Surprisingly easy to read – a review of Biblical Critical Theory

Biblical Critical Theory image

Peter Bentley’s review of Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture

Given the sheer volume of reviews around, I did wonder if I could say anything of use, and up to now have been reluctant to pen a review. I thought it may be interesting to provide a reflection now, given it is some time after the publication, and also winning the 2023 Australian Christian Book of the Year (among other awards). 

I was pleased to be at the Sydney book launch through CASE (New College, UNSW) back in late 2022 (excellent catering by the way), and followed his 2023 New College lectures. For those who may not participate in his writings, the lectures provide a very good overview. Further reference to these is found on The Other Cheek.

I want to reflect on this significant work in three parts.

Firstly, its overall structure and context. I have now come to see the book as a form of catechism. This may seem an odd description, but I believe it has a dialectic approach within a didactic structure and wrapped in a contemporary style. This is particularly highlighted by the helpful questions at the end of each chapter. The linear biblical structure assists the chapters to be undertaken as a series of studies in a group, along with reading the whole bible. As a leader, one could follow these questions (and set for homework!), or even ask the questions in a ‘class’ and facilitate a form of Socratic discussion in this post Christendom era.

The style of writing makes it also surprisingly easy to read. I am certainly not saying that the work does not consider complex topics and the footnote references highlight this aspect. There is an intimate style, reflected in the use of a conversational dialogue at times, and also many wonderfully apt cultural references that illustrate the contemporary context. Given my own interest in film, I particularly like many of the movie references,.

The use of the idea of diagonalization provides a clear foundation for all the chapters and allows an immediate reference point through the use of the illustrative box figures that summarise key points. A good example is on page 324, with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes diagonalized with Job. 

I am aware that some people may think the concept of diagonalization is a compromise idea, or in the context of inadequate theology, ‘the messy middle.’ 

I don’t believe this gives justice to the concept and use, and it is also a helpful tool in this increasing age of polarisation.

There are so many chapters that stand out, it is difficult to isolate a handful without wanting to mention them all. I will highlight the importance of the opening chapters focused on creation, humanity and sin, and the centrality of the Trinity that is appropriately Chapter 1. The chapters I found particularly relevant for today though are appropriately near the end; looking at the last days and eschatology, 

The reason why I think the chapters at the end are so relevant is because of the seeming renewed or perhaps never-ending failure in Christian circles to understand the world we are living in and our future. Using this diagonalization approach he is able to highlight the issues of confusion and provide helpful ways of understanding and thus living in this time. 

In the last two years or so I have been considering why many Christians today seem to focus so much more on bemoaning the state of the present world. I think it started again in earnest with the invasion of Ukraine and has accelerated in recent months following the doomed referendum and the present subject of media serialism. It is often perplexing, particularly when most are reasonably biblically literate and have read the Old Testament, and have also lived through many terrible periods of world history. While there are contemporary reasons related to social media and our visual culture, there is also an underlying deficiency in common theology (or a lack of interest in even thinking), and Christopher Watkin gently picks this up.

Having a good theological foundation is simply a good foundation. Having historical appreciation is important as well. After all, there is nothing new under the sun. 

Secondly, I wish to highlight some writers of significance that are mentioned in the work. Over the last few years, it is become evident to me that there are many significant writers from the past that should be [almost] mandatory reading for those who are keen to understand our culture today. One of these is of course Augustine with The City of God, and then there are the works of Chesterton and Lewis, and these are liberally referenced, illustrating their ongoing usefulness and pointing people to further reading. I think of more contemporary note and importance for Christopher Watkin is his discussion of A Secular Age by Charles Taylor which peppers some chapters and highlights the influence of Taylor’s work in many other contemporary culturally analytical works. 

There are so many academic books and works cited that it is a wonder to behold, and also a marvel at how they are used to integrate and illuminate many of the themes and significant points.

The ongoing theme of what to believe and how to live today as Christians is reminiscent of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, and works of Schaeffer are poignantly referenced and discussed. I remember being influenced by Schaeffer during my starting Christian journey in the 1980s, along with the late James Sire’s worldview exploration in The Universe Next Door

I was a little surprised that Stanley Hauerwas was not discussed in the context of how we live today, though there are many other relevant theologians and commentators discussed, and I am sure that if Christopher Watkin discussed and then referenced all the books he has read, his own work would be ten times the size.

Thirdly, there are some areas where I am perhaps a little confused or unsure of his focus and conclusion. One is in the area of work. There are comments about the nature of work and I recognise that some understanding here will partly depend on your definition of work. I understand the focus is the nature of work in the biblical context, so I can see part of the point, but a broader discussion is needed to clarify the type of work. I think some work is actually “hell itself’” and in certain cases evil, even if it is considered ideologically okay by someone undertaking it or commanding it. Some jobs in the past, and some jobs now are really “unalloyed wretchedness” (165), work that in reality should never be thought of as having any good.

Starting on page 168 there is a cultural engagement discussion in the context of his consideration of the biblical asymmetry of good and evil. I understand the idea behind the point as a totality and noted this was referenced to a lecture by Timothy Keller, but I cannot quite understand the idea that is communicated that “… for the Christian nothing in culture is utterly evil, and nothing is exhaustively good:,” even with the discussion and biblical reference following (1 Cor 6:12). I found this part did not adequately explore the embodiment of evil that has been and is still represented in some aspects of culture.

There are times when I think further development of some areas of critique would have been helpful, including the discussion about capitalism and identity. I am aware that some people have seemingly thought that Watkin was actually moving into critical theory rather than biblical critical theory at this point. I am certainly not as concerned as one reviewer on The Christian Institute (UK) website, but this wide-ranging and encompassing work does by necessity lead to some truncation at time, and this can facilitate different interpretation. Some of these contemporary areas of critique would be helped by distinct books themselves, but Ecclesiastes 12: 12 comes to mind.

What I believe is neglected in some of the more critical reviews (and not necessarily biblically critical) is the simple fact that this book will cause one to think, and that is a particularly good thing in this age of short posts and increasingly limited vocabulary. 

In reading this book (and in re-reading) I was reminded of Mark 12: 30-31.

“… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31 The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (NRSVA)

Peter Bentley


The Other Cheek reported Chris Watkin’s New College Lectures

• We are polarised. Maybe Hobbes and Rousseau can take the blame Lecture 1
• A subversive and democratic Christianity Lecture 2
• Is there such a thing as the right side of history? Lecture 3