If a Christian scholar has figured out a way to wrestle with critical theory through a biblical lens, that would be an important book. Unfortunately, Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture is mistitled. Watkin’s project is to construct a Christian cultural theory showing that the Bible supports Christian cultural analysis with as much intellectual rigor as any postmodern critical lens. While Watkin attempts a noble goal, the end result is not worth the time invested. Biblical critical theory, in short, is an impossibility, as the Bible does not lead to a “critical theory,” since critical theory begins with suspicion rather than reception of what God has made.
To understand the evaluations below, two elements of Watkin’s method require explanation. First, he dedicates much space to the description and diagramming of “figures.” Watkin defines a figure as a “repeatable structure or pattern of language that can be filled with almost any content whatsoever.” Figures are “patterns and rhythms in creation whether of matter, language, ideas, systems, or behavior.” Watkin analyzes 114 figures throughout his book; each figure represents an important pattern in creation that the Bible addresses. In most cases, Watkin describes a binary then “diagonalizes” the opposition. For example, Figure 15 has “Traditional societies: communal identity, individual crushed.” This is opposed to “Modern societies: individual identity, community neglected.” Watkin explains that this pattern exists throughout the world, but the opposition is solved by the Trinity. He places “Trinity” in a diagonal box crossing both opposed boxes. Through the Trinity’s identity as three-in-one, Christianity apparently resolves the contradictions of traditional and modern societies.
The second element is Watkin’s commitment to biblical theology. He surveys the whole Bible, sometimes grouping books together by genre (histories, gospels, wisdom literature); within the context of this biblical survey he introduces different figures. The first 10 chapters are anchored to Genesis, leaving 18 chapters for the rest of the Bible. While this approach allows Watkin to showcase biblical resources for answering philosophical questions, it leaves the reader uncertain of how ideas are related and what argument the book advances. For example, chapter 6 focuses on the doctrine of sin in the context of Genesis 3. Watkin introduces a “multi-lens anthropology,” a figure opposing pessimism and utopianism in political structures; a discussion on “wretchedness and dignity” in human nature; “the asymmetry of good and evil” in the post-Fall world; the way asymmetry applies to cultural critique, politics, and culture making; and a final discourse on “grace in the midst of judgment.” Each topic is interesting, but bringing so many under a single chapter makes keeping sight of the whole vision difficult.
Watkin describes his work as “a crudely drawn map” that seeks to delineate uniquely Christian ways of analyzing and engaging culture. One of the best places on his “map” deals with idolatry. Drawing on the work of Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC and New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God, Watkin argues that idolatry “describes a particular way of relating to those things, finding our ultimate significance, worth, purpose, or rest in them.” Understanding idolatry in this light “opens the way for a Christian cultural critique identifying the idols of the age as so many forms of restraint and incarceration.…Thinking themselves free, moderns bind themselves to slaveries of wealth, beauty, and power.” Such an analysis provides clear application to current political questions. Christian engagement with marijuana shifts from “Is it permissible for a Christian to smoke weed?” to “What satisfaction is sought in this action? Is this a potentially enslaving action?” Applying the biblical concept of idolatry enables a distinctly Christian response to political possibilities.
A second strength of Biblical Critical Theory lies in Watkin’s focus on Jesus’ “great reversal” in ethics. Watkin shows that the “tradition of charity for the poor draws its life from these biblical waters.” Christian charity gives rise to both structural reform and efforts to free the enslaved. Watkin focuses on the English Reformation and later the work of William Wilberforce to illustrate these arguments. He also argues that “the proclamation that the last will be first and the first last strikes a blow at the social hierarchies of any age.” Watkin sees in Jesus of Nazareth the beginnings of true human equality. This great reversal also establishes respect for women—“It is in Christian-influenced countries that marriage became a matter of consent, not of coercion”— and servant leadership as the reigning paradigm. Christianity, Watkin argues, is responsible for many positive changes in the modern world compared to antiquity.
In a post-Christian West, however, Watkin sees two tasks for the church: telling a counter-story and cultivating a counter-desire. Modernity showers the consumer with advertising, control of time, and power dynamics. “The church is the community that performs a different story, rhythmed to the beat of creation, fall and redemption.” Through liturgy, community, and the sacraments, the church proclaims and lives a different story. That story results in a different desire. Watkin argues that modernity is built around a “consumption-desire” but that the church cultivates an “intimacy desire.” Everything Christians do is motivated by love for others and for God. In these two ways, the church pushes back against modernity, calling Christians to “a still more excellent way.”
Any volume that attempts as much as Watkin does in Biblical Critical Theory is bound to have flaws, but the flaws in Watkin’s book are substantial. The following four areas harm the overall value of the project.
First, Watkin comments on economics with a reflexive assertion that free market economics is exploitative and harmful. “The excess of capitalism—the excess of overconsumption, of overabundant provision that hides from view the dirty secret of the sweatshop factory—is a mock excess: always framed by the logic of equivalence and the drive for efficiency.” He explains economic efficiency with reference to “garment workers of the Philippines and Southern China”—they “know the brutality and injustice of [the cruel logic of equivalence’s] insatiable drive for efficiency.” In his eschatology, Watkin argues that the Whore of Babylon “embodies the market” and that she “symbolizes economic exploitation.” Chapter 27 focuses on the ways the modern market economy commodifies the individual and renders identity a purchasable product. While the market is not perfect (as nothing can be in a fallen world), free market economics governed by a sound anthropology and an ethic grounded in natural law remains the best method humans have developed for elevating themselves from poverty into freedom of choice and action. Because Watkin fails to recognize the good modern economics has done, his economic analysis falls flat.
Watkin also critiques both right-wing and left-wing politics without defining terms or locating them within a national tradition; his analysis reflects a refusal to praise good or condemn evil. Watkin attempts to straddle the political fence, and the result is both a lukewarm attitude on vital issues and a caricature of current political complexities. “The right fails to acknowledge that when freed from regulation and government, individuals and institutions become prey to the harsh, brutal lordship of the market.” “Both the left and right are searching for ever-new oppressions from which we need to be liberated. On the right this takes the form of a regularly refreshed list of bogey taxes and regulations that are supposedly stifling innovation and enterprise. On the left it is an ever-renewed string of identities that are labeled as oppressed and in need of emancipation.” Watkin’s unwillingness to take a bold, definitive stand is a failure of his analysis. The Gospel has direct implications for ethical decisions, and Watkin’s equal condemnation of right and left causes him to fall prey to James Woods’ critique of “winsomeness.”
For example, Watkin wrote 604 pages about Christian cultural engagement without substantial reference to abortion, LGBTQ+, transgenderism, or religious freedom. Watkin attempts to excuse these omissions by saying “I am painfully aware of the gaps in the present volume” and argues that they remain because of “the already unwieldy size of this book.” A failure to recognize that the increasing secularity of the western world stands in direct opposition to biblical Christianity in these areas is inexcusable for a scholar of Watkin’s wide reading. A Christian cultural engagement must equip the church to respond to secular arguments in these areas.
Finally, the size of this book results from insufficient editing. Watkin is verbose. His addiction to adverbs and adjectives recalls Orwell’s third and fourth rules: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” and “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” Watkin’s prose and metaphors both obscure his argument and make this work unnecessarily long.
Biblical Critical Theory promises a needed engagement between the Christian tradition and critical theory, but it does not deliver on its promise. Such an engagement is badly needed; the church needs men and women whose scholarship takes captive “every thought to the mind of Christ.” Instead, this volume delivers a combination of obscure philosophy and a seminary crash course delivered through chapters alternating in form between lecture notes and sermon outlines. The end result is unbalanced, and the inaccuracies in political and economic thought raise skepticism about other parts of Watkin’s analysis. The church needs a strong engagement with secular philosophy and cultural theory, but this is not it.