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EFAC Australia

Book Reviews

Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody
By Helen Pluckrose And James Lindsay, 2020.
Pitchstone Publishig, 2020
Reviewed By Tim Horman

Helen Pluckrose, editor of Aero magazine, and James Lindsay, a mathematician and cultural critic, have written Cynical Theories to explain how Critical Theory has become a driving force of the contemporary culture wars, and to propose a “philosophically liberal way to counter its manifestations in scholarship, activism, and everyday life.” Their book traces the evolution of postmodern and post-structuralist theory over the last 50 years, showing how these theories have moved beyond the academy and into popular culture, particularly the modern Social Justice Movement. Cynical Theories is a story about how the “despair and nihilism” of postmodernism found confidence, which then developed into the sort of radical conviction “normally associated with religious adherence.”

The story, as Pluckrose and Lindsay tell it, begins with the ‘postmodern turn’ of the late 1960’s. Postmodern and post-structuralist academics such as Jean Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, began to deconstruct what the authors call the “old religions” of human thought, which included traditional religious faiths like Christianity, secular ideologies like Marxism, and “cohesive modern systems, such as scientific approaches to knowledge, philosophical liberalism, and the concept of progress.” Early postmodern theory achieved this by questioning the capacity of language to produce meaning, by rejecting the legitimacy of metanarratives, and emphasising the endless deferral of truth or objectivity, since ‘truth’ is merely the socially constructed effect of language games. Such ideas were effective at dismantling those ‘old’ modes of thought, but not particularly useful for reconstructive social change.

However, the work of Michel Foucault was instrumental in the shift from Postmodernism to Critical Theory, because he recognised the “political implications” of postmodern theory and particularly how those addressed questions of unjust power-relations in society. Foucault’s groundwork has become what the authors call applied Postmodernism, or Critical Theory. Critical, so-called, because it is concerned with “revealing hidden biases, underexamined assumptions, and unearthing the dynamics of power and privilege in society and discourses.” Proponents of Critical Theory, say Pluckrose and Lindsay, “are obsessed with power, language, knowledge, and the relationships between them.” The authors trace the application of these dynamics through a range of academic disciplines: post-colonial studies, queer theory, feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, disability and fat studies.

As Critical Theory has been applied to questions of societal injustice, it has morphed into the contemporary Social Justice movement that wants to “interpret the world through a lens that detects power dynamics in every interaction and utterance... even when they aren’t obvious or real.” Under this rubric, belonging to certain identity groups designated by race, sex, gender, sexuality, and many others, determine either one’s complicity in injustice or experience of marginalisation and discrimination. Furthermore, these power dynamics are impossible to escape, since all knowledge, including identity, are social constructs that function to protect and advance the interests of the privileged. The Social Justice movement thus “centres on social and cultural grievances and aims to make everything a zero-sum political struggle.”

According to Pluckrose and Lindsay, the intention behind all this is to initiate an ideological revolution that will lead to a cynical and radical re-ordering of society. Cynical because Critical Theory and the Social Justice movement it has spawned seek “...remaking society according to their moral vision”, all the while quoting book reviews the postmodern theorists, who reject the idea that objective knowledge is obtainable. In other words, Critical Theory operates on the same unjust power-relations   as those “old religions” it critiques, and is itself like a religion because it is prescriptive rather than descriptive – it puts the ‘moral’ cart before the ‘empirical’ horse. This means it cannot be easily argued against, at least, not by empirical or ‘western’ modes of knowledge, since those are simply viewed as tools to ensure power remains entrenched in (for example) white/male/heteronormative discourses.

Pluckrose and Lindsay write that “...in the face of this it has become increasingly difficult, and even dangerous” to raise objections to these “divisive and constraining identity politics. Since objections to irrationalism and illiberalism are often misunderstood or misrepresented as opposition to genuine social justice.”

This is perhaps the key point that Pluckrose and Lindsay make in their book, that a rejection of Critical Theory is not a rejection of the need for social justice per se, but rather, a rejection of Critical Theory as a helpful means by which to achieve it. In fact, the authors argue that Critical Theory “allots social significance to racial categories, which inflames racism. It attempts to depict categories of sex, gender, and sexuality as mere social constructions, which undermines the fact that people often accept sexual minorities because they recognize that sexual expression varies naturally.” In other words, attempts to advance social justice by means of Critical Theory, end up making the situation much worse and this harms everyone.

Instead, the authors believe that the best means to achieve ongoing advances in social justice is to strengthen secular philosophical liberalism and the importance of “empirical and rational concepts of knowledge.” In their view, secular philosophical and political liberalism works because, since the Enlightenment, it has provided an arena for the marketplace of ideas to be debated openly, leading to such developments as universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression and religion, and the separation of church and state.

This has created, the authors argue, the most diverse, equitable, and least discriminatory culture in human history. Secular liberalism, “despite its shortcomings, is simply better for humans. It is astonishing that over the same twenty- year period (1960–1980) during which women gained access to contraception and equal pay for equal work, racial and sexual discrimination in employment and other areas became illegal, and homosexuality was decriminalized, the postmodernists emerged and declared that it was time to stop believing in liberalism, science, reason, and the myth of progress.”

Cynical Theories is an extremely well-researched yet accessible book, that provides a clear and compelling overview of Postmodern thought and the importance of secular liberalism as a counter to the excesses of the Social Justice movement. The concluding section is particularly helpful, as it suggests a practical framework for doing “fair battle” with Social Justice ideologies when engaging with real-world issues of injustice, be it racism, sexism, or homophobia. One minor critique is that Cynical Theories does not address from where the Enlightenment values the authors believe are so important to liberal democracies, have emerged. They are largely taken as given, and this seems to miss a crucial question: why are those values under threat of being supplanted, if they were so effective? As a Christian, the answer seems obvious: many of those Enlightenment values themselves rest upon the foundation of the gospel, without which they cannot be sustained. This is not a Christian book, however, so putting that critique aside there is much in Cynical Theories that can nevertheless help Christians to both understand the cultural landscape we are in, and be equipped to offer a thoughtful response to Critical Theory when we encounter it.

Tim Horman is Senior Pastor of One Community Church of Christ in Blackburn, Victoria. He was previously an Assistant Minister in the St Hilary’s Network and is a graduate of Regent College.

JerksAtWorkJerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and what to do about them
JESS WEST
WHEATON: CROSSWAY, 2020

This recently published book offers excellent advice to church leaders. It’s great to see a non Christian writer who recognises the impact of sin, both on the way we lead and on the behaviours of others. You can substitute ‘parishioner’ here for ‘co-worker’ and find good advice on how to deal with challenging people who sap our time and emotional energy. As a social psychologist West categorises different kinds of toxic co-workers (the kiss up/kick downer, the free rider and the gaslighter, to name a few) and describes how best to engage with each of them.

Tim Foster is the Vice Principal of Ridley College and the Director of the Ridley Centre for Leadership.

ChangingLanesChanging Lanes, Crossing Cultures: Equipping Christians and churches for ministry in a culturally diverse society
By Andrew Schachtel, Choon-Hwa Lim and Michael K Wilson
Sydney: Great Western Press, 2016

Reviewed By Mark Simon, Lecturer In New Testament And Research Associate, Ridley College, Melbourne

Changing Lanes, Crossing Cultures is a timely and practical book for individuals and churches wishing to begin or enhance an existing cross-cultural gospel ministry within Australia. Using the analogy of good driving habits, the book seeks to outline the why, what, how, and when of reaching ethnic minorities with the gospel. The book is structured in 6 modules which are designed for study by a church leadership group such as a parish council, or a local missions task-group. The modules are (in turn):

  • The biblical motivation for ministry across cultures; ‘the why’
  • Ministry in an ethnically diverse society; ‘the why’
  • Dealing with hindrances to ministry across cultures; ‘the what’
  • Increasing your cultural intelligence and skills; ‘the how’
  • The importance of leadership and management for ministry across cultures; ‘the how’ and
  • Where to from here? ‘the how and when.’

Module 1 covers some of the same territory broached in Ben Clements’ article in this volume of Essentials; that is, biblical and pragmatic motivations for cross-cultural ministry.

Module 2 details the increasingly multi-ethnic nature of Australian society: over a quarter of Australia’s population come from approximately 200 different overseas countries. It elaborates how different immigrants might express their ethnicity from isolation to assimilation.

For me, modules 3 and 4 were the most practical, since they equipped me as a church leader to tackle the default ethnocentrism of my own church. Simply naming the illegitimate hindrances to ministry to ethnically-diverse communities is liberating. The book identifies the following ones: no burden for the lost; over-dependence on social factors and feeling comfortable within one’s own people group; ethnic difference; ethnocentrism and racism; painful history; lack of gospel-driven leadership; preserving church culture; confusion of gospel and culture; cultural barriers; cultural distance; lack of community; spiritual opposition. Having identified these illegitimate barriers, the book encourages us with a reflection on Peter’s cross-cultural awakening in Acts 10, and then tabulating possible solutions for each one (pages 82-86). The book is worth its price for these pages alone!

Module 4 continues by dealing with the nuts and bolts of improving cultural intelligence. It introduces six lenses through which cultural difference can be understood. This chapter also encourages all Christians to take the time to observe, listen, and learn from the ethnic groups around us. Lastly, it points out that practising hospitality is a sure-fire way to develop relationships with minority ethnic contacts, and to grow in cultural intelligence.

Modules 5 and 6 round out the book with material on the cultural dimensions of leadership, and some ways of planning to launch or enhance ministries to ethnic minorities in our own communities. Most Australian churches now periodically engage in some form of mission action planning or strategic planning for ministry. Incorporating study of this book in the next round of your church’s planning cycle would help to ensure you are not neglecting this burgeoning harvest field so close at hand to many of our churches today.

ModernSelfThe Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
Carl Trueman
Wheaton: Crossway, 2020
Reviewed By Rhys Bezzant

I don’t often say it, but this book was so good I read it once then listened to it as an audiobook! Carl Trueman, an Englishman teaching in the US, has written an extraordinary overview of the last three hundred years of Western culture, to help explain how the sexual revolution came to pass, and how transgenderism can be understood philosophically within that story. I am a sucker for grand vistas when they help me to investigate the minutiae of an event, and that he admirably achieves. The heart of the book is an evaluation of Rousseau as the fountainhead of modern views of the self, but he goes on to explain how the great Romantic poets Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake reinforce the subjective turn, with Marx, Darwin and Nietzsche rendering the subjective a political force. All that is then needed is the contribution of Freud to sexualise the political. This layering of cultural sediments is a fine example of intellectual history, explaining where great thinkers got their ideas from, how they reshaped those ideas given their own historical moment, and how they passed them on. Ideas matter, for it is not just our material environment that impacts who we are.

Trueman takes up the language of “expressive individualism” to capture the goal of the modern search for identity, with questions of sexuality a case study. So many in the West work with a default position, like Rousseau the French educationalist, that culture is corrupting, so we long for the “state of nature,” in which we were free to express ourselves without the shackles of social expectations. The great Romantic poets worked initially within this mimetic frame of mind, which assumed that meaning was given to us (rather than created by us) and discovered through art. This was in time overturned, as philosophers and poets came to understand that what we had previously accepted as universal and static was actually the dynamic and local product of oppressive historical forces, from which we needed liberation. Christianity was regarded not as offering freedom, but something from which we needed to be freed! As Shelley wrote, “Religion and morality, as they now stand, compose a practical code of misery and servitude” (p155).

Expressive individualism, in Trueman’s estimation, therefore doesn’t assume a worldview but instead a social imaginary, as Charles Taylor the Canadian philosopher has argued. We create our world and create ourselves within it. We become plastic people, who find meaning in self-expression: “Freedom for Nietzsche is freedom from essentialism and for selfcreation” (p174). If Marx believed we need a new social self-awareness, if Freud believed we should be open to deep sexual motivations that lurk just beyond our recognition, and if Darwin undermined an exalted and purposeful role for human beings in history, then together they set up profoundly modern ways of grasping what a human being is. Better to begin within ourselves, and from there to invent our own identity according to our own lights. Though with any model for understanding what it means to be human there are philosophical challenges, in this model there is a new danger: “Where once oppression was seen in terms of economic realities (eg poverty, lack of property) or legal categories (eg slavery, lack of freedom), now the matter is more subtle because it relates to issues of psychology and self-consciousness. The political sphere is internalized and subjectivized” (p250). Learning to express ourselves as individuals has a deep prehistory.

Set within the development of expressive individualism, and against the backdrop of longer and larger philosophical shifts in the West, Trueman ultimately wants to explain how a concept like transgenderism makes eminent sense to our contemporaries though it made no sense to his own grandfather. This change within a generation is not to be explained by referring to the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s alone! He sets all these particular concerns (and others!) within the sociological analysis of Philip Rieff, who has generated categories like “the triumph of the therapeutic” or “the anticulture,” and the ethical reflections of Alasdair MacIntyre, who has argued that in the modern world truth claims are more like “expressions of emotional preference” (p26). Trueman’s breadth of reading gives great depth to his analysis, even if along the way we might want him to explain or qualify a point further.

This book has won notable awards, for its prose is lucid and its argument coherent, as it tries to guide Christians through a short course in intellectual history and an outline of a way of understanding the process of secularisation. His concluding reflections may at points highlight the weakness of a historian trying to be a prophet, but he is surely right when he concludes: “If sacred or metaphysical order is necessary for cultures to remain stable and coherent, then we currently face an indefinite future of flux, instability, and incoherence.” (p394). I recommend the book to readers who want to find ways to understand the pressure points in contemporary culture.

Rev Dr Rhys Bezzant is Senior Lecturer and Dean of The Anglican Institute Ridley College and Visiting Fellow Yale Divinity School. First published in TMA.

GodofAllThings.jpgGod of All things: Rediscovering the sacred in an everyday worldBy Andrew Wilson - Teaching Pastor at Kings Church London and Author
Zondervan 2021

Reviewed By Stephen Hale, Chair EFAC Global and Australia

God of All things is a wonderful book and I commend it to you. Wilson seeks to explore the reality that our world is full of things. Each of those things point to the creator who put it all together. ‘The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ Psalm 24.1

The book comprises a short introduction and conclusion and in between 30 short chapters split between the Old and New Testaments. Each chapter looks at one thing – dust, earthquakes, pigs, livestock, tools, horns, sex, salt, rain, trumpets, viruses etc etc.

It is a fascinating book. Each of the short chapters talks about the object/thing and captures how they are referenced in Scripture and also how they are described in contemporary science. Along the way there are lots of wonderful insights. As Wilson says, they may well lift one’s sight to reflect on the place of each of these objects in our world and what they point us to. He makes links like these:

  • Dust: the image of God
  • Horns: the salvation of God
  • Donkeys: the peace of God
  • Water: the life of God
  • Viruses: the problem of God
  • Cities: the kingdom of God

We live at a time when many people have given up on God and believe that science has all the answers. The fascinating and awe-inspiring wonders of the created world are inspiring in themselves, not because of what they point to. My wife teaches both Christian studies and science in an Anglican school and says that most of her students are essentially materialists, even if they have never heard of the term.

I chose to read the book as a chapter each day, given that most of the 30 chapters are around 5 or 6 pages. I found the book to be genuinely inspiring as well as fresh and interesting. Each chapter contained surprising revelations from either creation or Scripture. In Romans 1 Paul says that creation reveals God’s invisible power and divine nature. C S Lewis talks about following sunbeams back to the sun so that we enjoy not just the object of goodness but the source of the good. As Wilson says, ‘Creation preaches to us. The things of God reveal the God of things.’ (page 3).

I really enjoyed God of All things and found it refreshing and original. I’ve given it to a few people who also loved it.

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