by John Ellis
Have you ever heard of the Scottsboro Boys? Considered one of the most egregious examples of a racist miscarriage of justice in this country, nine Black men were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in 1931. In the initial trial and subsequent retrials, Alabama juries, comprised of all white men (with the exception of one retrial that included a lone Black juror), rendered the verdict of guilty even though there was no physical evidence of rape, the witnesses gave contradictory testimony, and one of the two women recanted her accusation during the retrial and acknowledged that she and her friend had made the whole thing up. Sadly, the injustice suffered by the nine Black men was par for the course in the Jim Crow South. There are many reasons why the tragic unjust tale of the Scottsboro Boys bears resonance for today, but one that may surprise people centers on the word woke.
In 1938, the Blues legend Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) released “Scottsboro Boys,” a protest song about that specific racist miscarriage of justice carried out in the Alabama (supposed) justice system seven years earlier. In a recording published by the Smithsonian Folkways Collection (the video is embedded at the bottom of the article), Lead Belly warns Black people to “stay woke.” Many scholars believe that his usage is the first recorded instance of the word woke in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). If not the first, it’s universally agreed that Lead Belly provided one of the earliest usages of the word.
You can look it up, of course. There are many other early recorded instances of the word woke being used in AAVE literature, cultural expressions, and articles and books detailing the plight of Black people living under a racist system. In its context of racism and injustice, the word woke entered our lexicon via AAVE’s linguistics attempts to provide warnings and codes that maneuvered around the oppressive, censorious white racism of the Jim Crow era.
Words are a funny thing, though. Paraphrasing the indubitable philosopher Humpty Dumpty, when we use words, we often use them embedded with self-serving meanings with little regard to how others use the same words. This translates into unprofitable arguments. More so than most words, woke has been abused, weaponized, and has a definition that’s a moving target depending on who’s speaking and the objective. To be fair, both sides (whatever/whomever you think those sides are) are guilty of this. While the term means different things for different people based on their agenda, the word woke has a root core, an essence, that should operate as the controlling base from which we interact with the word and each other’s use of it. Based on its AAVE legacy, the word woke is laden with Lead Belly’s grave warning: Black people (and people of color, in general) unfortunately have to walk through this society with a lighter step and a sharper eye than their white counterparts.
The controversy clothing the word woke was made aware to me in 2018. I was already aware of the word, having seen it on Twitter, of course, and knew of its connection to the Black Lives Matter Movement. I was able to intuit the core meaning, but I didn’t really start paying attention until I began seeing white evangelicals slam Dr. Eric Mason, a conservative Black pastor and author, for his use of the term. I immediately bought his book Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice.
After reading the book, I was puzzled and appalled by the vitriol directed at Dr. Mason. I saw little in the book for conservative Christians to disagree over; at the least, little reason to disagree to a level that causes Dr. Mason’s orthodoxy (and even faith, in the worst cases of slander) to be questioned. After 2016, I knew that fault lines were growing (being exposed, really) in conservative evangelicalism, but the irrational anger directed at a faithful brother in Christ opened my eyes to how big the problem was and is.
I encourage you to read Dr. Mason’s book. It’s not long and he does an incredible job of writing in a way that is winsome and accessible while challenging the reader to examine his or her own heart. Towards the beginning of the book, he acknowledges, “Woke is a word commonly used by those in the black community as a term for being socially aware of issues that have systemic impact.” In the previous paragraph, he had confessed, “[I] have borrowed the term [woke] and redeemed it to be used in the context of being awakened from deadened, sinful thinking.”
With a usage still firmly entrenched in its AAVE context, Dr. Mason shines the light of the gospel on it to find a Biblical praxis. Unapologetically, he insists, “At our core, without being conscious in Christ, our souls are still in bondage and can only see things from the natural, fleshly appearance. … Our Christ Consciousness elevates our awareness to our responsibility to care for and love our brothers – even those who don’t look like us.” Importantly, he adds, “However, if one is regenerated by the gospel, yet unaware of the double consciousness of African Americans and other ethnic minorities in America, one’s clarity on justice and race issues will be clouded and even absent.”
I would imagine Dr. Mason’s gospel application of woke would be offensive to those who reject Jesus – on both sides of the debate. Sadly, though, even if they disagree with some of his “boots on the ground,” so to speak, applications, the fact that fellow Believers take umbrage at his call for a holistic Christian ethic regarding racism that comes out of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is both astounding and discouraging. But this is where we find ourselves.
Considering its genesis and core meaning, it’s hard to fathom that wokeness has reached the acrimonious depths it has within evangelical public discourse. Sadly, the debate itself doesn’t often broach an agreed upon definition. And if sides can’t agree on a definition, it’s not a debate; it’s a battle. Likewise, in discussion, charity requires that we listen to how the other side uses terms and then interact accordingly. Setting aside my own definition, as informed by Dr. Mason and others, I’m going to attempt to do that: Interact with the definition provided by those who, if not full on anti-woke, are incredibly suspicious of the term and concept.
Anti-woke evangelicals like to use scary terms like Marxism, Hegelian dialecticism, and cultural hegemony to paint a horrifying picture when talking about wokeness. But they rarely, if ever, define those scary terms. Ironically, this tactic (unintentionally so, I believe) was on display in the most recent episode of The Gospel Coalition’s Good Faith Debates.
For the record, I’ve written an apologetic for The Gospel Coalition’s Good Faith Debates, and I stand by what I wrote. However, this most recent debate – “Is ‘Woke Church’ a Stepping Stone to Theological Compromise?” – revealed a flaw in the format. Well, not so much a flaw as a (possibly) necessary component that adheres to the desire to model charitable discussion in an online forum. What I mean is that this most recent episode failed to produce a debate of substance because one of the participants held back, I believe. Which is why I used the descriptor ironic above. Since The Gospel Coalition’s stated intention for the debate series is to model Christlikeness in disagreement, the presence of sophistry (again, I want to stress I believe unintentionally so) inserts a variable that requires the one side to sacrifice legitimate debate for the sake of modeling Christlikeness in the moment. While I commend Dr. Rebecca McLaughlin for her Christlike restraint, her charitable responses to the (unintentional) dialectical malfeasance of Sean DeMars resulted in a debate that likely muddies the waters of wokeness in churches and among conservative evangelicals. Before proceeding with my argument, though, I want to add a couple of caveats.
I can’t judge motives, nor do I want to. My assertions in this article are based on what I heard, and unfortunately what was said on the negative side of the debate was and remains disheartening.
To the end of not judging motives, I don’t know Sean DeMars; I’ve never met him. My only exposure to him has been via the Good Faith Debate he participated in and the documentary American Gospel. From what I’ve seen and heard, he loves Jesus and others. In the debate, he was kind, generous, and a model of humility. Because of the nature of TGC’s Good Faith Debates and DeMars commendable character and actions in the debate, I’ve hesitated to write this article. Even though I highly doubt Sean DeMars will read this, I don’t want my words to be a discouragement to him. I also don’t want my words to be read by others as critical of him as a person or of his integrity; likewise, and more importantly, I would be grieved if my words were read as a critique of DeMars’ love for Jesus and his love for Christ’s Bride.
I, too, desire to model Christlike charity and humility with my words. Owing to the caustic nature of the larger discussion around wokeness, I’m afraid my words will be misunderstood and/or weaponized. Because of this, my above criticism of the format is not intended to be read as a criticism of Dr. McLaughlin (nor of the creators and producers of the debates). Unlike her while she was on the debate stage, I have the ability to contemplate, pray over, and edit and reedit my words as I write. She had to respond in the moment. Her charity, humility, and restraint are not only commendable in the abstract, but they are also evidence of the wisdom in The Gospel Coalition’s inclusion of her in the debate. The format’s flaws and weaknesses are not her fault (nor are they the fault of the creators and producers of the debates – I believe those flaws and weaknesses are a necessary condition of the stated goals and intentions).
One last caveat (and I’m at the point of risking caveating this article to death), I do not intend to write an article about every episode of the Good Faith Debate. I wasn’t planning on writing this one, though, so who knows?
In terms of the body of this article, I’m going to tackle two main things: something(s) that Demars didn’t say but I believe should’ve been said – undefined terms – and (two) things that he said – cultural hegemony and the “porous wall of the Church.” First, the thing that DeMars should’ve said but didn’t.
At the onset of his opening argument, DeMars acknowledges that he doesn’t know why he was asked to participate in the debate. After revealing that he’s “not a subject matter expert in the field of critical theory,” he later adds that he’s using critical theory “as synonymous with wokeness.” While I appreciate the humility, accepting a spot on a public platform as large as The Gospel Coalition’s comes with responsibility. And maybe the bulk of the responsibility falls on whoever asked DeMars to participate. I don’t know, and my concern isn’t to litigate casting missteps. What I am concerned about is how DeMars’ humility highlights the overall problem with his argument. And my concern centers on that I don’t believe Sean DeMars knows what he’s talking about to a deep enough degree to warrant standing opposite Dr. McLaughlin in this very public and high-profile debate. As a result, I’m not sure this episode added much to the overall conversation among the evangelical community, and that’s at best. At worst, which is where I’m afraid the larger ramifications will be felt, DeMars’ words and definitions will serve to muddy the waters in a way that increases hostility from those who consider “wokeness” a dire threat to churches.
To his credit DeMars recognizes that in order to answer the question at hand – is wokeness a theological steppingstone to compromise? – a definition must first be provided. So, what does woke mean for DeMars?
In his opening statement, he answers, “Wokeness is the product of a bunch of failed Marxists trying to bring the Hegelian dialectic back to life by fusing it with all kinds of bad stuff like Freudian psychology, Gramscian philosophy, postmodern epistemology, Black feminism, and intersectionality.” After adding the acknowledgment that most people likely do not know what all those words mean, he chuckles, “Don’t worry, I’m not sure that I know what those words mean either.”
This underscores my concern about his inclusion in the debate. Minus hegemony, which he defines as “power structure,” Demars never really provides working definitions for the words he includes in his definition. After building a dialectical foundation of un/ill-defined scare words, he transitions to the metaphor of a virus to warn, “critical theory, wokeness, what it tries to do is it tries to glom onto various fields, take them over, and then make them its own so that it can replicate itself.” Again, with humility, he adds, “That’s a lot of highfalutin mumbo jumbo from the backwaters of ivory tower academia.”
Turning very serious, he then warns, “those backwaters trickle down into our everyday lives.” After sprinkling in a few more big scare terms, he connects all that “highfalutin mumbo jumbo” to our everyday lives by drawing a straight line of causality between those undefined terms and concepts and a Tik Tok video featuring “a man dressed as a unicorn professing to be a pansexual, dual-gendered vampire.”
I’ll admit, that’s scary stuff! A pansexual, dual-gendered vampire unicorn? If that’s where a Hegelian dialectic leads, I guess I’m opposed to this Hegelian dialectic, whatever it means.
And therein lies the problem. I’m going to say this as kindly yet as firmly as I can: if you don’t know what words and concepts mean, you should not be using them in your argument. Unfortunately, this tends to be par for the course in the current debate over wokeness. It’s undeniable that our society is changing, often not for the better. Fear reigns in our hearts as we see our way of life under attack. Just this morning I read about a Christian school under attack for a “hateful” assignment in which they had high school students write a letter to a hypothetical friend struggling with his or her sexuality. According to the school, the project was intended to provide a “safe” space for young Christians to formulate charitable and humble ways to speak the truth to people. I don’t know all the ins and outs of this school nor the assignment, but it’s not hard for me to imagine a scenario where I’m in agreement with the school, putting me on the “hateful” side of the debate. I accept that. I’ve long said there’s no such thing as a “cool” Christian. It doesn’t matter if I’m more than willing to have a gay couple in my home for dinner or defend their home and lives from verbal, personal, and legal attacks, the fact that I hold to the biblical sexual ethic that sex is the covenant sign of marriage between a man and a woman rewards me with the charge of a being a hateful bigot. But none of that provides a legitimate reason to circle the wagons and operate with a dishonest dialectic. Unless I’m willing to demonstrate via legitimate arguments that the Hegelian dialectic, Marxism, intersectionality, et al. have a necessary causal link to the vampire unicorn, I’m not going to dismiss wokeness as one of the causes of society’s ills. For that matter, I’m not going to glue wokeness to those scare terms and concepts unless I’m willing to demonstrate a necessary connectedness.
By way of explaining what I see as a flaw in the debate, I turn to a claim DeMars made towards the end of the debate (found around the 40:00 mark). After the moderator Jim Davis (my pastor and friend, in the issue of full disclosure) asks DeMars if CRT and intersectionality are things that “the church should throw out altogether … or do you find helpful things in CRT,” DeMars responds, “Don’t all heresies and bad ideas have a germ of truth in them? … My main thing when people say, ‘Doesn’t CRT have some good points?’ is to say, ‘I could make those same points without all the destructive stuff that comes along with CRT.’”
To that, I would’ve asked DeMars, what are those good points?
Without providing useful definitions, it’s an act of (unintentional) sophistry to insert the assumption that CRT is a heresy or bad idea. Why is it a heresy or bad idea? That was never established by DeMars, only assumed. Because of that, I’m very curious as to how he would articulate those “good points” of CRT without, well, using CRT. But he wasn’t pushed on that because, I’m assuming, neither Jim nor Dr. McLaughlin wanted to put him on the spot and embarrass him. This may sound harsh, which is the reason for my assumption about Jim and Dr. McLaughlin’s motives, but based on everything DeMars said and didn’t say, I’m not confident he understands CRT.
Look, to be overly blunt, I know what Hegelian dialectic is. I understand the differences between (orthodox) Marxism and Western Marxism. I’ve read many of the primary sources of Critical Race Theory, Black Feminism, and Intersectionality. Critical Theory is a field I find fascinating, especially Critical Pedagogy at this present moment. Articles abound on this blog in which I tout and defend poststructuralism and postmodernism. While I wouldn’t proclaim myself an expert in any of those fields, I am comfortable enough with all of them to use those terms and concepts in arguments either for or against wokeness. But, and bringing a sigh of relief to many of you, I’m not going to do that because that’s not my goal here. Defining and applying them would require many articles, if not a book. My goal is merely to demonstrate the necessity of defining terms and concepts.
Two things can be true at once. It can be true that Marxist theory (and Neo Marxism, Western Marxism, Critical Theory, Black Feminism, Critical Race Theory, Postcolonialism, etc.) contains truth, even much truth, but it can also be true that the praxis coming out of that theory is rebellious idolatry. An important question in the debate over wokeness, then, should be: Are we debating theory or praxis? Because if we’re debating theory, I’ll happily roll my sleeves up and plunge into debate with you. However, if the debate is over praxis, then there’s a good chance that Sean DeMars, for example, and I find too much agreement to have a profitable debate. To illustrate this, I now turn to something he said.
As I’ve already written, the one term and concept that DeMars defined to any legitimate level is hegemony. After stating that hegemony means “power structure,” he later expands on the praxis by warning, “The aim is to tear down the Christian or Western hegemony and replace it with a perfectly diverse utopia. It seeks to do this through an ensconced presence, and that just means deeply rooted, often hidden though ensconced presence in every major cultural institution in the West – the media, government, education, religion, and business, finance, and so on.”
While I should state his definition is undercooked (as, to be honest, will be mine in this article), I’m fine with it for this context. And while I would definitely provide some nuance in his articulation of the praxis, I’m fine with it, too. We have a level of agreement with which to enter an argument.
The Italian (Neo) Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, whom DeMars referenced, is credited with the development of the concept/theory of cultural hegemony. To better understand cultural hegemony, it’s important to grasp Marx’s theory that society exists in two main parts – the substructure and the superstructure. The substructure (or base) is everything in society related to the means of production, including the relations of production (employer/employee, bourgeois/proletariat, class systems, etc.). The superstructure includes things like a society’s aesthetics, religion, politics, family relationships, media, etc. While there’s somewhat of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” argument within Marxism, Marx taught that while the superstructure does influence the substructure, the primary driver of influence was the other direction. You can see this circular influence, and its emphasis on the base influencing the superstructure, in his argument, “The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production, these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution.”
For his part, Gramsci took Marx’s two-part theory of society and reshaped it into cultural hegemony – the belief that those in power exercise control over society in a way that preserves their power. In other words, the ruling class uses things like religion, pop culture, media, etc. to shape the prevailing mores of society in a way that prevents the oppressed from gaining power (or makes it really difficult for them to do so). The social structures of society (tend to) serve those in power. Ergo, the social structures do not serve (to varying degrees) those who do not have power.
At this point, the question becomes, are we debating theory or praxis? If we’re debating theory, then I find myself in agreement (not totally) with Gramsci and his Western Marxist heirs. Frankly, so do you, likely. As does Sean DeMars.
Again, there’s a bit of “which came first, the chicken or egg” debate at play here, but we all understand, as evidenced by the cultural war handwringing, that there is truth embedded in the theory of cultural hegemony. If this weren’t the case, the dire warnings about Hollywood would be unnecessary. Pop culture influences – to a larger degree than many of us like to admit – our mores. Crassly, he who controls pop culture controls society and, inevitably controls the halls of power (unless fascism is embraced by the side that doesn’t control pop culture – but I’ll leave that alone for now). Turning to praxis, I don’t deny that Western Marxists understand this and utilize it. However, DeMars, and most other anti-woke Christians, deny the theory’s validity. Their praxis, though, contradicts their warnings about the theory. Why do you think the current iteration of FOX News exists? Or the many other far-right news media sites? Why do you think that anti-woke Christians are so up in arms about certain books being allowed in public schools? Why do you think they want to boycott Disney, Starbucks, or whichever corporation contributes to the continuation of a certain praxis? It’s because they know that the theory of cultural hegemony contains much truth. The fight for who controls society begins with who controls narratives/social structures (Foucault’s power is knowledge).
This is where I believe DeMars most impactful misstep in his thinking and argument takes place. He believes that “Wokeness is a totalizing worldview, and another word for that is just religion.” Because of this, he warns, “And any careful student of scripture knows that Christians have constantly got to be on guard against syncretism with false religions. The walls of the Church have always been porous. Which means that God’s people have always been in danger of false ideologies and worldly philosophies permeating the walls of the church through osmosis. … God’s people are always susceptible to gospel compromise in one form or another.” And “[His] fear is that many in the church have already been taken captive by what scripture calls philosophy and empty deceit.”
He’s not wrong; he’s just looking in the wrong direction. By and large, evangelical churches in this country were already leavened with the syncretism of false ideologies and worldly philosophies long before Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School’s influence had trickled into this country. This is the point of my “Yes, You Should Deconstruct Your Faith” article. For many Christians, classical liberalism is their controlling ideology and philosophy and not the Bible. Their worldview is secular, not biblical. You want me to critique and criticize the praxis and endgame of Western Marxists? Fine, I’ll be happy to do so. But only after we – collectively – deal with the mote in our own eye. Changing one contra-biblical philosophy with another contra-biblical philosophy should be of far less concern than grappling with how we’ve embraced and propagate a cultural hegemony that doesn’t align with a biblical ontology, epistemology, and ethic.
The theories aren’t the problem. In fact, the theories provide useful tools to aid in our own deconstruction (removing the mote from our own eye). Wokeness recognizes a legitimate problem. Anti-wokeness on the right (paleoconservativism, in the main) can’t acknowledge the problem because it then calls into question their praxis – a challenge to their cultural hegemony. Christians should not have an allegiance to that praxis and cultural hegemony.
At its core, wokeness (not its strawmen versions on the far left nor all of the praxis connected to its various iterations) is not contra-biblical. By definition, it does not necessarily lead to theological compromise. In fact, armed with an understanding of it, wokeness can help confront us with our need to repent of bowing before false idols in our own ideology and worldview. So, yes, I am a “woke” Christian. And, no, I have not drifted into theological compromise.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Interestingly, and related, much of the imagery of the devil, satan, demons, etc. used in early Black music was Black musicians’ way of telling Black stories of experiencing racism but in a way that escaped the gaze of white people. The words were code intended to circumvent white dictatorship, as in devil = white people, etc. Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning In the Blues by Paul Oliver is a good entry point into this larger discussion, for those interested.
 Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2018), 25.
 Mason, Woke Church, 25.
 Mason, Woke Church, 27.
 For the record, I don’t necessarily like this transition. I’m worried it might communicate something that I don’t intend – that you should listen to me and not Sean DeMars because I understand these things. That would be the logical fallacy of appealing to authority, not to mention making me guilty of the very thing I’m accusing DeMars of – essentially saying, “Trust me, these big scary terms and concepts mean that wokeness can be a good thing.”
 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy trans. N.I. Stone (Delhi: Lector House, 2020), ix.