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Let’s Put ‘Woke’ to Rest

My social media algorithms like to put a feed in front of me featuring excerpts of “woke” Christian teachers. (I don’t name the source, because it is not worthy of more exposure; and “woke” is in scare quotes, because the appellation is question-begging.) It is an unedifying succession of sermons or teaching out(-of-context-)takes, normally the illustration of what is meant to be self-evidently absurd liberals, blind lemmings following a woke ideology. I don’t follow it, but as the algorithms would have it, it follows me, and I have mostly learned to scroll past.

Not too long ago, I saw that Doug Moo was featured. That caught my interest since Moo is a former seminary teacher of mine, a prolific and formidable New Testament scholar, and, by my recollection, a rather conservative fellow. His conservative evangelical bona fides were seemingly unimpeachable,[1] and I supposed that he was featured to repudiate some other woke scholar or movement. Was he revisiting the question of women’s ordination?[2]

Alas, no. It’s Moo who is woke. I didn’t see that coming. It turns out — and I had some vague awareness of this — Moo has in recent years teamed up with his son, Jonathan, also a New Testament scholar and academically trained environmentalist, on the issue of climate change to forge an evangelical Christian environmental ethic in Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World (Zondervan).

Presumably, the offense of the clip is that Moo described creation care as a matter not only of loving God and our neighbor but as such a “species of biblical social justice,” given that choices made by persons in one part of the globe have implications for those in another and for generations to come. This he illustrated by contrasting the resources available to Miami to mitigate rising ocean levels with the absence thereof for Bangladesh. Moo’s “guilt” is thus twofold or perhaps three: he accepts the general scientific consensus regarding climate change; he used the phrase social justice; and noting the disparity between Miami and Bangladesh by reference to the gross domestic product of each could be seen as an insufficient appreciation of the wealth creation wrought by capitalism if not, for the suspicious, an implicit appeal for wealth redistribution. At any rate, the clip was enough to number Doug Moo (!) among the woke.

Perspicacity, to say nothing of fairness, is a hindrance to social media success, and whoever is behind this endeavor is innocent of both. Nonetheless, this and numerous other social media misadventures illustrate that woke has quickly outlived whatever constructive utility it might have ever had. Yet woke continues to do a lot of work in our current discourse — especially in putatively Christian discourse — and, in this fast-moving linguistic environment, the time has now passed that we should retire it.

Abbreviations and shorthand are, if not a necessity, a linguistic convenience. We can hardly do without them. We find, however, that convenience and clarity, to say nothing of charity, are often thus pitted in a zero-sum relationship. The more complex the phenomena described, the more inadequate the convenience of the shorthand. Words like liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive, are vacant or ambiguous enough. Woke is arguably worse. (And, in fairness, the derogative use of MAGA is not beyond criticism, and Christian nationalism has also probably been assigned too much work.)

As many will know, woke has gone through a dizzying set of transformations in just a few years of such use. No doubt oversimplifying, we might note three phases that followed in quick succession. Especially in ethnic minority communities, woke originally signaled what was regarded as an empowering awareness of the otherwise subtler patterns of systemic racism, and to be woke was to be awakened to such existing realities, now recognized as pervasive, the scales falling off almost akin to a religious conversion.

Not unexpectedly, those considering themselves allies also chose to express their solidarity by assuming the moniker for themselves. In the process, subtle shifts followed. The usefulness of the metaphor commended itself by taking more and more under its purview. From this vantage, covert and systemic oppressions are built into whiteness and patriarchy at deep levels, if you have eyes to see it. So, to racism are readily added sexism, heterosexism, cis-normativity, ableism, native erasure, and various cultural appropriations, to which can be added other adjacent sins of the advantaged white patriarchy, such as capitalism, militarism, and (of Christians) the Doctrine of Discovery. Indeed, the Christian religion can be, and often is, implicated in almost every facet of what is now called wokeism. And, eyes opened, woke becomes a convenient way to describe it — not only convenient but also self-congratulatory and performative.

The next move is even more predictable than the previous, in which the performative and self-congratulatory is commandeered and inverted by its opponents, ridiculing the whole worldview that has already made itself vulnerable by self-lampooning absurdities. Weaponized and politicized, the four-letter word is handed to its adversaries, as it were, on a silver platter, gathering into one diabolical family the responsibility for all that is deemed odious — critical race theory, trans activism, drag queen story hours, and so on. Both extremes in this culture war never tire of supplying ammunition to the other.

Perhaps it should go without saying that Christians should eschew this rhetorical gamesmanship, but it apparently needs saying. I continue to be surprised that the label, with all its condescending dog-whistling baggage, continues to find wide use even in discourse among Christians. So what doesn’t need saying needs saying.

The convenience and efficiency of the catchall term are not worth the expense of the resulting obfuscation. Just how many realms of concern and opinion can this blanket term encompass? While an awakened awareness of the threats of environmental degradation could be a viable application of the originally positive use of woke, now it also reproves the same persons when brandished by the climate-optimistic. In any case, it is only one of many such concerns to which one could be awakened — or mocked for worrying about too much.

And this is where Christians especially should object to what has come of the term. The set of matters that might concern us is both larger and more inclusive for those under the discipline of the entire Christian canon of Holy Scripture. Instead, let’s admit that the polemical use of woke merely connotes the more extreme positions that most Democrats hold while excluding such similar issues as typically concern Republicans. Would it not be more honest to admit that this is a semantically inert label — a dead metaphor — having only the singular utility of dishing out opprobrium when brandished contemptuously or self-congratulation when appropriated as virtue signal?

Thus, woke not only obfuscates, but it is also shaped into a blunt instrument, meant to do what blunt instruments do. It homogenizes into a single sociopolitical stance a set of issues and concerns that might otherwise have been successfully differentiated. This language is not only calculated to disparage but incapacitates careful and discriminating thought, to say nothing of successful communication. Willfully choosing this sort of categorization is a sign not only of uncharity but of sloth.

That certain commitments tend to travel together under the banner of social justice and bear the name woke does not make them an altogether natural family, however much mutual affection they might share. There is no reason, save for indolence, that these cannot be sorted thoughtfully case by case and interrogated individually to separate wheat from chaff and, as need be, even to discard what is irredeemably rotten. But woke is a convenient strategy by which partisans on all sides avoid realities inconvenient for our well-packaged, if incoherent, platforms.

If a thoughtful discourse on such matters now seems to have eluded the will and skill of our body politic, could Christians do better? Couldn’t Christians do better? We have to. Too easily have we slouched into a shameful worldliness, and, in patterns of speech, we have shown ourselves unacquainted with that holiness that should mark us as the set-apart persons and community that we are in Christ. For these sins, especially those sins that we commit in the name of righteousness, not least the worldliness we wield in the cause of holiness, we should repent and bear fruit befitting that repentance. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Editor’s note: Initially this essay was accompanied by a variation on a popular meme. It was brought to our attention that this meme utilizes a gesture that is considered vulgar in some cultures. In the interest of propriety, we have replaced it. 

[1] The search engines can fill in the details. Among his prodigious scholarly work, Moo has authored numerous fine New Testament commentaries and works of biblical theology in avowedly evangelical series , and chaired the 2011 New International Version revision committee.

[2] Among his many scholarly essays is his contribution to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem) refuting egalitarian exegeses of 1 Timothy 2:9–15.


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