Book Review: Great Thinkers: Jacques Derrida by Christopher Watkin

Great Thinkers: Jacques Derrida, by Christopher Watkin

I had heard of Christopher Watkin, professor of French thought at Monash University, a few times through friends who work for AFES at Monash and those who go to his church. But it was only when I did an Open Learning course he was teaching, 'Postmodernism and the Bible: Derrida and Foucault' that I became a fan. Christopher and I share the same desire of seeking to listen carefully to the ideas of others, and then interact with those ideas from a Christian point of view. This book covers a lot of the territory from the Open Learning Course, but then the second half of the book, where Christopher brings the ideas of Derrida into conversation with those of Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til, was largely new to me.

Great Thinkers: Jacques Derrida is an excellent, accessible example of how to listen really carefully to another person's point of view, and then engage with it fairly. For those wanting to get a grasp on what postmodernism is all about, and a guide through how to think about it from a Christian point of view, this is a great place to start. Christopher Watkin writes with great clarity, and his illustrations, diagrams and section headings all illuminate the ideas he is unpacking. For the tertiary educated reader, it is stretching without being such hard work you need to be fully awake, brow-furrowed and prepared to re-read dishearteningly dense paragraphs.

In the first half of the book, Christopher seeks to unpack key aspects of Derrida's thought without critical assessment, looking at Deconstruction, Ethics and Politics and Theology. In this first half he corrects against common misunderstandings of Derrida's thinking, and draws us closer to his unique contributions, rather than a more generalised and simplistic caricature of 'postmodernist' thought. These first 3 chapters would make the book worthwhile on its own. It provides a clear summary of Derrida's ideas, with a decent number of excerpts from Derrida's own writings and an annotated bibliography for those who want to explore further.

In the second half of the book, Christopher seeks to find points of agreement, disagreement and fruitful conversation between the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and the Christian faith. He uses Cornelius Van Til (and almost as much John Frame) as a theological partner in this conversation and focusses his biblical exposition on John 1:1–18, with extended reflection on Colossians 1 as well.

Chapter 4 was a real highlight for me, where Christopher considers the places John Frame's critique of postmodernism misses the mark. This is a great example and warning of how careful we need to be in listening well to those with whom we disagree, so that we can be clear on why exactly we do disagree. I love this kind of close, rigorous interaction, that really gets into the weeds, rather than deals in over-simplified generalities. It's a great fun, dramatic chapter.

In Chapter 5, Christopher, with the help of Van Til, shows how a Christian view of the world provides a framework within which the ideas of Derrida don't quite work. The sharp distinctions that Derrida sets up in his philosophy (between ontotheology and différance, the one and the many, abstract generality and concrete particularity, radical monstrous openness and pre-programmed predictability and so on) do not quite represent the world as the we find it in Scripture. So Christopher argues that Derrida's critiques and proposals don't quite stand up.

At the same time, Derrida's way of looking at things provides us with a fresh way to think about and re-state biblical ideas. Christopher is careful not to simply adopt his concepts and baptise them. At the same time, there are points of agreement which are more than mere surface similarity. Derrida's critique of pure human objectivity is something we would agree with, even if we would structure it differently. Likewise, Derrida's description of a future hope as 'monstrous messianicity' is a colourful way to emphasise the shocking 'new thing' that God has done in the cross of Christ.

Chapter 5 was so long (at 50 pages, it was twice as long as any other chapter in the book) and rich I am curious to know why it wasn't broken up into several smaller and more digestible chapters. In its current form, it is easy to get lost in the argumentation and for some of the stronger points to get lost in a single paragraph.

In the end I still came away from the book more annoyed by and dismissive of Jacques Derrida, and especially his infuriatingly antisocially opaque writing style, than Christopher is. He mentions a cutting critique of Derrida by philosopher John Searle, but doesn't really unpack how this debate unfolded. I would have loved to hear more of this controversy. Searle's comments gave voice to my annoyance at trying to read Derrida on several occasions over the last 20 years, and I didn't feel like Christopher's apologetic fully answered Searle's critique. But I guess this makes Christopher Watkin the author I need not the author I want! I am better served by a book like this, than a book that tells me more of exactly what I'd like to hear the way I'd like to hear it.

A few other minor notes of a more critical nature:

  • The illustration about the French and English words for river and stream (or fleuve and rivière) on page 19 didn't convince me of the point he was trying to make.  I understand that language is somewhat arbitrarily constructed. But only somewhat. Regardless of the precise distinctions between stream/river and fleuve/rivière... these distinctions are still subtle ones describing flowing bodies of water. To be more fully convinced I'd like to see some more substantive examples.
  • In rightly distancing Christianity from the 'God of ontotheology' (page 46) I wonder if Christopher throws out too much of the baby with the bathwater? So much powerful theological language comes to Christian theology from classical philosophy and has been digested and reframed in the process... I am wary of being too simplistic in us accepting Derrida's dismissal of it all.
  • Contrary to Christopher, I think John Frame's critique of Derrida's ethics (relativising moral discourse while requiring everybody to conform to his values, p. 60) largely sticks. Derrida relativises moral discourse by relativising it to the peculiar situation, the unique individual. But in order to make this 'every other is wholly other' and this 'democracy to come' work as an ethic, he has to beg a whole lot of questions. In the end, Derrida's ethics isn't far off assertion, in my assessment.
  • In the same way, while Christopher is helpful in tightening up the terms of John Frame's critique of Derrida on page 64, I still think Frame's point stands. A lot of his 'close reading' of texts strikes me as forced and 'clever' and dependent on wordplay, rather than actually careful reading.
  • On page 80 Christopher writes 'Logic is reliant on God, not determinate of him', which is misleading, in my view. In this sentence 'logic' needs to be put in scarequotes — 'logic-understood-as-a-separate-thing-to-God-himself'. Better to say what he goes on to say "Logic is the product of God's character and part of its expression in creation. There is nothing before, behind, or underneath Go upon which he relies."
  • I'd be curious to have another pass through Christopher's responses to Derrida, his 'diagonlisations' (as he puts it), to explore how Derrida might reply to Christopher's replies. When might 'diagonlisation' simply be perceived to be a rhetorical or philosophical sleight of hand? How do we bed down the assertion that the biblical framework truly does resist Derrida's categories?
  • On page 92 Christopher rightly describes the unifying interpretative role that Christ playes in all of creation, as described in Colossians 1. I would like to also see more time given to the second order reatlity that 'in Christ and for Christ' produces: which is a created order ordered-alongisde itself. Where Christ actually gives meaning and order to each thing as it relates to every other thing. There becomes an internal logic to the world.
  • On page 95, it seems that the biblical and theological concept of transcendence is reduced to merely 'covenant rule'. This doesn't preserve enough place for the many places where the Bible does assert a distance and unknowability and 'otherness' to God. 

A must read for anyone interested in the intersection between Christianity and modern philosopher. And a great training tool for upcoming Christian leaders. I look forward to reading Christopher's contribution on Michel Foucault, which I believe may well be forthcoming?

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Review: Thinking Through Creation by Chris Watkin

Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1 and 2 as Tools of Cultural Critique

by Christopher Watkin

I had heard of Christopher Watkin, professor of French though at Monash University, a few times through friends who work for AFES at Monash and those who go to his church. But it was only when I did an Open Learning course he was teaching, 'Postmodernism and the Bible: Derrida and Foucault' that I became a fan. Christopher and I share the same desire of seeking to listen carefully to the ideas of others, and then interact with those ideas from a Christian point of view.

After completing the course, Christopher asked if I would like to receive free copies of some of his forthcoming books, in exchange for reviewing them online: I happily agreed — free things!

The first of these new books, Thinking Through Creation is a great read, and I hope it will quickly became a classic among those, like in AFES, who are seeking to equip Christians to think deeply and Christianly. This book is the first of a much larger work that Christopher intends to produce, doing similar stuff across the whole Bible: not just reading what the text of Scripture says, but unpacking the underlying ideas, and the values and actions which flow from these.

Chirstopher looks at the philosophical and ethical implications of the doctrine of the trinity, of creation, humanity, personhood work, Sabbath, power, functionalism, environment and much more. For those who have already read a bit in this, much of the content will be familiar, but it is great to have a one-stop-shop for all these ideas. 

Likewise, Christopher is not the first writer to expose unsatisfactory dichotomies, by finding a more sophisticated middle way (his term for this is 'diagonlisation'). But his contribution to this area of nuance and synthesising approach is a highlight of the book, as he uncovers so many of these false dichotomies: 

  • Impersonal structure vs Unstructured personhood (tackling the Euthyphro Dilemma masterfully)
  • The one vs the many
  • Reality is transparent to language vs Language imposes an alien structure on reality
  • Functionality vs beauty
  • Fact vs value
  • Nature vs culture
  • Intellectual work vs manual labour
  • Sacred groves vs trees as facts (you'll have to read it to see what on earth that means?! :-P)

A particular strength of the book is the way in which Christopher provides substantial quotes from and interaction with various philosophers and other theorists. This is more than the easy grab-quotes from an IVP apologetics book, but rather genuine contact points with different philosophical views. Reading the footnotes and supporting material gives you heaps of leads to explore further, both Christian and non-Christian thinking.

There were a few points where I raised an eyebrow or wanted more:

  • I am not convinced that love comes before power, as Christopher argues on page 35ff. Why not both? If power is seen as secondary, then, as it seems Christopher goes on to argue, we cannot form an ethic were the possession and use of power also has a place. Power is entirely subservient to love. While, love, service and personhood are fruitful paths to explore social ethics, I also think the just and proper use of (and restraint of) power is also a fruitful and ethical path to explore at the same time.
  • Some of the political and social applications left me wondering how this would work out 'in the real world' of globalised economic. Footnote 7 on page 57 points to The Jubilee Manifesto edited by Michael Schluter and John Ashcroft to explore further, so it's great to have a good pointer. However, I would love to have a bit more meat on this occasionally, to stop this ethical reflections from seeming like thin idealism.

  • On page 94 he writes "Christ is the only normal human being to have ever lived, and his character defines perfect humanity". And I am cautious about this statement. Is it a bit too Barthian/supralapsarian? The unfallen Adam was a normal human being... and defines perfect humanity, too, no?
  • I think there is more to the ethical caution against 'playing God' than Christopher gives credit on page 114. You know, Jurassic Park I, II, II, Jurassic World and now Jurassic World II.
  • I would have liked to hear an explanation for why, if the biblical worldview apparently solves to many problems, Christians have not historically been more consistent on all these matters. But then maybe this is for Volume 2: Genesis 3 and beyond?

The writing is clear and engaging, although there are extended quotes from philosophical sources and a decent smattering of technical terminology ('basicity' was one that particularly made me laugh). The text is broken up with simple diagrams and helpful headings which help you keep track of the argument.  Each chapter ends with a summary of basic ideas and rich tutorial-style questions for further reflection or discussion. There is also a glossary at the end of the book.

The book would be a great training text for uni students, MTS apprentices or theological students. It would also be enriching reading for the tertiary-educated Christian keen to keep thinking deeply. The would would serve preachers as a great companion book for sermon preparation, to help apply theological concepts to everyday life.

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