At Moore College, we were recently joined by Professor Christopher Watkin to talk about his new book, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s unfolding story makes sense of modern life and culture, which recently won Australian Christian Book of the Year. In this episode of the CCL podcast, we bring you the recording of an interview Peter Orr conducted with Christopher, as well as the Q&A that followed. Christopher introduces us to his book, and also demonstrates the power of the Bible for helping us to understand—and even lovingly critique—the culture we live in.
Links referred to:
- Biblical Critical Theory (Christopher Watkin)
- Our 2024 events:
- Embrace AI and lose your soul? How to think about AI as a Christian with Akos Balogh (13 Mar)
- Casual sex or sacred sexuality? Our bodies and relationships under God with Chase Kuhn (Wed 22 May)
- Affluent and Christian? Material goods, the King and the kingdom with Michael Jensen (Wed 21 Aug)
- Who am I? The search for identity with Rory Shiner (Wed 23 Oct)
- Support the work of the Centre
- Contact the Centre about your ethical questions
Runtime: 51:17 min.
Please note: This transcript has been edited for readability.
Peter Orr: At Moore College, we were recently joined by Professor Chris Watkin to talk about his new book, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s unfolding story makes sense of modern life and culture. In this episode, you’ll hear a recording of an interview that I conducted with Christopher. I found it very helpful in giving a very simple introduction to Chris’s book, but also it opened me up to what a very helpful book Chris has written. It was recently awarded the Australian Christian Book of the Year, and it’s a book that shows the power of the Bible for helping us to understand and even lovingly critique the culture that we live in. I hope you enjoy the episode.
PO: Welcome, everyone! We might make a start. For those who don’t know me, I’m Peter Orr, lecturer in New Testament here at Moore College. Thank you for coming to this special event, where we have Christopher Watkin. Thank you very much, Christopher, for being with us.
I’ll start with the official introduction: Christopher is Associate Professor in French Studies at Monash University in Melbourne. Basically we’re going to talk a lot about Christopher’s new book, Biblical Critical Theory. I’ll ask Chris a few questions just to get into the book, but then there will be opportunity for you to ask questions as well.
I’ll invite Chris to come up. Let’s welcome him as he does so.
Christopher Watkin: Thank you.
PO: Thank you very much for being with us, Christopher! I know it’s a busy week with you delivering the lectures at New College. Thanks for being with us.
PO: You’re originally from the UK. Tell us a little bit about your family, how you ended up at Monash University, and also how you became Christian.
CW: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you, Peter! Just before I launch into that, thank you, everybody, for coming. I know we all lead really busy lives and you’ve carved out some time to be here. My aim is to provide you with something that will make you glad that you came. I will do my best! I do appreciate the fact that you’ve taken the time to come.
I am English, as you could probably tell from the first word that I spoke [Laughter]. I grew up as a happy atheist, I suppose. I had no particular God-shaped hole or sense of yearning for transcendence. I was just a happy kid. If you’d had said to me at that time, “What do you think about God?”, I’d have said, “Well, not a lot, really. It’s never particularly crossed my mind.”
Then I went on a school trip to the battlefields of the First World War. As you’ll know if you’ve been to Belgium, Ypres and The Somme and places like that, there are these fields that are filled, as far as the eye can see, with little white crosses—thousands and thousands of them. Not in a spiritual crisis sort of way, but just in a, “Wow! That seems really heavy” sort of way, that got me thinking about death and if there’s anything after it.
One of my friends on the trip, who was a Christian, invited me along to her church. When you’re a teenager, you do that sort of thing—experience different things—and she was a really good friend. So I went along—mainly because it was her, if I’m being honest, rather than because it was church.
Over the period of about a year and a half, I think, I became gradually more interested in what was being said at church, and it got to the point where—you always remember these things; you’re never quite sure whether they actually felt like this at the time, but the way that I remember it is that I couldn’t walk away, but I wasn’t yet a Christian. The reason I couldn’t walk away was, first of all, (and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but it’s so lovely when you do) the way that Christians loved each other in the church. There were different sorts of people and different professions—just a mix of people—but they all really, really loved each other in a way that I hadn’t experienced previously outside of family contexts. Families are different sorts of things. There was just something about this that made me think, “What is going on here that these people relate to each other in this way?”
The second thing was the Jesus who was being preached about in the Scriptures: as has been said by other people before, he’s both really wise and like the sort of teacher that you’d want to listen to, and then he says very silly things as well—for example, letting people understand that he’s God and not correcting them: “[B]efore Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58 ESV). People who are wise are wise enough not to say that sort of thing [Laughter]. People who claim they’re God don’t usually end up garnering two billion followers in the 21 st century. They end up in institutions [Laughter]and in basements, tweeting about themselves. I thought, “How do you make sense of the whole of this person?” Over time, I came to the firm conviction that I hold today that the explanation of all this is that what Jesus said about himself is actually true. So I became a Christian when I was 17 or so.
I ended up in Monash because I married a wonderful, delightful Australian lady named Alison over in the UK, and then we were fortunate enough to be offered a job at Monash. We came out here in 2011.
PO: Wonderful to hear that!
What a critical theory does
PO: You’ve recently published this wonderful book, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s unfolding story make sense of modern life and culture. It won the 2023 Australian Christian Book of the Year. It is a very rich, detailed and helpful book. I wonder if we could just launch into thinking about it. The title, “Biblical critical theory”: what do you mean by a “critical theory”?
CW: That’s really helpful, because there are different senses of that word. I think it’s helpful through all of this in our own thinking to disambiguate them and to say in any particular context which meaning of that word is being used here.
There’s a really narrow meaning, which is probably the meaning that most people come across today in the news media. When you hear about critical theory, it’s probably in relation to something like critical race theory. That’s been big—certainly in the US in recent months. But that’s one particular type of a broader cultural trend. When I did an undergraduate unit called “Modern critical theory” way back last millennium now, we didn’t do anything to do with race in that unit. We were looking at different critical views of society that had arisen, broadly speaking, after Immanuel Kant (so 19th/20th century), each of which tries to look at society with a critical lens and say, “This is wrong, this is unjust and this is the sort of thing that we should be fostering in society.”
The schema that I use for trying to work out what all these very different critical theories are doing is that they’re each doing three things: they’re making certain things in the world viable, certain things visible, and certain things valuable.
It’s viable in the sense of it becomes possible for you. For each of us, there are certain things that we think are possible in the world—like, “This could happen. It may or it may not, but it could.” There are certain things that we think are impossible—either because we just think they could never happen, or we just never thought about them. What a critical theory does for the people who follow it is it makes certain things possible in their world.
A classic example would be something like a Marxist who has immersed herself or himself in a whole bunch of Marx: they will begin to think, “Wow! Revolution could really happen,” whereas previously, they’d have thought, “That’s just silly. That’s never going to happen.” So it becomes possible.
The second thing that these critical theories do is that they make certain things visible in the world. They were always there; it’s just that you didn’t notice them before. They were part of your background, not part of your foreground.
A classic example of this would be the different 20 th century feminisms: you might have gone around in society for a decade or two, and never really thought that there’s one rule for men and one rule for women in different aspects of society. Then you read a whole bunch of Simone de Beauvoir or Luce Irigaray and then you think, “Wow! Okay. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. But yes, it does seem that women are treated differently to men in certain key areas.” So it’s made it visible for you.
The third thing that these different critical theories do is that they make things valuable for those who follow them. They teach you what to desire in the world, basically, and they also teach you what to condemn.
A lot of the critical theories that I was reading as an undergraduate were teaching us to value the transgression of norms. Whenever the word “tradition” came up in one of these books, it was a fair bet that it was used negatively. Whenever the word “transgression” came up, it was a fair bet that that was a good thing to do: we want to disrupt; we want to destabilise traditions. It was catechising you to think of that sort of thing as a good thing—the sort of thing that’s really helpful in society—and that tradition is the sort of thing that’s really destructive in society.
All of these different critical theories (and they’re really different from each other; there’s not just one vanilla brand) are teaching people to consider certain things in the world as viable, certain things as visible, and certain things as valuable.
The Bible as a critical theory
PO: Just pushing into Bible, how do you see the Bible functioning as a critical theory? You touch on systematic theology, but it’s a biblical theology, and so you see the Bible’s biblical theology as a critical theory.
CW: Yeah. The Bible is a complex book: it’s doing a number of things and it makes a number of claims for itself. It’s the word of God. It’s the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17). It makes us wise for salvation (2 Tim 3:15). It teaches, rebukes, corrects and trains people in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). It’s living an active (Heb 4:12). There is not just one thing that the Bible is or that the Bible does.
Among the things that the Bible is doing for those who read it and seek to obey it is these three same things.
For example, the Bible makes certain things viable for those who engage with it. If we went out into the street in Newtown here today, took a microphone, put it in front of people’s noses and said, “Have you ever considered trusting the promises of the God of the Bible?”, what sort of answers do you think we might get? [Laughter] It’s quite unlikely that we’d get the answer, “Well, yes, I have actually considered that, and on balance, I decided that it probably wasn’t the thing I wanted to do.” If people were being frank and open with us, and not polite about it, we’d more get the sort of answer like this: “What planet have you landed from? In what universe does that sentence even make sense? What do you mean, ‘trust the promises of the God of the Bible’?” It’s not possible for them in their world. It’s not that they’ve decided against it; it’s just that there’s no category for that.
But when you read the Bible, you see that God makes promises to Abram and he keeps them. He makes promises to Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon, and then you see that they all come true in Christ. So you build up this sense of God as someone whose word can be trusted, because he’s proved it time and time again in history. So it becomes something that’s possible for you. You still may not trust the promises of the God of the Bible, but you could see what it would look like to do so. It’s become a thing, if you like. The Bible has made it viable for you—by, of course, the work of the Spirit by grace.
The Bible also makes certain things visible. It’s very hard to read too far into the prophets or into the Deuteronomic testimony, or indeed into the New Testament, without being brought face-to-face with the plight of the widows and the orphans in society, or the weakest and littlest among us. It may be that you’ve lived quite a nice life for a little while, and you’ve never been particularly bothered about the weakest or the most vulnerable in society. But the Bible makes them stand out for you. This is not background. This is foreground for the Bible: it makes that visible.
Or you might have looked upon hundreds of beautiful sunsets in your life and been quite gratified by them, but never actually thought to yourself, “Wow! That is a wonderful testimony to the glory of God.” Then you read Psalm 19: “the heavens declare the glory of God” (v. 1 ESV), and you go, “Oh! Goodness! I never thought of it that way. The next time I look at a sunset, I’m going to say, ‘Thank you, God. That’s a wonderful testimony to your glory’.” It’s made it visible for you. It always was there. It hasn’t created anything that wasn’t there. But it’s brought it into your foreground, rather than it being in your background.
Finally, the Bible also makes certain things valuable. If you’d have asked my 15-year-old, pre-Christian self, “What do you want to do with your life?”, I could have given you a long list of things. But I am ashamed to say, it would not have included serving other people. [Laughter] That was not top priority for me, and if you said, “How about thinking of your life in terms of a key value for you being serving other people?”, I would have said, “Why? What good is that?”
But then you a read little into the New Testament and you see that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 ESV), and you read Philippians 2:5, where Paul says, “Have this [same] mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus”, and you go, “Wow, okay! Service is big. If I’m going to be a Christian, this is got to go right up the list of things that are really important, because it’s clearly very important to Jesus and very important for his followers.” [Laughter] It’s made it valuable in a way that it might not have been valuable to me previously.
So to sum up, of all the different things that the Bible is doing, it is also performing these same three moves that critical theories perform: it’s making things viable for me, visible and valuable.
The goal of Chris’s book
PO: What would you see as the goal of your book? What would you like it to achieve under God?
CW: That’s always a question I’m very cautious about answering, because, as you say, God has plans that are not always transparent to us. If you’d have asked Isaiah, “What do you want your ministry to achieve?”, and then asked God, “What is your plan for Isaiah?”, they may not have tallied until God communicated to him what he wanted him to do. [Laughter]
The bottom line is whatever God wants to do with it, great: that will do. From my limited, finite perspective, it would be a great blessing and a great cause of rejoicing if the book helped some Christians to feel a little bit more on the front foot in public. As Christians today, I think it often feels like we’re being beaten over the head with a stick in public debate, in the media, and so forth. I’d love the book to help Christians find a posture whereby we’re seeking to engage with social issues proactively, neither in a way that is reducible merely to confrontation, neither that is reducible merely to singing to the hymn sheet of the secular society around us.
An image that I use in the Bible—[Laughter]—I mean, in the book [Laughter]. It helps to keep one humble, doesn’t it, when one makes mistakes like that! [Laughter] One image that I use in the book is of letting the Bible set its own table. In other words, you let the Bible say what it wants to say in its own categories with its own emphases, and then you bring that to the cultural debate, rather than saying, “What are the questions the culture is asking?” and “Let’s try and squeeze the Bible into that mould that’s preprepared for it.” But then you seek to bring the table that the Bible has set to bear on the real questions that people are asking. You’re letting the Bible be the Bible, and, in a sense, you’re letting society be society, and you’re trying to get a conversation going between the two that shoehorns neither of them into the mould of the other, because that’s frustrating for both sides. We wouldn’t want people to caricature the Bible when they talk about it, and neither would secular people want us to caricature secularism. It’s a difficult road to travel: it would be much easier to caricature either one or the other. But that’s the aim, at least—that Christians are able to engage in these social questions genuinely as Christians, letting the Bible be the Bible, but in a way that’s on the front foot, rather than always reacting.
The “So what?” question
PO: Related to that, you talk about the “So what?” question. I think your introduction is entitled, “How can we be the question that God puts to the world?” Can you say a little bit about that idea?
CW: Yeah. I think what happens (and you’ll have to see whether you agree with me, but this is what I found when I was writing the book) when you do let the Bible set its own table and come at things with its own set of categories and assumptions is that you often get really quite surprising results. The Bible says things that don’t fit with the categories that are out there in society. It doesn’t fit in really interesting and provocative ways that you wouldn’t have found if you just tried to shoehorn the Bible into these debates. It’s that ill-fittingness that often opens a door to fresh thinking and fresh ways of approaching particular questions, debates or polarities that are out there in society.
It’s a case of letting the Bible sit askance to the assumptions of society and then saying, “Okay, what do we make of that radical difference? How can that difference reorient a particular debate or a particular disagreement in ways that are rigorously biblical, but also might actually be healing for society as well?”
PO: Just on that idea of healing society, you have this concept in your book of what you call “diagonalisation”, which is a very powerful concept that runs throughout the book. Could you tease out what you mean by “diagonalisation” and how you see that achieving that goal?
CW: The name is mine, but I don’t think the thing that the word is describing is. I think Augustine is doing this. I think Luther is doing this. I just stuck a label on it so that, again, it becomes visible to us—so we can see what it is and then use it, if we think that’s appropriate.
Let me explain it terms of an example, because I think that’s the best way to get our heads around what it is. Take the image of God motif from Genesis 1:26-27: there’s a beautiful harmony of two different aspects to the image of God. First of all, there’s this wonderful dignifying of human beings: of everything that God has made, only human beings—and all human beings, from the least to the greatest—are made equally in the image of God. The beautiful sunshine we’ve got today, our wonderful forests, birdsong, great concertos, beautiful schools of whales—all of these things are lovely, but they are not in the image of God. There’s a wonderful dignity to being human. There’s a specialness to being human.
But in the image of God motif, there’s also a humbling of human beings, because if we’re an image, then we’re not God. We rely on something—someone—outside of ourselves. We are the image of one who is greater than us. We’re not the thing that is imaged.
Humans are brought low, so to speak, in the image of God, and we’re raised up. But there’s no sense in which these two things are in tension with each other in the image of God motif. It’s not like you’re half-dignified and you’re half-humbled, and there’s a wrestling between those two. There’s a harmony about that.
But then you look at modern ways in which human beings have been thought of in the societies in which we live, and one way of thinking about it is that there are two different tendencies. One tendency is to exalt human beings—in fact, to ascribe to human beings the sort of things the Bible ascribes to God. For example, being self-defining and saying, “I am who I am. I get to define myself”; deciding for ourselves what’s good and evil; and deciding the meaning of our lives for ourselves. These are aspirational things out in many aspects of society. Effectively, it’s taking the dignity side—the exaltation side of the image of God—and ratcheting it up in an unbiblical way and forgetting the humility side. Effectively, we’re gods: we think about ourselves in the categories that the Bible ascribes to God. We think of ourselves as gods.
But there’s another stream of contemporary anthropology as well, which is really quite aggressively about collapsing any difference between humans and any other part of creation. Throughout the modern period, there’s a line of thinking that says, “Look, we might like to kid ourselves otherwise, but we’re basically just machines. Like it or not, that is what we are.” Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan has a passage that suggests this. Julien Offray de La Mettrie about a century later has a book that, in English, is titled, Man Machine. There’s no ambiguity there. There’s this sense of there’s no difference, fundamentally, between us and machines, or between us and animals.
This goes all out on the humbling side of humanity. The Bible says we are created on the sixth day like animals. There’s an earthiness to us: Adam is created from the dust of the ground. It’s not some cosmic dust; there’s a terrestriality to human beings. But that comes together with the image of God here.
So you’ve got these two anthropologies: we’re gods; we’re machines. What does it mean to diagonalise that polarity in contemporary culture? What it doesn’t mean is to split the difference: we say, “Oh, well, then, okay, we must be like half-gods and half-machines. How about that?” Obviously no! That’s not what the Bible says. It doesn’t even make sense. What would that even look like? It’s to say that the idea that we’re gods and the idea that we’re machines can both be understood as, if you like, dismembered limbs of a beautiful biblical harmony: being in the image of God. This side takes the idea of the exaltation of human beings, lops off the idea of human humility and says, “Let’s just go all out on exaltation and make it as big as we can.” This side lops off the exaltation, says, “The only thing we’re going to do is the humility” and makes that as rigorous and exclusive as it can. What it means to diagonalise them is to say that both of them are reductive heresies of this beautiful biblical truth of the image of God.
Some people have described diagonalisation as a third way position. I’m not sure that that language is really helpful, because it makes it sound as though the dichotomy comes first and then you do something with it: you sort of mediate these two poles. I wonder if it might be more helpful, conceptually, to think of it as a first way position—in the sense that the image of God comes first. Genesis 1 pre-Fall is the pattern—the first reality. What our sinfulness—yours, mine and the culture’s around us—does is it distorts, warps and rips apart God’s original truth and sets up these false polarities. What diagonalisation is seeking to do is look beyond them to the first way that they’re distorting.
PO: That’s very, very helpful.
The Bible’s out-narration
PO: You also talk about the Bible’s out-narrating its cultural rivals in a way that, perhaps, Augustine’s doing in The City of God, or trying to show that the Bible does. Can you talk a little bit about that?
CW: I’m really glad you mentioned The City of God, because that’s the elephant in the room of all of this. What the book is trying to do is essentially, in one manner of thinking, to hold a candle to the blazing sun of Augustine’s The City of God, and to seek to follow his pattern, take his approach and to do something fumblingly similar in our own age.
What he does to Rome in The City of God—to late Roman culture—is he actually tells the story of Rome better than Rome understands itself. There are all these tensions, contradictions and gaps in Rome’s self-understanding, and Augustine points to them and shows how the Bible tells them a more adequate story within which Rome fits. It makes sense of Rome, but it’s better than Rome is able to make sense of itself. So what I’m seeking to do with this idea of out-narrating, which is an idea of John Milbank’s (that’s his term: “out-narrating”), is to show how the Bible makes sense of late modern society with a greater depth of insight than that society is able to make sense of itself.
One reason that I think that is a helpful thing to do in our particular cultural moment is that we’ve got different stories in our society, each of which can make sense of everything and each of which can make sense of each other. Let’s just take one for an example: Freudianism—psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst comes along and says, “I can basically explain all of human behaviour on a macro level. There’s nothing that humans do that I can say, ‘Oh, I’ve got nothing to say about that.’ I can also explain you Christians to you better than you understand yourself, because you think you’re worshipping this being called ‘God’. No, no, no: you’re not. What you’re doing is you’re projecting your desire for a father figure into a transcendent realm, and then your worship of God is actually sublimated superego desiring of a father.” The Christian at that point finds themselves explained by the Freudian. The Darwinian does the same thing, and there are other stories in society that do this.
How do you respond to that sort of thing as a Christian? The problem is that each of these stories brings its own criteria of validity with it. Within the Freudian’s world, everything makes perfect sense: Christianity makes perfect sense, and anything you say can be explained in the Freudian’s own terms: “Ah yes, you would say that, wouldn’t you! Let me tell you why you said that.” [Laughter] There’s nothing you can say in that sense to challenge that view, because it can explain everything.
So you show that the Bible also does that: “Let me explain to you, dear Mrs Freudian, dear Mr Freudian, why you think as you do” and take them to Romans 1, for example. Therefore you show that the Bible has a story that it can tell about all these other different stories that makes sense of them.
Now, where do you go from there? You’ve got this story making sense of this one [Laughter], you’ve got this story making sense of this one, and the problem is that they’re both very satisfactory to those who hold them. It’s as if, at this point, you’ve got a cricket player saying to a soccer player, “You know why your game is inferior, don’t you. Because you can’t score runs.” Then the soccer player replies to the cricket player, “Yes, I’ve always shirked away from cricket because there are just no goals. There’s no fun without goals.” Both of them are quite happy with the criteria that they’ve got.
One thing you can do is seek to think in terms of explanatory power: how much of life can these different stories explain, and how much of what it means to be a human being can they explain? They will all, of course, to begin with, say, “All of it! No problem at all.” But as you press into that, sometimes you start to see tension points in some of these stories. This is a caricature of the macro level, but some of them will have no problem explaining human benevolence, but will struggle to explain gratuitous human evil, and some of them will have no problem at all explaining gratuitous human evil [Laughter], but will struggle to explain why human can be really, really nice to each other sometimes, without any selfish motives.
It’s by exploring those limit points of these stories and saying, “Well, actually, let me show you how the Bible explains that”, and it seems to be really rich, multi-faceted and robust, and it seems to be able to explain the whole spread of human life, action and everything we’re capable of doing, that you begin, then, to be able to have a conversation about these different stories in a way that you can’t meaningfully, if you’re just saying, “By my criteria, you’re wrong,” and they say, “By my criteria, you’re wrong” and then you just end up shouting at each other.
Communicating Christianity to the culture
PO: Last question before I open it up. The context that you can envisage this being done: I’m thinking about in our particular cultural moment, there are certain aspects of the Christian gospel that are very, very confrontational and hard to communicate in our culture without being misunderstood. Do you want to say something about that?
CW: I think it’s very hard to communicate much about Christianity today without telling the big story. Judgement doesn’t make sense without sin and God’s anger, for example, and God’s anger and sin don’t make much sense unless this is the world that God has created. So unless you go to back to creation—to Genesis 1—and start there, it’s very hard to make the rest of it make sense to people for whom the idea that we live in a world that doesn’t simply happen to be here, but was made by a God who has a purpose for it and has a character, and whom we’ve rebelled against—if those jigsaw bits are not there, then I don’t think it makes sense to any of us. If we try to take those bits out of our own understanding, what is the cross? It’s just cruelty, isn’t it? It’s just meaningless. Why would you look to execution? That’s just weird and perverse. But within the context of the whole story—creation, Fall, redemption, consummation, then you can make sense of the individual little bits in it. But without the big picture, it makes very little sense at all.
PO: As we take a break from today’s episode, I want to tell you about the events that are coming up in 2024. Our theme for 2024 is “Culture creep”—the way in which the culture can affect our thinking as Christians and as churches. Paul writes in Romans 12:2, telling the Roman Christians, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2a ESV).
We have four events across 2024 that are aimed at helping us to do that—to not be conformed to the world—to resist culture creep—and to be transformed by the renewal of our minds.
On 13 March, Akos Balogh will be talking to us about artificial intelligence and how we should think about that as Christian people. Artificial intelligence is a relatively new technology, and yet its quick and widespread use means that it is something that we need to be very clear in our thinking about as Christians.
On 22 May, Chase Kuhn will be speaking on the topic of “Casual sex or sacred sexuality?” Sex and sexuality obviously are a real way in which we can express our difference from the world as we live according to God’s word. But it is an area also where we are very susceptible to living like the world. Chase will be helping us to think through how we consider our bodies and our relationships under God.
On 21 August, Michael Jensen will be helping us to think through how we live as Christians in a very wealthy world. The title of his talk will be “Affluent and Christian?” and he’ll help us to think through how we should use our material goods in service of the King and the kingdom.
Finally, on 23 October, Rory Shiner will be helping us to think about our identity. The search for identity in different ways, the question of identity and who we are is such a powerful question that our world is asking. Again, it is very easy for us as Christians to follow the world’s lead, rather than have our thinking on this important topic shaped by God’s word.
That’s an overview of the events that are coming up in 2024. You’ll find more details on the CCL website and you’ll be able to register for the events. Hopefully we’ll see you at some or all the events.
Now we’ll return to our program.
PO: Thank you, Chris! That was very, very helpful. We’re going to throw it open to questions. I’ll repeat the question for the recording.
Chris’s motivations and the book’s popularity
PO: The book’s popularity took you surprise. What’s motivated you to keep writing it, and why do you think it’s been so popular?
CW: Thank you so much. It’s a book that I would have written if no one had ever read it. I wrote it, first of all, for me, because it’s the book I wanted to read when I was an undergraduate in the Arts faculty of a big secular university as a Christian, trying to make sense of all these critical theories from a biblical point of view. But I couldn’t find that book. So I’ve been working on it since 2015 not necessarily thinking, first of all, “I want to write a book that is published” but “I want to get my head around this. What’s going on here? How can we let the Bible be the Bible, and let the culture be the culture, and yet still have some meaningful dialogue between them? That’s why I kept going: I needed to know for myself, I suppose! [Laughter]
Why did it become so popular? I don’t think I can answer that in any sort of final way. I think there’s contingency in all of these things: a certain person tweeted about it at a certain moment at a certain thing. There’s all of that. I guess one reason that some people have found the book helpful is that it is trying to help people find this posture of not being ashamed of the Bible and not having to lop the hard corners off the Bible, but still being able to engage fruitfully with culture and not to have to just sit, wagging the figure at culture, and denouncing everything in it and having that as the only thing that one does.
I claim no novelty for that whatsoever. It’s Paul in 1 Corinthians 1 and the first bit of 1 Corinthians 2: he’s both saying, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:20 NIV) and “The word of the cross is foolishness to the Greeks” (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). He’s doing the confrontation thing; he’s not watering that down. But he’s also saying the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. In other words, if you really want wisdom—if you’re serious about wisdom—you have to come to the cross. The fulfilment of your cultural values is in the gospel, but not in a way that you think or can see yet. I wanted to describe that posture. You’re not watering down the antithesis, but you’re not watering down the fulfilment either. I think a lot of Christian cultural critique, perhaps, is either really, really good at the antithesis or really, really good at the fulfilment. But trying to find a way of keeping that 1 Corinthians 1 white hot on the antithesis and both barrels on the fulfilment is perhaps why some people are seeing in the book something that’s helping them to reach towards that biblical model.
Interacting with the Bible’s truth claims
PO: How does Biblical Critical Theory interact with modern critical theories that reject the very notion of a truth claim, or is that fundamental to the Bible’s testimony about itself?
CW: That’s a really interesting question. I think the idea that there are no truth claims in society is part of a bigger picture: it depends on what day and on which bit of the society you encounter as to whether that’s the bit of it you come up against. There is the idea that nobody has the right to make authoritative claims, especially moral claims that are valid for everybody. But there’s also the claim that no, there very much are realities to which we all jolly well ought to bend or else, and some of those can indeed be moral. You end up with this dichotomy, and it’s a very uncomfortable dichotomy to sit with, where you’ve got quite an aggressive relativism, on the one hand, and quite an aggressive dogmatism, on the other, and people are trying to inhabit both of those at the same time.
What the Bible does, I think, it avoids the pitfalls of both. The pitfalls of relativism in this sense is that you can’t ever say of anything that it’s unjust. You see the events that have been happening lately in Armenia or Israel, Palestine, and you say, “Well, you know, it’s people doing this stuff, and other people do different stuff, and so it’s fine.” That’s so existentially dissatisfying: I think we cannot inhabit that fully as a way of being in the world without doing violence to ourselves and our consciousness. But the problem of having this very dogmatic view of what is right and wrong, and, in a sense, being the proprietor of that, is that it leads to violence. It’s the logic of totalitarianism: “I know what is right, and I will make you conform to that thing, because otherwise there’s no justice.” You see from the point of view of the people who occupy that position: “If there’s going to be justice, I’ve got to bring it now and I’ve got to make the people who disagree with me come to heel, otherwise there’s no justice”. So you’ve got this very dissatisfying “I can’t condemn anything” position allied to a violent dogmatism.
One way of understanding what’s going on in society at the moment is that people are wrestling to try and be both of those things at the same time, and it’s really, really hard. But what the Bible provides is a position where there is right and wrong, good and evil, but it’s not my possession; it’s God who says what’s good and evil. I’m not him, and I don’t always understand him with utter transparency and perfection. So you get the moral clarity of the people who say, “No, there are some things that are wrong and there are some things that are unjust in society, and we need to do something about that”. You have that moral clarity: some things are unjust; some things are evil. I can look at some things and say, “That is wrong. It should stop. They should be punished”, or look at other things and say, “That’s wonderful! That should be praised.” But you don’t get this totalitarianism where, “If I don’t do it right now to the best of my understanding, it will never be done. But if I don’t bring justice in an absolute way to my society today, then there’s no guarantee of justice in the universe”, because, of course, we are not the primary bringers of justice.
Now, we are told to work for justice, and that’s another piece of this jigsaw: God doesn’t say, “I will judge. Therefore, sit back and don’t do anything.” Of course not! But it’s not all on our shoulders. We seek to work under him to bring in the kingdom and to produce a just and flourishing society. But if we don’t do it right now, we look forward to the eschatological hope. In other words, we don’t need to force it. We don’t need to use that logic of violent revolutions, which is now or never. That’s not the Christian culture.
So in a sense, the Christian has the best of the relativist’s approach, which is “I’m not going to bash you with a stick and make you keep silent until you agree with me.” It doesn’t have that totalitarian aspect to it. But it has the best of the dogmatist’s approach, in that you are able to look at some things and say, “That’s wrong. That’s unjust. Period. Full stop.” It’s a much healthier position to hold, perhaps, because it avoids the pathologies of both of these reductive late modern heresies.
The gap between figures and our explanatory power
PO: The question is how do we bridge the gap between figures and the explanatory power that we want to use.
CW: Just a quick word on figures for people who may not have read the book or know what that means from the word itself: every society has certain patterns and rhythms of thinking and behaving that teach people to live in a certain way—to have certain hopes, fears, dreams, expectations and a sense of what’s possible. For example, in our society, I wake up, I choose what to wear in the morning, I choose what to have for breakfast, I choose how to get to work. I probably, to some extent, have chosen my job or career at some point. I choose what to have for lunch. I choose what I do for entertainment in the evening. Then the Christian rocks up and says, “There’s a God who puts absolute moral demands on you,” and it’s like, “Well, where does that fit in my view of things? I choose everything. So if there’s a god, it must be a god that I choose, because that’s just how the world is. That’s how it rolls. That’s the sort of sub-conceptual expectation that I’ve got of how everything is. If I’m being figured—if I’m being catechised—into thinking, “Everything is a choice”, and then the Christian comes up and says their God is not a choice, there’s no plausibility for that in the way that I see the world. This is Peter Berger’s idea of plausibility structure.
I think one way of framing your question is “What plausibility structures can we construct around the Christian faith to show people that this is what it looks like—this is the sort of way of living that makes sense of this?” I go back to my conversion: I thought Jesus was silly, but there was a way that these Christians were relating to each other in the church community that was both very attractive and inexplicable to me. For me, the church—the local community of believing people—formed, if you like, a set of structures and figures that helped to make sense of the Bible for me—both to show what it looked like for people who believed it (and it looked very attractive), and also to show what life lived according to the rhythms and patterns of the Bible could be. That helped me to see, “Oh, well, okay, that’s what living a Christian-shaped life looks like, and that’s really lovely. So I’m going to pay more attention to this Jesus, because I can’t dismiss him, because if that’s the sort of community that he leads to, it’s hard to walk away from that.” The church provided a plausibility structure.
I guess more broadly, our local churches are one of the key ways of showing people “This is what it looks like to take this Bible and to live it out. These are the sorts of rhythms and patterns of life that come out taking the Bible seriously.” The church becomes a little microcosm within a broader society of a plausibility structure for the gospel, and as people come to know us as Christians and, perhaps, come along to church or come along to events that are run by church and see how Christians are, they’re being (not necessarily even intentionally and not in any sinister way) catechised. In the same way, when we walk out of the door, we’re being catechised as we walk down the street: live this way; desire these sorts of things; reject those other things. Nobody necessarily is intending to target us and say, “I want to change the way you think”; you absorb the rhythms of the society around you. So as people are invited into a church community, they will necessarily (and not in some sort of sinister way) absorb the rhythms of the church community, and they will say, “Yeah, okay, that’s what being a Christian looks like and feels like. That’s how they relate to each other. It’s different. I can see how it’s different now, and I can see, therefore, what it would feel like and what my life might be rhythmed like if I lived that way.” That is incredibly helpful, I think, for people, especially in today’s society where there’s a really radical, both biblical and Christian, illiteracy. If you all you had was the news media and you tried to work out what Christianity is, you’d have some really weird ideas. You’d go, “Whoa! Why does anybody give this the time of day? This is just bizarre.” Nobody’s going to pick it up just from the society around us. Therefore, the local church is central to this idea of providing a plausibility structure: this is what it looks like. This is how people’s lives play out when they’re taking this book seriously.
Critical theory as oppressed vs oppressor
PO: The question is critical theory, as Jethro’s heard it in the past, has very much been oppressed and oppressor. That’s not necessarily how you defined it earlier. How did critical theory come to be understood in those terms?
CW: That’s a really helpful question. Thank you, Jethro. Some critical theories are precisely what you say—largely those that are influenced by Karl Marx, who himself was influenced by Hegel, who himself, I think, gets a significant number of ideas from the Bible—not directly, but in a sort of taking-them-out-of-context-and-warping-them-type way.
For Marx, the basic dynamic—one way of thinking about it—is that the land-owning class are the problem in society, because they’re keeping all the capital for themselves and they’re keeping the labouring class of proletariat poor in an unjust way, and they’re never going to give that up. So what you’ve got to do is have a revolution where the proletariat overthrow the bourgeoisie—where the oppressed unseat the oppressors—and then in Marx’s way of thinking about it, you end up with a classless society, in theory. That model of the oppressed rising up and overthrowing the oppressors is taken, and different content is given to the two parts: for example, it’s the patriarchy, and women need to rise up and overthrow them, etcetera. You can map a number of different critical theoretical approaches in terms of that.
But that’s not universal within critical theory. Someone like Foucault, for example, is really wary of this big picture Marxist thinking. He says that’s far too simple: there isn’t just one centre of power and simple oppression, and so, in this one gesture of overthrowing whatever it is—the bourgeoisie—you can sort society out. He talks about the capillary power relations. In your veins, there are the tiny capillaries—thousands of capillaries going everywhere. Foucault says power is like that: it’s not just one thing here and one thing there, and you overthrow it. Therefore, in order to address power relations in society, you need a much more nuanced, micro approach, for Foucault. He would resist this sort of binary thinking of there’s oppressed and there’s oppressors. He would say, again, that it’s far too simple and it doesn’t help us to understand the complexity of the way that power plays out in society.
Some critical theories are very much on this Marxist binary frame, but other critical theories are very explicitly and expressly setting themselves up against that, and critiquing that simple model from their point of view—of thinking of simple oppressors and simple oppressed.
Things that Chris might have done differently in retrospect
PO: We have time for one more question if there is one. So a chance, in retrospect, methodologically and topically, are there things that you might have done differently?
CW: It’s a really interesting question. It’s interesting to reflect on anything that any of us do: “What might I have done differently in retrospect?” is a really healthy question. They call it an “after action review” in the army. Once you’ve done something, how did that go? What can I learn from it?
I’ve seen the book from the beginning as a brick in a wall, not the whole wall. I’ve done what I can do with my training and my cultural background, and I’ve given it my best shot. But that’s not the whole ball game. Other people who have got training difference in mind, who are coming at it from disciplines different to mine and cultural backgrounds different from mine, have work to do that I could never do. For example, I’d love to hear a reappropriation of Augustine’s The City of God from a Korean Christian context or a Ugandan Christian context, looking at it from those particular sets of cultural perspectives. In the same way that my approach, I’m very ready to admit, has its blind spots and its cultural prejudices, those would have their own, but they would be different, so we would be able to learn from each other. We’d almost shine a light on each other’s blind spots.
I see people call Biblical Critical Theory the book as a moment in a conversation, not as some sort of high water mark, and I want—and I say this at the end of the conclusion—I want other people to think, “Hmm, I could have done better than that!” and then to do it, because I think the beautiful thing about being in a church—in a global church—is that, as Paul so wonderful puts it in 1 Corinthians, is that the different parts of the body need each other. I’ve put my brick in the wall. It will have its blind spots: there’s swathes of the Bible that I just skipped over. I don’t think I could have done anything else, because it’s already on the top side of too big, and people probably don’t want another 100 pages. [Laughter] But there are omissions, as you quite rightly say: there’s very, very little on the Holy Spirit, for example. There is very little on swathes of the Old Testament. It’s not that they’re not crucially important; it’s just that I either didn’t have the space or didn’t have the expertise to write them.
The book is, in part, an incitement—a provocation—to others—to say, “If you see something that’s not there, please, please do something about it! Write something. Do a podcast. Write a book.” It’s an ongoing conversation.
PO: Christopher, thank you very much for your time this afternoon. [Applause] Thank you. In a moment, I’ll close in prayer, but thank you again for being with us. Why don’t I pray?
We thank you so much for Christopher and the work that he has done. We thank you for this book that so helpfully shows us the power of your word as it critiques our world and helps us to live confidently in it.
We pray, as Christopher has just said, that you would help us all to extend this work as we seek to live as faithful Christians, engaging faithfully with our culture and showing people the beauty of the gospel.
We pray for our churches—that they would demonstrate the reality of these truths.
And we thank you as well for Christopher’s own work: we pray that you would help him as he continues with the New College lectures, that you would help him in his work at Monash University, and help him as he continues to think, write and stimulate us in so many rich ways.
We give you thanks in Jesus’ name. Amen.
CK: To benefit from more resources from the Centre for Christian Living, please visit ccl.moore.edu.au, where you’ll find a host of resources, including past podcast episodes, videos from our live events and articles published through the Centre. We’d love for you to subscribe to our podcast and for you to leave us a review so more people can discover our resources.
On our website, we also have an opportunity for you to make a tax deductible donation to support the ongoing work of the Centre.
We always benefit from receiving questions and feedback from our listeners, so if you’d like to get in touch, you can email us at email@example.com.
As always, I would like to thank Moore College for its support of the Centre for Christian Living, and to thank to my assistant, Karen Beilharz, for her work in editing and transcribing the episodes. The music for our podcast was generously provided by James West.
Where noted, Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Where noted, Bible quotations are also from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.