Ours is an age of retrieval. Evangelical theologians are rediscovering Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. Biblical interpreters are resourcing the early church. Christian social theorists of both Catholic and Protestant persuasion are returning to pre-modern sources on topics like religious liberty, political power, and the rule of law.
In our retrieving, we rightly look to the wisdom of the past for the needed inspiration on how to inhabit the present and the coming future. As C. S. Lewis famously says, reading old books is essential to rightly reading our time.
Indeed, retrieval can often be a great source of creativity. But, as Ross Douthat argues, it can also be motivated by an uninspiring stagnancy. Douthat says that we live in an era of decadence. It is one in which our complacency with the status quo actually betrays a failure to move beyond the well-worn categories of public discourse. Our failure to innovate leads us into a rut of nostalgia rather than reinvention.
One needs only look to the catalogue of screenplays by the major film production companies. Disney’s strategy seems limited to CGI-saturated updates to well-loved classics like Pinocchio, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, or expansions of already-successful franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which have source material that is decades old.
The collection of evangelical reflections on theology and culture shows a similar preoccupation with simply rehashing well-worn categories, saying the same thing in just slightly different ways. The originators of the way most of us talk about the relationship between Christians and the world around us are Herman Bavinck, Ernst Troeltsch, and Richard Niebuhr.
Nearly all evangelical Christian writers in the last two decades who explore how to think about culture draw directly on their typologies. From Cornelius Plantinga, Andy Crouch, and Tim Keller, to D. A. Carson, Bruce Ashford, and William Edgar: they all riff on the previously mentioned big three—and helpfully so! But the contribution each of these makes comes not in the development of anything new per se, but rather in helping make accessible and applicable those former influential paradigms.
A New Christian Social Theory
But now enter Christopher Watkin and his mammoth volume Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture, which gives a new take on what culture is and how to think about it as a Christian. In the book Watkin’s aim is to map ways in which the Bible teaches us how to inhabit our faith in any given cultural context—but especially the world of late modernity.
Watkin’s expertise in modern languages and literature provides the backdrop for the book. He argues that as he studied social theories and their theorists, from Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis to postcolonialism and feminism, he was both struck by their comprehensive explanatory power used to map how to live, and the dearth of a compelling Christian alternative.
This lack of a Christian cultural theory to guide our mode of inhabiting our contemporary world is certainly not due to a lack of resources to draw upon, but rather, he argues, because Christians do not always fully understand the ideas and values shaping the society around them.
For the writers and thinkers who swim in the waters of “theory” regularly, their attention to the lenses by which we see the world comes as second nature. In its technical usage, “theory” refers to the construction of ideas about the world to make sense of it, and then using these ideas to shape the entirety of the world into the image of these ideas. For example, Marxist social theory posits a power struggle between social classes as the root driver of all change in society, and therefore sees all interpersonal relationships and what needs to change in society in light of this theory. For most Christians, though, rather self-consciously employ some sort of social theory to make sense of life in the world, we often take the world as it is. In doing so, we do not always pay attention to what informs our take on the world. We do not always see how it is that we see things.
To chart the outlines of a Christian cultural theory, then, Watkin aims to revisit the great source of how we ought to see the world and Christian scripture, in order to let CCT show us how much modernity, with all its sensibilities and mores, affects how we see both scripture and the world through it.
All of this points to the fact that we cannot ever really divest ourselves from the context within which we come to the text. So, as Watkin models throughout the book, the prudent thing to do is to return again and again to the text with today’s dominant social theories in tow to put them in conversation with the text and see how scripture critiques
This requires knowing both Christian scripture inside and out, and the theories and theorists that have shaped the way we think and live in the late modern West. Yet, lest we think such an endeavor is simple enough, equipped as we are with worldview thinking or the familiar Christ-against-culture or Christ-above-culture paradigms, Watkin models for us in great detail how complex a task this really is.
Retelling the Story
Whereas most mappings of the biblical narrative for cultural engagement consider the four-part movements of creation-fall-redemption-restoration, Watkins aims for much greater nuance. The book is comprised of twenty-six chapters arranged by various plot points of the canon, which Watkin uses to retell the story of who God is and what he is up to with his creation.
Additionally, as he surveys the mosaic of how culture figures in the biblical narrative, Watkin then draws in connecting points with modern beliefs or values which find particular cultural embodiment in our society today. His aim is to consider in what way scripture affirms or deconstructs these categories, before casting a vision for how they might be more rightly aligned to the vision of the world the Bible charts.
The result is Watkin’s chapters read as a collection of homilies to the parishioners of modernity. He gives us what seem to be sermons in which Eden engages Rousseau’s idyllic state of nature, Israel’s exile reframes victimhood and oppression toward ordered liberty, and the Wisdom Literature deconstructs both utopian and cynical understandings of human nature.
Indeed a great highlight of the book is how fluidly Watkin puts scripture and great figures of the Christian tradition such as Augustine, Herman Bavinck, and G. K. Chesterton, with influential philosophers and social theorists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Ricoeur, and Terry Eagleton.
Figures and Diagonalization
Despite the seemingly ad hoc journey through the biblical narrative and accompanying cultural touchpoints, Watkin does put forward a central organizing motif that characterizes the book’s dialogue between faith and culture. This has to do with how Watkin understands what culture is. Culture is what we create to bring things into focus, not unlike how different people see a duck or an old lady in an abstract picture of shapes and silhouettes, depending on what parts of the image our minds experience as the foreground or background. Culture consists of all the organizing patterns of cognition, affection, behavior, and artifacts, which shape how we perceive and make sense of what we encounter in life, like the duck-lady image.
Using Watkin’s formal term, culture consists of figures which lead us to experience creation in particular ways, constructing worlds of meaning that we inhabit based on culture and shaped by our perceptions. This definition helps to expand the general meaning of culture from something we create or do, to a whole set of behaviors, ideas, experiences, and things that we look through to see the world.
Watkin lists six primary types of figures which we encounter in life: how we conceptually capture the world in language/ideas/stories, how we perceive time and space, and how we picture the structure of reality, behavior, relationships, and objects.
Throughout each chapter of the book, Watkin surveys the biblical narrative to see how the internal categories of scripture figure the world for us in these six ways. Then he puts those figures in conversation with the way our contemporary context figures live. How Watkin does this is where his project becomes the most interesting.
He observes that the way our culture figures life is often drawn directly from values or propositions about the world inspired directly from Christian scripture. However, over time they have become aberrant shadow figures of the biblical ones. For example, our society largely believes history is meaningful and marked by progress. This is a thoroughly Christian way of thinking about reality. However, our culture has lost its belief in God and his providence. Therefore, instead of progressing towards his goals, history’s unfolding itself becomes the source of meaning and progress.
This dynamic, that we live under a Christian canopy in a culture that is itself hostile to Christian beliefs, presents a complex cultural landscape for Christians. So much of the social imaginary we encounter employs Christian language and categories, but really such cultural figures are incomplete and tend to neglect binaries that scripture holds in balance. For example, Watkin argues that scripture holds love and justice together in a cohesive moral vision, but cultural forces in our day bifurcate these into mutually exclusive choices.
If our culture embraces biblical figures but holds them apart in unbiblical ways, then Watkin argues that the critical role that revisiting scriptural figures plays is to “diagonalize” between these bifurcated extremes to bring proper integration to them. Thus, God is understood to be “abounding in love and faithfulness” to his law, which figures for us all throughout his covenant relationship with his people how to embody both in our relationships and social order. Mapping figures and proposing a subversive diagonalization between them to bring culture into line with a thickly Christian social theory becomes the unifying theme of Watkin’s work.
Some Incomplete Applications
Certainly, some of his explorations of the way Christianity diagonalizes between two polarities appear underdeveloped. Two examples can illustrate this. First, his utilization of the unity and diversity of persons in the doctrine of the Trinity for diagonalizing the dyads of traditional communitarianism and modern individualism needs a more robust articulation of how the trinitarian persons and relations correlate to human relationships and identity.
Second, his discussion of the notion of the superabundance of what we need in Christ, equality between persons, and the limits of the market economies, gives a preliminary critique of capitalism. However, this thought needs to be built out more fully with a proposal for how to actually structure the exchange of resources in a reimagined Christian social theory he seems to be after.
How Not to Be Modern
Despite some underdevelopment of the particulars of his cultural vision, the great strength of his work remains intact. That is, Watkin models a critical methodology that properly deconstructs the sepsis of modernity in our minds and hearts. He helps his readers discover that many of the cultural figures they take for granted as simply the way things are, or even that they are Christian ways of living, are actually counterfeit or incomplete figures.
Realizing this can be very helpful for many contemporary Christians who struggle with the way church leaders fight the culture wars or baptize modern conservative or progressive ideologies under the guise of faith. This book helps show us how to map what is modern and what is truly Christian in our culture. What Watkin is after is to teach us how not to be modern, to see our blind spots, and how to inhabit the tension between our culture’s excesses as we sojourn towards our true home, the coming city of God.
The one glaring issue with the book, however, is Watkin’s desire to offer a truly biblical critical theory. While he accomplishes this several times over, the self-described act of giving a critical social theory needs more context. In a formal sense, a critical social theory is one which investigates with suspicion the existing social figures and norms, and then works to realign society and culture in the image of the theory which drives the critique. This is how critical theory is understood in the various subdisciplines of sociology and law in which it is employed.
In this book, Watkin provides a compelling case for how the Bible critiques our age and maps for us how to deconstruct modernity’s deficiencies. Thus, he stays true to the technical meaning of “critical theory.” But, for better or worse, this term as employed in our contemporary public discourse, in all the polemics and hot takes, has taken on a life of its own. It has come to be understood as synonymous with so-called “woke” ideology. He would have been well-served to have a chapter at the outset of the book which clarifies the history of critical theory and how Christians can diagonalize between its figures of prophetic cultural critique and positive labor shaping society into something new.
If readers move beyond the book’s title, and if they go elsewhere in search of a deeper context for understanding what Watkin is doing with the figure of “critical theory,” then they will find perhaps the most prescient mapping of how scripture intersects the myriad complexities of modern life available today. But even more, they will find a sober-minded but charitable and compelling guide for how to think critically about Christ, culture, and faithful living in God’s creation.
Dennis Greeson serves as Dean of the BibleMesh Institute, where he teaches systematic and historical theology. He earned a B.A. from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, and an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests include public theology, the church’s cultural callings, the doctrine of divine providence, and the philosophy of history, especially in the thought of Abraham Kuyper. He has published articles and book chapters on Dutch Neo-Calvinism and is co-authoring a book on the theology of culture. He lives with his wife and three children in Youngsville, NC.
Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2022. 648 pages. $39.99. Reviewed by Dennis Greeson.