Available October 3

The Clash between Critical Theory and Christian Orthodoxy on Justice and Culture

Where are critical theory and the social justice movement taking us?

Critical theory and its expression in fields like critical race theory, critical pedagogy, and queer theory are having a profound impact on our culture. Contemporary critical theory’s ideas about race, class, gender, identity, and justice have dramatically shaped how people think, act, and view one another—in Christian and secular spheres alike.
In Critical Dilemma, authors Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer illuminate the origins and influences of contemporary critical theory, considering it in the light of clear reason and biblical orthodoxy. While acknowledging that it can provide some legitimate insights regarding race, class, and gender, Critical Dilemma exposes the false assumptions at the heart of critical theory, arguing that it poses a serious threat to both the church and society at large.
Drawing on exhaustive research and careful analysis, Shenvi and Sawyer condemn racism, urge Christians to seek justice, and offer a path forward for racial healing and unity while also opposing critical theory’s manifold errors.

Foreword by Carl R. Trueman

“If all truth is God’s truth, then we should not fear robust engagement with critical theories…We should also not hesitate to reject that which is ultimately incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.”

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About Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer

Neil Shenvi has an AB in chemistry from Princeton and a PhD in theoretical chemistry from UC Berkeley. He is the author of Why Believe?: A Reasoned Approach to Christianity and is widely recognized for his writing on critical theory, which can be found in journals like Eikon and The Journal of Christian Legal Thought. He is married and has four children.
Pat Sawyer has a BA in psychology from UNC-Chapel Hill, an MA in communication studies, and a PhD in educational studies and cultural studies, both from UNC-Greensboro. He is a faculty member at UNC-Greensboro and is published in the academy and in a number of popular outlets including The Federalist, The Gospel Coalition, and The American Conservative.

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Endorsements for Critical Dilemma

“A charitable parsing of contemporary critical theories, Critical Dilemma untangles what’s useful from what’s ineffective among the teachings associated with racial, gender, and economic equity. The work roundly denounces racism and other systemically abusive antihuman evils, yet argues that critical theories struggle to provide meaningful solutions without creating dehumanizing inequities of their own. Critical Dilemma engages popular ideas without hurling invective, making it unique in the discussion. Those who have been wrongly labeled as Marxist, or as upholding white supremacy, or (astonishingly) as both, will appreciate the authors’ careful definition of terms; insiders struggling with the systems’ inconsistencies and fearful of the backlash that accompanies critique will draw courage to voice concerns and find themselves introduced to a true pro-human approach to equality that liberates body, mind, and soul.”

K.A. Ellis, director, The Edmiston Center at Reformed Theological Seminary, Atlanta, GA

“Whether you are a Christian, an atheist, or something else entirely, Critical Dilemma is an invaluable analysis of the extraordinary (and some would say, religious) transformations rippling across our culture and society. An extremely clear and illustrative contemporary guide for the perplexed, this book is ultimately a wholehearted defense of genuine empathy, unity, and justice for all.”

Thomas Chatterton Williams, contributing writer, The Atlantic

Critical Dilemma does a better job of addressing the underlying influences on how we’ve gotten here than any other book I’ve read. Shenvi and Sawyer have done the church a great service. They unequivocally demonstrate that you can be knowledgeable of historic factors relating to racism, sympathetic and engaged in wanting to work to make things better now, yet resistant to unbiblical ideas and solutions offered by critical social theory, recognizing that those approaches will ultimately prevent us from dealing with the issues constructively. A truly excellent work. A must-read.”

—Ligon Duncan, BA, MDiv, MA, PhD (Edin), chancellor and CEO,
Reformed Theological Seminary

“I have long appreciated Neil Shenvi’s articles analyzing critical theory. He consistently handles contentious issues calmly, clearly, and carefully. In this book-length treatment, he and Pat Sawyer have teamed up to create an important resource for anyone seeking to craft an intelligent critique of critical theory.”

—Nancy Pearcey, professor and scholar in residence, Houston Christian University, author of several books, including Total Truth and Love Thy Body

“In the past few years, we have experienced a cultural upheaval surrounding issues of race, sexuality, gender, identity politics, and social justice. I urge everyone to read Critical Dilemma, a thorough, well-documented, fair, and truthful resource that will likely become the go-to primer for understanding the infusion of critical theory into Western society. For anyone left feeling confused, frustrated, and bewildered by the radical shift in culture, this book will be a helpful guide. For anyone buying into the tenets of contemporary critical theory, this book will be a force to be reckoned with.”

—Alisa Childers, host of The Alisa Childers Podcast,
author of Another Gospel? and Live Your Truth and Other Lies

“One of Critical Dilemma’s greatest values is in its clear and concise rundown of contemporary critical social theory. The authors give a balanced view of critical social theory—the good and the bad—but show how the detriments often outweigh the benefits. One need not be particularly religious to see the value in this book. However, the authors thoroughly and effectively remind readers of the benefits of Christianity while calling into question the sanctity of contemporary modes of social justice. Thus, it serves as a valuable resource and guide for those with evangelical sensibilities. For both Christians and non-Christians trying to understand and navigate the world of DEI, Critical Dilemma is a must-have.”

—Erec Smith, PhD, associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania, president and cofounder of Free Black Thought

“For Christians who are willing to go deeper to understand the complexities of critical theory beyond popular-level talking points, there is no better book than this. Shenvi and Sawyer go to extensive lengths to explain the nuances of critical theory accurately and fairly. They then show how it compares and contrasts with a biblical worldview on multiple levels. If you read just one book on the topic of critical theory from a biblical perspective, make it this.”

—Natasha Crain, speaker, podcaster, author of four books, including Faithfully Different

“There is a growing sense of global confusion about the meaning of words and ideas. What sounds benign in the classical sense has become toxic; ‘tolerance’ now demands ‘acceptance and affirmation,’ ‘disagreement’ is now ‘intolerance,’ and ‘visual diversity’ has replaced ‘diversity of thought’ in many of our civil institutions.

“Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer offer a thoughtful and balanced analysis of the ideologies behind the deconstruction of the core values on which our society was built—values without which movements for true justice would have never succeeded.

Critical Dilemma is an indispensable tool to clear the fog of cultural confusion—a fog that, left unchecked, will further destabilize our institutions and tear our culture apart.”

Carl F. Ellis, provost professor of theology and culture at Reformed Theological Seminary

“It seems that the church mistakenly believed that she could win the world without understanding philosophy, and, God help us, as a result, the world’s philosophies have won us. Shenvi and Sawyer are fortifying what I believe is the biggest breach in the defense of the faith today—the philosophy of the Christian worldview. Whether you are a lay person or an academic, this book could save you from deception and despair.” 

John L. Cooper, front man for the Christian rock band Skillet,
author of Awake and Alive to Truth, host of the Cooper Stuff Podcast

Critical Dilemma is a well-researched, carefully reasoned work deserving slow, thorough reading and consideration. Many evangelical critiques of contemporary critical theory are unwilling to acknowledge the slightest elements of truth. This volume does, while offering sound arguments as to where and how the primary ideas of critical social theory are incompatible with biblical doctrines and destructive to Christian unity. Shenvi and Sawyer accomplish this with refreshing candor and humility, neither omitting nor minimizing extraordinarily ugly elements of our nation’s past and present. This is timely scholarship in service of the church.”

Keith W. Plummer, PhD, dean, School of Divinity at Cairn University

Critical Dilemma achieves what many books and much commentary on the subject of critical theory do not: A comprehensive critique of critical theory that is careful, fair, impeccably researched, thorough, rhetorically calm, and surgically precise. Shenvi and Sawyer do yeoman’s work in explaining just how saturated our culture is in critical theory categories. Invoking critical theory in social discourse all but guarantees its defender an unfalsifiable forcefield of infallibility. But the authors of Critical Dilemma expose critical theory for what it is: An acid whose tenets are unreconcilable with biblical Christianity.”

—Andrew T. Walker, PhD, associate professor of Christian ethics, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; fellow in Christian political thought, The Ethics and Public Policy Center 

“Expertly sourced and thoroughly cited, Critical Dilemma provides Christians with the background knowledge they need to heed the warning of Colossians 2:8 to beware of philosophies and vain deceits, such as attempts to redefine oppression or privilege. As Shenvi and Sawyer eloquently explain, the only privilege that really matters is to know and be known by an omniscient, omnipresent, and ever-loving God. No philosophy ever saved anyone. The truth of the gospel, ‘Jesus in my place,’ can save and is open to everyone who will accept it.” 

Dr. C.A. Tuggle, Stembler Distinguished Professor of Broadcast Journalism, senior associate dean, UNC Chapel Hill

“This work is a tour de force. Written with the erudition of careful scholarship, the thoughtful insight of careful reflection, and the gracious wisdom of pastoral care, this book contains all that you need to know to engage meaningfully in this conversation. As a pastor, I found it particularly helpful. It is balanced, fair, and very compelling. Drs. Shenvi and Sawyer let critical theorists explain themselves in their own words, and then they note both the positive contributions and negative pitfalls of critical theory. I was amazed at how Shenvi and Sawyer took even the most complex philosophical concepts and made them understandable and memorable for the lay reader. This might not be the only book you ever read on this subject, but it should definitely be the first. This will be my first recommended resource for anyone wanting to engage in this very pressing conversation.”

J.D. Greear, PhD, pastor, The Summit Church; 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention; author, Essential Christianity: The Heart of the Gospel in 10 Words

“Encyclopedic! Exhaustive! Excellent! Essential! These are four words that come to mind concerning this book. It is encyclopedic. I will refer to sections of it again and again in the years to come. It is exhaustive. The research is both broad and in-depth. No stone is left unturned. It is excellent. It is well written, charitable, honest, and fair in its critiques. It is essential. It is a must-read for anyone who wishes to accurately understand all the many disciplines and movements that now reside under the umbrella of critical theory. The umbrella is large, and the residents are numerous. There is much to consider, and this book provides exactly what we need. Shenvi and Sawyer have rendered a valuable service to the academy, culture, and church. We are in their debt.”

—Daniel L. Akin, president, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, NC

Critical Dilemma offers an outstanding crash course in all things woke and social-justice related. If you want a deeper, more nuanced, and clearer understanding of the culture war and what’s become the dominant moral ideology, then read this book. After 484 pages, you’ll have a master’s degree in contemporary madness.” 

—Peter Boghossian, founding faculty fellow, University of Austin, TX

Critical Dilemma is the right book at the right time. In fact, it’s overdue, given how influential the pop culture versions of critical social theory ideas have become and how poorly these ideas are understood and engaged in an age where people are more committed to political wins than to truth, justice, or love. This book is well researched and well written. Shenvi and Sawyer have given us all a tremendous gift.”

John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center and host of BreakPoint

“Knowledge is power and ignorance is not bliss within or outside the church. If you truly want to understand the cultural forces ripping apart American institutions, I urge you to read and devour Shenvi and Sawyer’s outstanding analysis of critical theory, its roots, and its destructive manifestations. Critical Dilemma offers a thorough and accessible tool to educate pastors, church leaders, and congregants. High school and college students can learn much by reading this book and using it as a reference tool.”

—Dr. Carol M. Swain, distinguished senior fellow for constitutional studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, retired professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University

Critical dilemma is a potent, carefully documented Christian assessment of a variety of ideological perspectives, such as critical race theory, transgenderism, decolonial theory, and queer theory. Shenvi and Sawyer offer a discerning comparison between these types of contemporary critical theory and the biblical worldview of evangelical theology. A clear and fair-minded account of how critical theory has become so influential and yet why its diagnoses and proposed cures for the disparities, injustices, suffering, and other predicaments that have differentially impacted the human condition end up far afield from a biblical perspective.”

—William L Hathaway, PhD, executive vice president for academic affairs, professor of psychology, Regent University

“Perhaps you’ve heard terms like woke, critical race theory, and intersectionality, but like many, don’t quite understand them. Critical Dilemma is among the most important books written to help us understand and respond to the cultural revolution taking place in America that is threatening our families, churches, and civilization. While accessibly written from a distinctly Christian perspective, it is also charitable and fair in the views it critiques while remaining firm in sounding the alarm about the perils of contemporary critical theory.”  

Corey Miller, PhD (University of Aberdeen, Scotland),
author, former university professor, current president of Ratio Christi

“For the past five years, Neil Shenvi’s website has been enormously helpful to me as I have tried to better understand the ‘contemporary critical theory’ cultural revolution. Most of us don’t have the patience and expertise to engage so many technical primary sources that are incompatible with Christianity. In this book, Shenvi and Sawyer update their years of research to give us a resource that is clear, meticulous, responsible, reasonable, penetrating, loving, and discerning. Their work is especially helpful for pastors and teachers, for God calls us not only to give instruction in sound doctrine, but also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).”

Andy Naselli, associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament, Bethlehem College and Seminary, one of the pastors at The North Church

Critical Dilemma is a tour de force. I found Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer’s masterful distillation of critical theory refreshing. Their sympathetic and humble, yet powerful, dissection of the claims advanced by these fashionable race, gender, and sexuality theories is first class. Readers seeking to understand and rebut illiberal progressive arguments will find a quiver full of ethical arrows to do so, be these from secular philosophy or the Bible. The authors argue that the new social justice religion tears down much that is valuable for human flourishing in the name of a retributive, levelling-down egalitarianism. Evangelical Protestant Christianity, they aver, with its ‘vertical’ individual-to-God relationship, is fundamentally incompatible with the ‘horizontal’ oppressor-oppressed worldview of the woke faith—even if it contributes some positive insights. As a secular reader, I found the window into progressive evangelicalism and its critics fascinating, and emerged with an enhanced understanding of the Christian perspective on race and gender activism. I very much recommend this book.”

Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics, Birkbeck College, University of London

“Thorough and well documented! This is the Christian critique of critical theory that is needed in our churches today. Shenvi and Sawyer’s in-depth inspection of critical theory shines a light on the framework’s failures and why, as believers, we cannot adopt it.”

Monique Duson and Krista Bontrager, cofounders, The Center for Biblical Unity

Critical Dilemma is substantive and rich in content, possessing the rare combination of first-rate scholarship and broad accessibility. Shenvi and Sawyer provide a well-crafted treatment of some of today’s most important yet controversial topics, such as race, gender, unity, and justice. They introduce the reader to the complex world of contemporary critical theories and do so with prose that respects the depth and nuance these subjects require. Critical Dilemma not only exposes the flaws of contemporary critical theories but also compellingly directs the reader toward ‘a more excellent way.’ With feet planted in both the scholarship of the academy and the sound doctrine of the church, Shenvi and Sawyer have given both the church and society an indispensable gift. In my view, Critical Dilemma will prove to be one of the most important works of our day.”    

—William “Duce” Branch (aka The Ambassador), assistant professor of preaching, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary 

“We are living through an epoch shift in which the ‘anything goes’ relativism of the 1990s and 2000s have given way to a highly moralistic, quick-to-judge, all-encompassing narrative that has now broken mainstream in corporations, schools, politics, entertainment, and even churches. Exhaustively researched and evenhanded, Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer offer a probing and timely study of the critical theories that have captured the popular imagination. Not only are they rigorous and fair, they also chart a course toward more biblical, and, therefore, more hopeful and Christ-exalting answers to the injustices that haunt society. For anyone seeking to understand our cultural moment and bring the good news of Jesus to bear in our ideologically charged and divided age, Critical Dilemma is essential reading.”  

—Thaddeus Williams, author, Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice; professor of systematic theology, Biola University 

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