbelief. So you think about the Emergent Church movement of 15 years ago. Well, is it going to be good to label anybody you disagree with as emergent? No. But there was a body of ideology emerging, if you will, as emergent. If you think about 100 years ago, right? Liberal Protestantism, same thing. A lot of times, ungodly ideologies, and those who are drawn to them in one category or another, they're not all the same, right? Everybody's not in the same place. That's why I have four categories. I don't have two categories. I could have had two categories. People sometimes think when they haven't read the book, I have two categories, the non woken the woke, so everybody who, who I classes woke is is the evil bad guy. That's not what I did. If you look at the social gospel movement of 100 years ago, make this quick, then you just recognize, actually, it's in a lot of cases, the conservatives who define the other side, because the other side doesn't want to be defined. The other side is moving and drifting from the truth. And so J. Gresham Machon comes along and basically does more to define liberal Protestantism, or social gospel movement than a lot of its own proponents. And I'm trying to do that in my time.
WS: Right? Well, since you brought up, mentioned liberal Protestantism, I want to make this point and see if you agree with it. One of the sort of the key ideas of Machon in the early 20th century was that, that this was not really liberal Christianity, that it was, in fact, a different gospel. It was not Christianity at all. Are you willing to go that far with the woke ideology? Are you willing to say, in fact, that these, that woke ideology, critical race theory, intersectionality have in fact, crossed a line, and they are no longer by any reasonable historical definition Christian?
OS: Yeah, something we haven't touched on a lot but that is important to the book, Christianity and Wokeness, is the the Marxist roots of critical race theory, wokeness and intersectionality, that pairing of oppressor and oppressed which I quickly mentioned. That owes directly to Marx and Engels and the Communist Manifesto. So you recognize that these systems are not coming from the same stream of water as Christianity. They may use Christian terms, and a figure like Cohn, who you've mentioned rightly a few times, mingles his his understanding of Christianity, with Marxist ideology. In fact, the phrase analytical tool that sparked a couple years ago at the Southern Baptist Convention is based off of Cohen's usage of Marxism as, quote, a tool of social analysis that describes the American order. Marxism can describe oppressors and oppressed in a way that capitalism cannot. So the Southern Baptist Convention was embracing not only James Cohen, but a directly Neo Marxist term. So when you think about where systems ground, that's where you start to get clarity in very confusing times. Where you do have confused people, you do have drifting people, and you do have committed people. And what I want to make very clear is that yes, if you go all the way to that fourth category, and you are telling, for example, white people indiscriminately in a church setting, as has happened in a major reformed and evangelical church, that they are guilty of white supremacy based on their skin color, you are not only outside the bounds of the gospel, you are in an anti gospel position, where you are laying a new law upon them and condemnation and guilt upon them that the Bible does not. And that has happened in our circles, it is happening in our circles. Thabite Anyabwile and others have have written at The Gospel Coalition. Christianity Today has featured writings along these lines in such terms that, yes, there's false condemnation. And so not everybody's in the same category. But if you push into that fourth category, you end up perhaps even unwittingly, perhaps thinking you're undoing racism, but you end up in an anti gospel position.
WS: Well, Owen, towards the back of your book, you you talk about some specific issues or a number of specific issues that we're, you know, having cultural conversations about today. And we can't unfortunately, unpack all of them today. But I did want to get you to say a few words about this one idea. Let us stipulate that when God made the world, he made it good. When when he made mankind, he declared man, very good. But that, you know, our rebellion against God broke that relationship with God. Broke the world, literally. We call that the fall. But we are also in the process of restoration as Christians. I mean, that is what we're about. I mean, we're not only saved from hell, from death, from sin by Jesus, but we are also saved for work here, as well. You have a lot of people would say that, that that that work, is a work of restoration, and that we should be actively engaged in building cultural institutions that that bend the arc of history towards justice, for example. And I'm guessing that you would not argue with much or any of what I've just said so far, but it does bring into question this idea of reparations. And you know what, in other words, if there has been damage done in the past, what sort of repairs need to be made, as we are engaged in this restoration process? And specifically, I want to ask you about an idea that you mentioned in your book, you differentiate between reparations and restitution. You say reparations is not a biblical idea. Restitution is a biblical idea. Can you say more about that and kind of, you know, draw a line between those two?
OS: Yeah. If if I took your TV, I would owe you restitution. I owe you something clear and tangible and the Bible is is obvious about that. But if, six generations back, your ancestor took, you know, a beautiful mirror from mine, you don't owe me anything. That guilt then that is because to be a little clearer that guilt doesn't transfer generationally. The Bible does not teach that guilt transfers generationally. The Bible does teach that the effects of sin will be felt, in some cases, generationally as the Lord sees fit. So if I, we can illustrate that pretty clearly, if I was to blow up my marriage in a sinful way, God forbid, that would have generational effects. It easily could, it would affect my children, it could affect my grandchildren, where they grow up or something, because then the family splits up and we live in different places. So we understand generational effects. But that's very different than generational guilt. In fact, Ezekiel 18, 19, and 20 directly draws a strike-through line through the idea of generational guilt. He talks about how the son is not guilty for the father's sins, and the father is not guilty for the son's sin. So, guilt doesn't transfer, not just forward, it doesn't transfer backward. And so I think that when you line these things out biblically, you understand how there are effects of sin. And that causes us to be humble. And to recognize, for example, in the American context, we have real failings in the past, along the lines of what is called racism, and we want to do better. But we also don't want to undertake any form of an unbiblical framework to try and approach our world well. So, and I would even say, we can sharpen the language from restoration to consummation, that's ultimately where things are happening. I'm not against restoration. I think it's a good, I'm sure, I would agree with a lot of what you would mean by that. But we're actually headed not to restore Eden, but to a better Eden, where sin cannot enter. And so the major way we do that, yes, our vocational job matters, our vocational work matters on a day to day basis. Matters a great deal. Matters a lot more than we often think it does, including the quiet anonymous moments. But the real way we're building for the new heavens and new earth is not a great spreadsheet, or even a great novel. It's ultimately the church and the church is where Jew and Gentile come together. Ephesians 2, one new man. And the church is where black and white come together, so to speak. And they may have nothing in common in terms of background. There may be, you know, entanglements of slavery in the background of those individuals. But we don't bring that guilt into the present. We're not making payments, monetary payments, or other forms of reparation, emotional, or whatever it may be. What we're doing is we're saying, we're one family in Christ. The blood of Christ has overcome our division. And we're united.
WS: Well, you may have just answered my question, Owen. But I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway and ask it anyway, and maybe get some clarity about it. I get what you just said, that, you know, restitution is different than reparation, that the sins of a you know, our forefathers are not, I'm not directly guilty of those. And yet today, I see injustice in the world. I want to love my neighbor better than I love my neighbor now. And so what would you recommend, if not reparations? If restitution is not my direct responsibility, in the in the case of what has been stolen in the past. What should, how now shall shall we live? Is it this building of the church? Is that is that the core responsibility, the primary work that we should be about? And what does even that look like?
OS: That's a good question. I think there's two dimensions really, when it comes to society. What someone like me is trying to support is a biblical framework for society. So you know, I want... wow, big question. But I want there to be an equitable public order, I want there to be equality of opportunity. I can't guarantee equality of outcome at all. But you know, I want a flourishing free market. I want individual property rights and possessions respected. I want a restrained government. So where all those kinds of things are happening, I think, individual liberty will be flourishing, as God allows, that is in a common grace sense. And then, as a Christian, yes. I'm not settling grievances from six generations back. I can look into my past or someone else's past. And I can see real, real struggle, real injustice, real failing, but I don't have a biblical call in the here and now to say, okay, that was done that way 200 years ago. So now, that means that I try to recompense you for that. What I do is I try to make my community, my country, to what tiny extent I can, a good place to be. And then I try to invest in the life of my local church. And I do so recognizing that if Paul wanted us to try to sort out generational grievances, an optimal target audience for that would have been Jew and Gentile in Ephesus. He says nothing of the sort. He actually goes so far as to say that the hostility between them has been murdered by the cross. He has very strange language there, [GREEK]. hostility has been essentially killed by the blood of Jesus Christ. So if hostility of a real kind, don't don't, we must not minimize Jew-Gentile conflicts. You're not, I'm just saying we can tend to read back and think, oh, you know, they had a few tifs, you know, over kosher food or something like this. No, they had terrific grievances. There was murder and bloodshed and injustice and corruption in their backgrounds. If they're assembling in these first century churches that Paul is writing to in different places, they can look across the aisle, so to speak, of the church, and they can identify real failings. They can think back to generational pain. And the Apostle Paul doesn't say compensate one another, doesn't say anything like that. He talks about how they have unity, through faith in the one mediator, Jesus Christ. So yes, that is honestly God's plan for unity going forward. We don't look at the world and take cues from crits. Or from secular therapists or from secular theorists. We look to Christ and Christ is where we go to sort out injustice. We come to somebody who does have slavery in their background, their their ancestors were enslaved and wronged. And we say that was wrong, that is clearly wrong. But all that anger and hostility that was manifest back then all that is gone. And now if you are in Christ, you are free. And you are one family with all who are in Christ, including those whose ancestors may have owned your ancestors. The gospel is that revolutionary, I believe.
That brings to a close my conversation with Owen Strachan. His new book is “Christianity and Wokeness: How The Social Justice Movement Is Hijacking the Gospel – And The Way To Stop It.” The book recently made the New York Times Bestseller List.
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