6 July 2023
In an age of catchy, one-word book titles, a book called Biblical Critical Theory may not be the first I’d pick up to browse at the book stall. But if there’s danger in judging a book by its cover, we can extend this to its title. If we breezed past Christopher Watkin’s latest book, the loss would be all ours.
Watkin lectures and researches in French Studies at Monash University. He is also a Christian author, and his latest book Biblical Critical Theory is being widely read and discussed. I first met him at Monash University, where I am involved in student ministry. We now also attend church together.
Despite ministering in a university setting, I admit that I’m not familiar with the academic world of critical theories. I needed the introduction of this book to name examples for me such as feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, eco theory, and critical race theory. Critical theories aim to bring to light something that was hidden about the way our society functions, and then argue for social change. Watkin’s book expounds a biblical critical theory. His hope is that this book will help us to “understand our society, our culture, and ourselves through the lens of the Bible’s storyline … to analyse and critique the culture through the Bible”.
One thing I loved about the book was that this critique of culture wasn’t a blind affirmation, or a reactive hatchet job. Watkin’s contention is that in many of the polarised debates of our time each end of the spectrum has grasped a part of God’s truth while neglecting other important truths. “Given a choice between two camps or positions in our culture, the Bible frequently settles for neither and presents us with something richer than both”, Watkins writes. This richer alternative is not “middle-of-the-road compromise”, but is rather a diagonalisation. Since each pole has grasped part of the truth, what we want is not a “meh” middle ground but rather “both things at the top of their energy”.
Perhaps an example will help. In the West today it is common to think of human beings too highly, too lowly, or both by turns. Sometimes we imagine humans to be almost godlike, with limitless potential, believing that given enough time our intelligence and technology will solve all the world’s problems and usher in some kind of heaven on earth. At other times we lean too far into evolutionary theory and say that humans are nothing special, just the latest animal that random forces have produced, with ultimately the same value as any other critter. Watkin says that each position has captured something of the truth. On the one hand, we are made in the image of God and so there is something “godlike” about humanity. On the other hand, we have more in common with the rest of creation than we often recognise. We are creatures, and need to treat our fellow creatures with more respect than we often do. The book takes us through scores of such diagonalisations, some of which may be familiar, while others will undoubtedly be fresh and profound.
The book is structured as a biblical theology, working its way from creation to new creation and centred on Christ. This means that it can be read as a connected whole, following the storyline of the Bible, or as a kind of reference work if the reader is wrestling with a particular part of God’s word.
One can’t help being struck by the number of fields and disciplines that Watkin is interacting with throughout the book. He has clearly done his homework, discussing a myriad of ways that the Scriptures interact with diverse facets of our society and culture. He writes intelligently and piercingly, but also warmly. What I really appreciate is that, despite his impressive knowledge across many fields, he writes so humbly. The book is scattered with personal anecdotes, dry humour, and moments of vulnerable openness. One of my favourite parts is his original style of review questions at the end of each chapter, such as this: “Take one thought from this chapter and write a note that will travel back in time to yourself five years ago. The note begins ‘You really need to think about this because…’.”
Is there any negative critique? This is a lengthy book, and is certainly an academic work. Perhaps the task of engaging with and critiquing our culture in a nuanced way demands this. But it is a shame, because noticing how our culture ticks and tocks, and then appreciating how the Bible shows the way forward is something that all Christians would benefit from. If you are considering reading Watkin’s book – and I hope you are – it will require some work. If philosophy isn’t your natural habitat then don’t be put off by the book’s slightly intimidating introduction! Keep going and you will be richly rewarded.
Dan King ministers with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (AFES).