Watkin has written a fascinating tome. He has honored Keller’s request for a “Christian High Theory,” and it is a gift that Keller saw its fruition before departing into glory. Though I do not believe this book will see a legacy similar to that of The City of God, no work should be burdened with this pressure. It speaks in profound ways to our moment. It would be great for the types of classrooms mentioned above, and will be helpful on the shelves of many pastors, providing signals for further research. I am grateful Watkin pushed me to read my Bible more closely and appreciate its comprehensive relevance for late-modern life in fresh ways. That is success.
What would Augustine write to the late-modern West? Christopher Watkin, in his widely lauded Biblical Critical Theory, seeks to answer that question by performing a similar type of social analysis for a very different context.
This is a unique work. I am not sure I have ever read a book that so thoroughly weaves biblical theology, systematic theology, and apologetics, all the while engaging prominent philosophers, whether Christian or non-Christian. But in some ways it is inspired by the author of the foreword. If you have listened to or read much of Tim Keller’s writings over the years, much of this will feel familiar in both style and content. Watkin invokes Keller’s own insights throughout the volume and engages many of the same figures who were commonly invoked in Keller’s writings and sermons, such as Charles Taylor, N.T. Wright, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. This is not a criticism of Watkin, who admits that he is not seeking to provide anything new. Rather, he wants to package many of these insights into a single compelling narrative. That he has accomplished.
Watkin’s is a quintessentially modern Reformed work, reflecting many of the emphases of second and third generation Neo-Calvinists. Other than Keller, Watkin refers to Francis Schaeffer, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, and Alvin Plantinga as key inspirations. The perspective here also bridges Neo-Calvinist and Radical Orthodox thought, as John Milbank is a regular figure who pops up, along with his friend David Bentley Hart, who is not technically part of Radical Orthodoxy, but travels alongside those figures. And, as such, James K.A. Smith makes frequent appearances. If you have trafficked in Neo-Calvinist circles for the past couple of decades, much of this material will feel familiar.
Something unique, however, is the textbook nature of this work. At the end of each of the twenty-eight chapters, Watkin provides a set of “Study Questions” to help the reader probe further. This lends a certain practicality to the work, making it accessible for small group discussions or even Bible college and MDiv classrooms.
The book is written as a “so what?” work. Watkin explains that the title of the book could have easily been The Bible: So What? and says that his aim is “to paint a picture of humanity and of our world through the lens of the Bible and to compare aspects of this image to alternative visions. It is a book about how the whole Bible sheds light on the whole of life, how we can read and understand our society, our culture, and ourselves through the lens of the Bible’s storyline.” Therefore, it is not fitting, as some might be prone to do, to criticize the book for its lack of scholastic rigor or systematic depth.
As mentioned above, across the twenty eight chapters, Watkin weaves biblical theology, systematic reflection, and apologetic considerations. The book is largely structured around the biblical story, but also around systematic loci with constant asides on modern and postmodern philosophers. Watkin explains that, though inspired by The City of God, the structure of his work is markedly different. Whereas Augustine spends the first half in that great text critiquing Roman religion and philosophy, and then traces the story of Scripture, Watkin constantly weaves examination of contemporary culture within the larger scriptural story. Yet it is worth considering which parts of the biblical story he attends to. After spending almost half of his book getting through Genesis 1-22, Watkin discusses the liberation narrative of Exodus, and then quickly jumps to the prophets. He explains that the people of God are freed to worship, but then spends almost no time talking about worship.
Very little is said about Leviticus and Numbers, and the cultic life of God’s people is severely under-examined. Similarly, there is insufficient attention to the law in general and its role in the story of God’s people. Thus, Deuteronomy is barely engaged, as are the more historical books such as 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles, which display how the law is applied and often misapplied or ignored, and what the consequences of that can be. So, we have a fascinating discussion of liberation and the prophets (and also very insightful material on the Wisdom literature), but what about priests and the law? and how these relate to civil power?
There are two primary devices that frame the material in the work: figures and diagonalization. Figures are patterns and rhythms that shape our sense of ourselves and the world around us. He provides six broad categories of figures: 1) language, ideas, and stories; 2) time and space; 3) the structure of reality; 4) behavior; 5) relationships; 6) objects. The dominant ensemble of figures in a particular cultural moment form a “world” in which we live and move. The “world” of the late-modern West is deeply imprinted by the Christian heritage that it increasingly rejects. This means that the Christianity retained by our culture is profoundly fragmented and distorted, and the principles that are harmonized in the Bible are set in opposition.
To address this problem, Watkin turns to his second device of “diagonalization,” which refers to the way that the “figures” of the Bible cut across and rearrange the false dichotomies presented to us in our culture. Diagonalization shows how a cultural dichotomy splinters the rich biblical reality, resulting in fragmented options and unsatisfying compromises. It answers these with the biblical picture which reveals how the best aspirations of the options are fulfilled in a way none of the contemporary options could have envisioned. This is a type of “third-way” logic, something I have publicly critiqued, but Watkin’s use of this device is often satisfying for how it gives concrete content rather than just a default posture. It is tethered to the biblical figures, and through them, Watkin seeks to “out-narrate” the Bible’s cultural rivals, resolving late-modern tensions through diagonalized narration. At times, however, this diagonalization can appear forced, or a bit sloppy, and thus can fall into some of the standard pitfalls of third-wayism more generally.
The book has many profound strengths, starting first with the style and structure. This is a great sourcebook of quotations from some of the best Christian commentators on late-modern culture. One could simply pool these quotes for one’s own use, or follow these breadcrumbs to some of the most penetrating writings by Christian thinkers on Western culture over the past two centuries. Furthermore, the structure, in the ways it differs from The City of God, is, in some senses, rhetorically effective. For instance, today, very few actually read the first half of Augustine’s tome, which focuses on an immanent critique of his contemporary culture, but rather jump into the second half in which Augustine traces the history of the two cities through the biblical narrative. Watkin’s more integrated approach might serve to expose a greater amount of readers to the critiques of contemporary culture than a neat division would. And within this integrated approach, Watkin lets his “figures” wash over the reader. At times the reader can get overwhelmed with the sheer abundance of material, yet, the net effect at the end is that Watkin’s way of seeing the world becomes almost second-nature.
Besides the strengths of the style and structure, Watkin is actually quite impressive on particular issues. Some reviewers will draw attention to the confusing title of the book, which might make the reader assume that Watkin is either going to directly discuss “Critical Theory” and how Christians should view it through the Bible, or that Watkin will employ the tools of “Critical Theory” in some way. Watkin does neither, and this might frustrate some.