Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer

Today’s book could be the most important book of the year. Hopefully not the decade. Because I would really hate to talk about Critical Theory again. If everybody in the world read today’s book, we would never have to talk about it ever again.

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society” by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. 582 pages. Published by Harvest House Publishers in October 2023. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD21.99 and in Logos for USD16.49. But I got it in Logos for the low low price of USD6.99 because every month I eagerly wait for Logos’ free and deeply discounted books.

Eagerly Awaited

This book came up. And there is no other book that I have more eagerly waited for than a Neil Shenvi book on Critical Theory.

I first knew of Shenvi from Voddie Baucham’s “Fault Lines”, a book on Critical Race Theory that I reviewed in Episode 9. From Voddie Baucham’s book, I found myself in Neil Shenvi’s website and was floored by the thorough analysis of the many many Critical Theory books he reads.

I knew then that if Shenvi ever decided to compile his knowledge into a book, I must read it. As good as anyone’s articles, interviews and seminars are, the best way to make a case is through a well-written book.

But there is another author to today’s book. Pat Sawyer. Sawyer was in the banking industry for 17 years before he took a PhD in educational and cultural studies. He wrote a dissertation on social justice.

It seems that the fusion of these two men, Shenvi and Sawyer, has released an incredible amount of energy. Their combined powers of observation, subject expertise, analytical skills and commitment to the Christian faith has made them, I would say, very dangerous men.

Just as the emperor who wears no clothes can no longer walk around naked after a child tells the truth, so the reader can no longer be complacent or be outraged under false premises after Shenvi and Sawyer tell the truth on Critical Theory.

Critical Dilemma is divided into three parts.

Part 1: Understanding
Part 2: Critiquing
Part 3: Engaging

Understanding Critical Theory

The book begins with an honest painful look at Slavery and Jim Crow. This disarms the Social Justice Warrior. Here is outrage over slavery and Jim Crow. This disarms the Christian Culture Warrior. Shenvi, why are you opening old wounds? Sawyer, why are you taking the enemies talking points?

By starting with these “Shadows of the Past”, the authors establish their credentials as unflinching truth tellers. When people are ignorant of history, they are vulnerable. When good people hear of the victims, they want to right those wrongs.

Why is Critical Theory so effective in channeling this righteous anger through the government, schools, churches and families? That question is answered in Part 1.

Later, the authors challenge the reader to say they do not go far enough. Our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Social Justice Warriors. But not in the way you may think, I will explain more later.

Know Them In Their Most Plausible and Persuasive Form

The authors take Critical Theory seriously. They don’t caricature it. No strawman here. Not trying to score points with the groupies. They went through the Critical Theory literature to know what it says and have made a sincere attempt to present it to us.

How do we know it’s sincere?

  1. They quote extensively the main proponents of Critical Theory.
  2. They state up front that some of these guys would deny being members of Critical Theory. Shenvi and Sawyer refuse to get into a fight over labels. The key is to discuss ideas. And they show through those extensive quotes that if it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, at the very least, it’s in the bird family.
  3. They explain all this without imputing motives. They have a chapter titled, “Positive Insights” that lists positive aspects of Critical Theory. We need to properly understand the appeal of Critical Theory in order to make a proper critique over it.

Why do they make such a great effort? John Mills puts it well.

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

Shenvi and Sawyer see their own work as an illustration of John Mill’s claim.

Contemporary Critical Theory: The Big Four

By now, I am sure everyone listening is dying to know what is Critical Theory that has turned the world upside down.

“Rejecting racism is racism.”
“Whiteness is wickedness.”
“There are more than two genders.”

The Grand Unified Theory behind the madness, which Shenvi and Sawyer has termed “Contemporary Critical Theory”, can be expressed in its four characteristics.

  1. The Social Binary. Society is divided into oppressors and the oppressed, white and people of colour, heterosexuals and homosexuals, Christians and non-Christians.
  2. Hegemonic Power. Oppressors impose their values, traditions and norms unto society. For example, Christians see marriage as a one man, one woman, construct and have imposed this value, tradition and norm unto society.
  3. Lived Experience. If you are a man, shut up about abortion. If you are white, shut up about racism. Because you don’t have the lived experience of being a woman or a person of colour.
  4. Social Justice. We want action. We want to change the world. So if you don’t speak up, then you are complicit in the injustice.

Wait a minute. You just told me to speak up for injustice. But you also told me to shut up because I don’t have the lived experience to speak to the problem.

Yes, that is the lose-lose scenario you have as a privileged person. You can’t do anything right. Just cry and feel their pain but don’t cry and make this all about you.

Critiquing CCT

Once we understand what is Critical Theory, we are in the position to critique it.

In Part 2, the authors do not assume readers share their faith. The reader may be a Christian, may profess to be a Christian but doesn’t know what is Christianity, or may be an Atheist. The book is written for all. And so, they give a crash course on evangelical faith.

As a Christian, instead of seeing it as a mind-numbing regurgitating of what I already know, I see it as confirming that Shenvi and Sawyer and I are actually on the same page when it comes to the fundamentals of Christianity. This is important because they will make their strongest critique of Contemporary Critical Theory not based on secular reasoning, for that you can read Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay but based on the Bible.

In a rigorously argued chapter that compares the four characteristics of Contemporary Critical Theory against Christianity, the authors make an assertion that no Christian can ignore. Let me quote at length the summary of that chapter.

They write:

Contemporary critical theory is skeptical of singular narratives and universal truth claims, viewing them as bids for power. Yet Christianity is itself a singular narrative of redemption and makes numerous universal truth claims. Contemporary critical theory exalts lived experience and downplays objective reasoning as masculine and Eurocentric. Yet Christianity argues that our hearts are sinful and that our fallible interpretation of our lived experience must be subordinated to God’s revelation in Scripture, apprehended through reason. Contemporary critical theory views privilege as collective and rooted in oppression. Yet Christianity recognizes that some norms are God-ordained and that privilege is not necessarily unjust, although it should be used to serve God and bless others. Contemporary critical theory posits an adversarial relationship between different genders, classes, and ethnic groups. In contrast, Christianity insists on fundamental solidarity between all human beings and a nonnegotiable familial relationship between Christians. Finally, for all these reasons, contemporary critical theory is rightly viewed as a worldview or metanarrative. It is not a narrow analytic tool. It makes sweeping assumptions about human beings, purpose, lived experience, meaning, morality, knowledge, and identity that inevitably bring it into conflict with Christianity.

This is what I meant by “Our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Social Justice Warriors.” Their analysis of the human condition is wrong and their solution flawed but what zeal to change the world! Christians should be more zealous for the Truth, for Christ.

I wish I had more time to discuss each point in that summary. I stress it is a summary. Shenvi and Sawyer make really good points, piling on the evidence, drawing on, so-to-speak, written testimonies. Held against Scripture, their own words condemn them. And that is true for the whole book.

I had a hard time preparing this book review. I wanted, at first, to go through the flow of the arguments in the book, but it is beyond my ability to summarise them without turning it into a dry and boring outline.

At this point, you know something about what is in Part 1: Understanding and Part 2: Critiquing.


What you may not yet fully appreciate is this book is a masterclass on how a Christian deals with a controversial subject, even a dangerous one. Some would accuse Shenvi and Sawyer of violence all because they dare to question what others hold to be true… and sacred.

The clarity in the organisation: Understanding, Critiquing, Engaging. This should be the layout for any number of topics. I got one right now. I would like someone to write a book on anti-semitism. I don’t understand why anti-semitism is still so prevalent. Why can’t societies shake it off?

It’s also a masterclass in reasoning. I would not be surprised to find out that Shenvi and Sawyer were both world-class debaters. They very cleverly reveal poor arguments.

Very quickly, one example. Bulverism. Bulverism is when you say something is true, but instead of explaining why its false, your opponent imputes motive.

They write:

Do men argue that abortion is immoral? That’s because they’re trying to control women’s bodies; therefore, their claim is false. Do White people think we should be polite? That’s because they’re trying to police the emotions of people of color; therefore, their claim is false. Do Christians claim that homosexuality is sinful? That’s because they’re trying to protect their heterosexual privilege; therefore, their claim is false.

Until I read this book, I didn’t notice this pattern. After reading it, I see it everywhere.

The book is peppered with ways to detect flawed arguments which in the wrong hands could make you a worse person to talk to. Nobody likes the guy who points out the faulty lines in your argument.

Which is why Part 3 of this book is so important.

Engaging CCT

Part 3: Engaging is a shorter section of the book but a crucial one.

It’s not enough that we understand Contemporary Critical Theory and can see how Christianity offers a true description and solution to the problem, we need to engage.

And it’s not that easy. I’ll just show you one that might trip you up.

Consider this statement: Justice is part of the gospel.

Do you agree?

Justice is part of the gospel.

Surely, the answer is yes.

Depends on what you mean by justice right? If you have the gospel, if you know the gospel, then you are thinking of God’s justice. Man sins, Jesus saves, glory to God.

But if you say, “That is justice in a religious sense, what about justice in society? There is so much injustice. Surely Christians, the church, the gospel has something to say about that.” This is how Shenvi and Sawyer put it:

The key point here is that seeking justice is an imperative. It is urged on us as God’s command, as something we ought to do, as a moral obligation we ought to fulfill. But these are all imperative statements. We therefore need to be exceptionally careful not to intermingle seeking justice with the gospel. We would rightfully shrink back from saying that “sexual purity is part of the gospel,” or “financial stewardship is part of the gospel,” or “pro-life activism is part of the gospel” not because these activities are wrong but because they cannot save us. They are not the good news of God’s redemption in Christ.

It’s so important we hear this. We do not minimise seeking justice. But we do not conflate that with the gospel of Jesus Christ. No matter how well-intentioned we may be.

Who Should Read This Book

Who is this book for?

This book should be in every seminary, church library and pastor’s study. The church cannot afford to get this wrong and this is the best book that explains why and how.

If you say you can be a Christian and still hold to Critical Theory or parts of it, then read and weep.

The highest praise I can say for this book is this: If you are a Critical Theory activist, then Critical Dilemma is the book to destroy. If you can make a winning argument against this book, you have cut the legs off your opponents. You have won the war. The tragedy is, if Shenvi and Sawyer are right, the Contemporary Critical Theory activist is not in a war for Truth but a war for Power. Until we understand this, we will not be able to make sense of Contemporary Critical Theory and the world today.

The emperor is wearing no clothes. Who dares to tell the truth?

This is a Reading and Reader’s review of “Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society” by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. 582 pages. Published by Harvest House Publishers in October 2023. Available in Amazon Kindle for USD21.99 and in Logos for USD16.49. But I got it for USD6.99 in Logos last month all because every month I eagerly anticipate their free and deeply discounted books.

Book List

  • “Critical Dilemma: The Rise of Critical Theories and Social Justice Ideology – Implications for the Church and Society” by Neil Shenvi and Pat Sawyer. Amazon. Logos.