Watkin reminds us that the biblical story, or metanarrative, is also a far ranging ideological assessment of culture. It too offers a type of critical theory: it also tests and evaluates all things, but in the light of God and his Word. And the aim is not revolution but redemption.
The new book by a Monash University philosophy professor and Christian thinker is receiving a lot of interest, attention and discussion. Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture by Christopher Watkin (Zondervan, 2022) is a large and important volume – so much so that simply writing a short review of it will not do it justice.
So I will instead just pen some pieces looking at aspects of the volume, highlighting some key chapters. Those who are somewhat familiar with his earlier titles will know that Watkin is a capable Christian philosopher who has written helpful assessments of postmodern heavyweights such as Foucault and Derrida.
He has long been interested in offering Christian analysis of contemporary thought, and that has culminated in this 600-page attempt at lining up the biblical storyline with it. A VERY brief and sketchy overview of his current volume would go something like this:
The secular left is heavily into critical theory, which is about criticising and deconstructing all aspect of life: culture, politics, history and so on, to determine the inherent power relations going on. The aim is not just to identify so-called oppressive power structures and try to make things better. The aim is to tear down society altogether and rebuild it according to the latest version of utopian revolutionary thinking.
Watkin reminds us that the biblical story, or metanarrative, is also a far ranging ideological assessment of culture. It too offers a type of critical theory: it also tests and evaluates all things, but in the light of God and his Word. And the aim is not revolution but redemption. It seeks to restore fallen individuals, and where possible, renew a fallen culture – although that only fully occurs with the new heaven and the new earth.
Thus he applies the biblical storyline to the cultural and social and intellectual issues of the day. The chapter I want to examine here (Ch. 23), looks at “The Last Days and Giving to Caesar What Is Caesar’s”. He looks at how we are to react to culture and society around us: do we embrace it fully or reject it altogether?
To help answer this question he appeals to the famous gospel story of paying taxes to Caesar (Luke 20:21-26). His critics of course were trying to trap Jesus: if he said yes to paying these taxes he could be accused of being “an assimilationist who has sold out the gospel,” and if he said no, they could accuse him of treason and rebellion against the state. The response of Jesus was this:
[Y]ou give the object to the one whose image it bears. And here is the genius of the principle: giving Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s is not like sorting a load of washing into skirts and blouses, with each item neatly folded away either in the “Caesar drawer” or the “God drawer.” There is no neat separation of the two… because the coin is an image of an image. The coin is in the image of Caesar, so it should be given to Caesar, and both the one who gives and Caesar himself are in the image of God, so they and everything that is theirs should be devoted to God.
In other words, giving to Caesar is part of giving to God. Paying taxes is a gift (so to speak) to Caesar, but it is also at the same time – and in a more fundamental way – a gift to God. Paying taxes is part of my Christian duty (Rom 13:6-7). In doing so, I offer service to God. I am to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but I am to do so recognizing that everything – including Caesar and my very self – is first of all and ultimately God’s. The second gesture, giving to God what is God’s, gathers up the first giving in its own transcendent offering.