In a detailed reflection at Mere Orthodoxy, William Murrell offers a trenchant criticism of my article “Evangelicals and Race Theory” (February). He makes an intriguing suggestion: Much of the debate over critical race theory derives from different understandings of what CRT is. While some see it primarily as a method (a mere academic activity), many of its critics see it as a metanarrative (a totalizing worldview), and still others as a mood (an affective response to perceived systemic injustice). A failure to distinguish among these three different expressions of CRT has led to the adoption of faulty reading strategies and misunderstandings.
Murrell suggests that this failure to distinguish has caused me to misread K. Edward Copeland's “Why I Hate August.” In this article, Copeland made no moral distinction between the lynching of Emmett Till, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the police shooting of Jacob Blake; in “Evangelicals and Race Theory,” I pointed out that he made this moral equivalency without sufficient facts about the police shooting. Murrell argues that I was seeking CRT as metanarrative here and thus failed to recognize Copeland's use of CRT as mood. Murrell compares the affective register of Copeland's article to that of Psalm 137, with its terrifying final verse calling for the slaughter of Israel’s enemies. He believes the moral comparison of the three killings is justified by the article's “mood,” much as the sweeping judgments of the imprecatory psalms are justified by their mood.
I am not convinced that a clear distinction among metanarrative, method, and mood can be coherently maintained anywhere, but even if it can be, it is not helpful for reading the Psalter. The psalms are the songs of the biblical covenant people. They are therefore consciously rooted in a metanarrative (the covenant with Abraham) and in a specific method (meditation on the law of God). This is made clear by the first two verses of Psalm 1:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
These points are reinforced again and again throughout the subsequent 149 psalms. The moods the psalms reflect, from joy to lament, cannot be disconnected from the metanarrative of Israel or the method of piety they evince. Even Psalm 88, the most unremitting raw scream of pain that the Psalter contains, begins with the covenant name of God. Despair in its darkest form is still to be set within the grand metanarrative of God’s dealings with his people:
O LORD, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
That metanarrative, method, and mood cannot be separated reveals a problem with Murrell’s concluding criticism of my article:
Trueman misreads Copeland like an inexperienced Bible-reader who tries to read the Psalms the same way they read Pauline epistles. He expects a cold analytical argument even when the author has signaled explicitly that he is writing a hot affective reflection. He looks for CRT as metanarrative when what he’s actually encountering is CRT as mood. To use Rasool Berry’s apt metaphor, this is “Like a man [Copeland] who tells you he is bleeding, and you [Trueman] ask, ‘How did you come to that conclusion?’”
This comparison is inapt. I am not asking why Copeland thinks he is suffering or angry (I acknowledge his understandable passion). Nor am I asking for a cold analytical argument. I am asking why Copeland is putting the murders of Till and King and the shooting of Blake within the same moral category without access to sufficient facts to make such a connection. Copeland's mood here assumes a metanarrative as its justification.
The Psalter’s laments are also connected to a metanarrative, but the Psalmist knows the facts before he cries out. The example Murrell uses, Psalm 137, is an excellent case in point. The Psalmist knows that the Babylonians have razed Jerusalem to the ground, massacred Jewish children, and carried the Israelites off into exile (2 Kings 8:12; Nah. 3:10). These are facts of which, as an exile, he is well aware. And, brutal as the closing verse is, the Psalmist is speaking in a manner consistent with the biblical metanarrative concerning the ultimate fate of all those who defy God (Isa. 13:16; Hosea 13:16). For sure, the psalm is a cry of shocking, horrifying agony, but it is connected to the known facts of the case interpreted through the covenantal metanarrative. The lament does not assume anything that the Psalmist does not certainly know to be true.
Our pain, however real it is, however unjust its cause, however evil its effect, does not give us license to express ourselves in any way we choose. I have written numerous times on the church's pressing need to learn to lament; but Christian lamentation must never be divorced from the facts interpreted through the metanarrative of God’s dealings with his people. As the Psalmist himself declares, “Be angry, and do not sin”—a verse picked up in the Pauline epistles (Eph. 4:26). And slander and the spreading of false or inaccurate stories, even in a “hot affective reflection,” are still sins (Exod. 20:16; Exod. 23:1; Prov. 14:25; Matt. 19:18).
Does critical race theory contain some truths? Yes. Neil Shenvi recently pointed this out. Does it offer helpful insights that cannot be better found elsewhere? I have yet to see any. Indeed, I consider the Psalter itself to offer a far better way, in terms of metanarrative, method, and mood, of addressing the experience of the church in exile in a fallen world. So why not root our critical theory of society and justice in the Psalter? More disturbing, CRT seems increasingly to be used as a means of avoiding basic demands of Christian discipleship, such as love for fellow Christians, regardless of skin color (Ps. 15:1–3).
In the real world beyond the undergraduate seminar room, reputations are ruined, careers are destroyed, and lives are shattered by slander. If your approach to interpreting the world leads you to call someone a racist who isn’t one, if it leads you to disparage the faith of fellow Christians simply on the basis of their skin color, or if it allows you to feel justified in insinuating that a policeman is akin to James Earl Ray before you have access to the facts of the case, then you are not behaving in a manner consistent with biblical ethics—whether that is the result of your metanarrative, method, or mood. And when the fog of academic obfuscation clears, it really is as simple as that.
Carl R. Trueman is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.
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