An Apologist’s Adventures in Critical Theory Class

I had not originally planned on covering Critical Theory. The term started popping up in my feed back in mid-2020 after the Black Lives Matter protests began. I watched a few videos on it but didn’t particularly want to write about it. Then my Fall semester of college began, and I found myself in a critical theory class. Why take that as a class? In this case, it was not by choice. Everyone in my major at this school must take this class.  When I signed up for “Critical Cultural Studies,” I thought maybe this would be some kind of advanced intercultural communication class. I’m going to write a few posts here about what I learned from the course, what I’ve learned about Critical Theory outside of class, and why it matters to Christians right now. Come along, and I’ll share some of my adventures in Critical Theory class.

What is Critical Theory?

Karl Marx

I’ll go more in-depth on this in the next post, but let me briefly summarize Critical Theory. It started as a philosophy that borrowed a lot of its ideas from Marxism. Marx saw everything as an economic class struggle between the rich and the poor. Critical Theory takes that concept and applies it to other categories besides economics. The whole world is divided into oppressors and oppressed. They focus on struggles like White people oppressing black people, straights oppressing gays, men oppressing women, etc. However, this is oppression often happens less through direct and obvious means like violence or legislation. It instead happens through subtle, even subconscious actions like the language used or the stories heard.

Critical Theory is More than Philosophy

Although Critical Theory is a philosophy, people seem to want it to be more than that. Unlike most philosophies, Critical Theory is not content to stay abstract in the classroom. This was a class designed to create activists. Maybe that sounds like a reach or like I’m overreacting. I would have assumed the same thing before taking the class. Critical Theory has the goal of social justice, and the professor was all in. Its purpose is to identify power imbalances and tear them down. The class was not just to learn about patriarchy or heteronormativity, but how to fight them.

Is it True vs. Is it Good?

Any college student needs to be prepared to deal with some classes and professors that will challenge their beliefs. However, the kind of prep required is changing. This is not like stepping into a biology class that thinks religion is anti-science or a philosophy class where religion is seen as silly. I didn’t need to contend that Christianity is rational because this was not a class built on rationality. Lately, I’m seeing more people at school talking about zodiac signs, tarot cards, and crystals than I am about science and rationalism. No, this is a class where what matters is your words and language. Many students are not concerned about whether Christianity is rational or even true. The bigger concern here is whether Christianity is good and not some evil institution put in place to step on women and LGBTQ people. So tread carefully.

The Apologist Becomes the Skeptic

The funniest and strangest thing to happen in this class is that I got branded as the skeptic. I became the guy always asking questions about problems and complications with the theory. I’m used to being the religious nut, but so much of the class material is built around postmodernism. We spent many class sessions on why objectivity and absolute truth do not exist. Instead, reality is built on individual perspective and experience. There is no truth, so just rely on what you’ve personally experienced, or more importantly, listen to what those more oppressed than you experienced.

So I went with my usual stance of don’t argue with a professor and class but be a curious student asking as many difficult questions as you can. Play along for the most part, but ask enough questions to bring the holes to light, hopefully. Again, tread carefully. Not because you fear being ostracized, but because you want people to listen and understand the problems. Without some caution, that window will be extremely short.

The State of University Students

I wasn’t mad that I had to take this class. Honestly, I was pretty excited since I knew I’d have some fun learning about and engaging with these ideas. I am deeply concerned, though, about most of the students in the university. I’ve spent enough time studying theology and worldview to be able to sift through a lot of this stuff and see the holes.

Every single person in my major had to take this class to graduate. How many more would take a course like this and accept everything at face value? Nobody I talked to in the class seemed to have any issue with this. Most students seemed to range between apathetically just trying to pass and excited that they have a class to talk about these things. This is exactly the class many students are looking for at university nowadays. We need to keep that in mind when we evangelize and train students.

The university is, in many ways, a backward place. I call it my adventures in Critical Theory class, but it may be one of the most important battlefields for the church today. We need to be a light of truth, even to a culture that doesn’t want one. Part of doing that requires engaging with the ideas and philosophies guiding them. Next time I’ll go deeper into Critical Theory and how Christians should respond.

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