The Upside of Critical Theory
An interesting question came out of last week’s video in response to ‘why evangelicals can’t do critical theory’. when someone asked “what is the upside?”
This is a fantastic question. I would like to submit that there are 3 major benefits of CT
- It breathes new life into a root bound plant.
- It levels the playing field.
- It reflects the methods and the model of Jesus.
It breathes new life into a root-bound plant.
Not everyone has been a part of a community, congregation, organization, or institutions that they really loved. If you have been a part of a collective endeavor that meant a lot to you, you will probably know that over time things can become a little too insular or set in their ways or self-referential or internally focused. Unfortunately, this is all to common.
Even significant movements can stagnate, codify, and begin to fall into the rut of maintenance mode. It happens to the best of them. Some (or most) of the energy that once went toward out toward the ‘mission’ or the ‘out-reach’ slowly shifts and becomes about preserving what we already have (or once were) and maintained the administrative or bureaucratic apparatus.
When structures begin to become too limited in their scope, or they leave behind their original passion or vision, it can be like a plant – to use an analogy – that has been left in the same pot for too long. The roots can not expand and begin to grow around upon themselves and the unhealth known as being ‘root-bound’ can happen over time.
Loving the institution, at that point, is being daring enough to undergo the arduous process of pulling the plant out of its pot and pressing your fingers or an instrument into the roots to break them apart and create some space of new life and growth.
This is why the ‘tool-box’or critical theory can actually be a good thing for organizations, C(niche) or too self-referential, exposing ideas that have become taken for granted, challenging systems, bylaws, protocols, regulations, committees and boards that insulated from review or accountability – critical examination can help loosen that which is bound by tradition, set in its ways, or insulated by power and influence.
Loving something means not giving up on it and just walking away sometimes. Doing the hard work critical analysis (or decolonizing perhaps) is a labor of love.
It levels the playing field.
Critical theory (and specifically critical race theory) can be great ways of examining issues related to access, recruitment, training, funding, and empowerment (to name a few). Critical theory is an approach that that brings many tools to a project. The goals are to examine, expose, and advocate – to change, not just explain, an area of need.
Those who practice critical theory have a loose collection of commitments and general set of approaches that roughly configure them as an ‘approach’. Critical theory isn’t so much a ‘thing’ as it is a specific commitment to address a ‘thing’. It has a asymmetrical relationship to power: It wants the power to investigate the power – and will shout, claw, and demonstrate in order to do so.
We all see the disparity and inequality that manifests in our culture historically and currently threatens to pull apart our society. Critical theory starts will the realization (or conviction) that something is wrong with that level of disparity and inequality. Critical theory is concerned about the marginalized, the oppressed, and the left-behinds – the unheard, the under-represented, and the taken-for-granted.
Critical theory wants know the rules of the game, ask who wrote the rule book, interview those that uphold and reinforce the rules, examine the bank statements of those that profit from the game, explore possible bias (or preference) by those who facilitate the game, interrogate those who seeks to exploit the game, expose unjust practices and policies within the game, and advocate for change to benefit those who actually play the game.
One of the ways that CT does this is to expose ideology – that is: mental frameworks that are so entrenched and assumed that someone who holds them and acts on them may not even know that they are there or be able to articulate or explain them. Ideologies can manifest as beliefs, values, convictions, ideas, opinions, attitudes, rhetoric, prejudices, priorities, rules, laws, standards, regulations, moral codes (spoken or unspoken), motivations, practices, disciplines, rituals, ceremonies, polls, surveys, censuses, political activity, economic policies, legal matters, hiring practices, advertisements, financial investments, beauty standards, sexual permissions and so many other manifestations and expressions.
Ask yourself: What I am not allowed to question? What would I get in trouble of asking? What would my community get angry about if I told our critics?
This will tease out the first thread of ideology. Is the fear that if you pull too hard on this thread that the whole thing unravel?
It reflects the methods and the model of Jesus.
Jesus both modeled and employed methods that would be very familiar to those who employ critical theory. As Randy and I say in our recent book [Decolonizing Evangelicalism]Jesus could be seen as doing a proto version of deconstruction. In both his teachings and his use of parables, Jesus models ‘asking the question behind the question’. Where did you hear that? What is their authority? Why do you think things are the way they are? Do you think that is the way that God wants them? Why do you think that person is your enemy? Can the ring of inclusion be expanded? What really ails you?
Jesus challenged the status quo. He interrogated the ‘as is’ nature of society and its institutions. He advocated for those were disadvantaged, neglected, marginalized, and discriminated against. Jesus exposed performative religion, calling out the motivations behind the posturing and practices of the temple system. He even demonstrated against injustice with violent force.
Admittedly, Reading the Gospels through a capitalist lens neutralizes much of this emphasis and gives us a much more sanitized and sterilized version of Jesus. That is why it is important to read decolonial perspectives because the gospels read very differently on the underside of history then they do when one is high in the hog– as they say. The Jesus of empire lacks most of this prophetic witness and critical impulse. That version of Jesus is much more therapeutic then messianic. A postcolonial or anti-imperial reading however highlights the proto critical theory modeled in the life, teaching, in ministry of Jesus.
Those are three of the benefits that a critical theory approach can bring to Christianity: it breathes new life into a root bound plant, it levels the playing field, it reflects the methods and the model of Jesus.
If you are interested in this topic, please check out my other posts:
Critical Theory Will Be Our Salvation
Why Evangelicals Can’t Do Critical Race Theory