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.