TL;DR

  • Contemporary critical theory (CCT) is the term given to the modern offshoots of Critical Theory, a Marxist and anti-Christian critique of Western society.
  • CCT says society is comprised of oppressed classes and oppressor classes who continually struggle for power.
  • The classes you belong to – white, black, straight, trans, able-bodied, etc. – are determined by your identity.
  • You are a complex matrix of class identities, some of which are oppressor identities, some of which are oppressed identities.
  • Membership in an identity class makes you an oppressor with privilege or one of the oppressed regardless if you perceive yourself that way.
  • The goal of CCT is to liberate the oppressed classes from the hegemonic narratives of the dominant, oppressor classes. Hegemonic narratives are stories and norms that oppressors tell to justify their position of dominance.
  • When people see through the hegemonic narratives of the oppressors they are woke. When oppressors give up the privilege that comes from the their dominant identities, they are said to be allies.
  • Oppressed peoples’ lived experience – their personal experience of life – gives them unique access to truth that cannot be challenged by oppressors.
  • Christianity and CCT are incompatible worldviews, as explained in Part 2.

Confused about where these new phrases come from?

  • Woke capitalism
  • Intersectionality
  • Political correctness
  • Identity politics
  • Anti-racism
  • Decolonization
  • Cancel culture
  • White privilege
  • Microaggressions

Asking yourself any of these questions recently?

  • Why are some fundamental, unchanging Christian moral beliefs now considered ‘bigotry’ and ‘hateful’?
  • Why can people of color say things and joke about white people in ways that, if it was the other way around, would be considered racism?
  • Why are men now told they cannot have an opinion on abortion?

The source of all the above terms and the answer to all these questions is contemporary critical theory.

Contemporary critical theory is a fundamentally anti-Christian critique of the world. Furthermore, it competes with Christianity as two incompatible worldview options. 

This article explains what CCT believes. Part 2 explains why it is incompatible with Christianity.

Contemporary critical theory vs. Critical Theory

Critical Theory (uppercase) refers specifically to the school of thought founded in the 1930s by what is called the “Frankfurt School.” If you need a primer, check out this short history of Critical Theory. This article addresses “contemporary critical theory” (lower case, utilizing the terminology of Neil Shenvi), which refers to all downstream academic work and ideology that the original Critical Theory movement birthed, but which has undergone many adaptations.

A simplified explanation of contemporary critical theory

Contemrary critical theory (CCT) is loose school of academic thought that functions as a worldview. CCT is a lens that views all human relationships as a power struggle between the fundamental categories of oppressor and oppressed. There are two parts to this. First, every person is either an oppressor or is oppressed. Second, every interaction is about the power struggle between oppressors and the oppressed.

Oppression

In CCT, oppression encompasses all the ways that a specific identity group is disadvantaged in society. The oppression can be conscious or unconscious, and it can be individual or systemic (built into the system). For example, a black individual could be disadvantaged by unconscious hiring biases (unconscious systemic oppression) or by a verbally racist neighbor (conscious individual oppression). Both would be called “oppression.” 

It is important to note that, in CCT, oppression does not necessarily mean physical domination or violence. “Oppression” in CCT is expanded to include dominating the norms, values, habits, and symbols of society. 

Identities

Back to the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. CCT believes you have many different identities, and each identity is either an oppressor or oppressed. Your identities are race, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic class, physical abilities, among others. If you feel that society somehow disadvantages you due to one of your many identities, you can claim to be oppressed. 

Conversely, you can be an oppressor based on your many different identities. When it comes to oppressor identities, CCT believes that there are inherent oppressor classes in Western culture: men oppress women, straight people oppress queer people, white people oppress black people, Christians oppress non-Christians, etc. 

It is important to note that you don’t have to have actively tried to oppress someone to be part of an oppressor group. This is because, in CCT, identities are class-based. You are by default part of a class of people who hold the same identity – White, Male, Black, Lesbian, Transgender, etc. Crucial to CCT’s understanding of the world is this focus on identity classes over and against individuality. Your individual identity only makes sense in relation to the larger group to which you belong. If you are white, then your identity is tied to Whiteness. If you are black, your identity is tied to Blackness, whether you consciously accept it or not.

Privilege

Those who share the identity of oppressor classes and benefit from it are said to have privilege. Privilege means you are not subject to the disadvantages of the oppressed classes. Privilege is inherent to your identities; for example, if you are white, you have white privilege whether you think you have it or not. The traditional oppressor classes – white, male, straight, Christian, among other – all have privilege that comes with belonging to that class.

Intersectionality

CCT believes that the more oppressed identities you have (or, the more oppressed classes you belong to), the more oppressed you are. This is the basis of intersectionality. Intersectionality is the idea that you are oppressed at the intersection of all your various identity classes. 

And conversely, the more oppressor identities you have, the more of an oppressor you are. Thus, the more of these that describe you – white, male, straight, able-bodied, Christian – the more oppressor identities you have. The fewer you have, the more oppressed you are by those who are straight, white, able-bodied Christian males. 

CCT and intersectionality result in a hierarchy of oppression, with your oppressor status being relative to who you are comparing yourself to. A straight, religious, white woman can be oppressed in relation to a white man, but she might be an oppressor in relation to a black, queer, transgender female atheist.

There is a struggle amongst the oppressed to decide whose matrix of oppression makes them the biggest victim of oppressors and is thus at the apex of the pyramid of oppressed people. Who is more oppressed? A black female or a white, transgender female? 

Liberation from oppression

The goal of CCT is to liberate the oppressed classes from the hands of the oppressor classes. As mentioned, the traditional understanding is that women need liberation from men, LGBTQs from straights, blacks from whites, etc.

How does liberation happen? In part by critiquing hegemonic narratives (or, hegemonic discourse). The basic idea is that the dominant groups in society – the oppressors – create narratives of why they are in a position of dominance that help them maintain their positions of dominance. The dominant group oppresses and maintains their domination by forcing their ideology on everyone. Furthermore, the dominant group creates societal standards that benefit themselves, and then minority groups are measured by those standards. 

This is a confusing idea, so here it is again another way. Culture says: “This is the way things should be, and if you do not live according to this way, you are wrong/bad/evil.” CCT says this is an example of oppressors (straight, white, Christian males) making up an entire system of how things should be, and then judge if others have lived up to those standards. By defining how things should be and also being the judges, the dominant oppressors set the rules of the game and then judge the game. They will always “win.”

An example of a hegemonic discourse:

An example of a hegemonic discourse would be the Christian idea of male headship. Here is a biblical passage on headship:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with weather through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:21-27

CCT would claim that Christian men use this hegemonic discourse to justify the oppression of women.

You might ask, “What if a Christian wife agrees with male headship?” CCT would say that the wife suffers from internalized oppression. Internalized oppression describes when an oppressed person has unknowingly embraced the hegemonic discourse of their oppressors.

Getting woke and becoming allies

When oppressed people see through the hegemonic discourses and understand how they are being oppressed, they are said to be woke. People who are not oppressed, but align themselves with the oppressed are also said to be woke.

If people who hold oppressor identities, such as white males, publicly perform acts of penance (denouncing your privilege in various ways), they can be considered an ally of the oppressed. Becoming an ally happens for each identity class – you are a trans ally, a people of color ally, etc. 

Lived experience

Another key idea behind CCT is the level of regard afforded to lived experience. Lived experience is precisely what it sounds like – your experience of living. CCT says that the lived experience of oppressed people gives them unique insight into truth and moral authority. Several implications result from the emphasis on lived experience.

First, CCT says that oppressors are blinded by their privilege and cannot readily see how they are oppressing. It is up to the oppressed, speaking from their lived experience, to “speak truth to power” and point out how the oppressor groups are perpetuating domination. Basically, oppressed people see truth more clearly than oppressors.

Second, this means that oppressor groups should give preference to the claims of oppressed groups. The claims of oppressed groups cannot be questioned because the oppressors are not in a position to question anything. The oppressors don’t have the lived experience and identities that allow them to see the truth of things. Furthermore, the oppressors’ challenges of the claims of the oppressed are based on norms that reflect the oppressors’ hegemonic discourse. 

In short, oppressors are blinded by their privilege and judge based on their own norms. They have no authority to question the insight of the lived experience and demands of the oppressed.

Isn’t liberation from oppression good?

So, if CCT is for the liberation of the oppressed, why should Christians not support it? After all, the Bible is clear that God is a God of justice, and liberation is a theme that flows through Scripture (see especially Exodus’ narrative of Israel’s flight from Egypt).

The short answer is that, while Christianity is for liberation from oppression, Christianity’s understanding of oppression and the role of Truth is radically different than CCT. The two movements are not interchangeable and do not work together in harmony.

Check out Part 2 for why Christianity and CCT cannot mix.