I’m kicking off a new series for FiSch today – we hope it will both alert you to another initiative in the field of Christian academic engagement, and provide us and you with food for thought as we engage with the resources that this initiative, IFES Europe’s Good News for the University, is offering.

Good News for the University is the recently established Postgraduate Initiative of IFES Europe, and currently its central offering is a network for postgraduate students interested in the integration of Christian faith and academic study – ‘to create a space for Christians in academia to grow in their understanding of the gospel and how it relates to all of life’. Regular emails are sent out during UK termtime (you can sign up here), with a theme for each term, signposting a relevant resource to read or watch and questions either to consider for yourself, or discuss with others. There are also opportunities to connect on a more local level via conferences and other initiatives such as UCCF Research’s Fellows programme or Gospel and Academia Project.

At FiSch, part of what we want to do is engage and amplify initiatives with similar commitments to Christian presence and engagement in academic spheres. So we plan to follow along with the Network emails on a semi-regular basis and offer our reflections on the readings and questions. If you’re also part of the network, please do connect with us in the comments or by email – it would be great to have a range of voices in the series.

Meeting critical theory through Scripture

The current focus of the network is on the themes of Christopher Watkin’s recent and groundbreaking book Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Life and Culture. I’m excited to dig into this book, which flows out of Watkin’s professional immersion in the high texts of twentieth-century critical theory – his field is French studies. This radically deconstructive discourse, or set of discourses, first re-shaped the literary academy and from there most of the modern humanities. As a literary scholar myself, I have been engaging with the ideas of critical theory on some level throughout my academic training: indeed it would be difficult to avoid them!

So when Watkin concluded his preface with the hope that his book, written out of his desire for a thoroughly Biblical approach to this key dimension of modern thought, ‘may turn out to be the book you have long wanted to read’, I was nodding my head. Critical theory in its many forms is now foundational to many humanities disciplines. I can’t help but agree that we are long overdue a full, nuanced, and careful attempt to understand exactly how it relates to Christian thinking (and Christian living) in the academy.

If this all sounds too heady for you, I encourage you to read another of the resources highlighted the Good News for the University network email – Watkin’s review of Augustine’s City of God lays out some of the key ideas of his introduction and should encourage you to dive deeper into his ideas!

Dismantling dichotomies through diagonalization

One of the prompts suggested in the Network email for consideration and discussion of Watkin’s introduction is this:

Chris describes 1 Corinthians 1 as the ‘paradigmatic example’ of how the Bible diagonalises dichotomies. Spend some time reflecting on this passage. What do you make of diagonalisation, and would you agree that this is a paradigmatic example? What implications does 1 Corinthians 1 have for your academic work, do you think?

Diagonalization is a key term proposed by Watkin in Biblical Critical Theory, describing the process of how the overarching figures of the Bible – its big narrative, its holistic representation of reality – can be brought to bear on the guiding dichotomies of a culture or scholarly field, ‘cutting across and rearranging’ them. He lays out how a rich complex of interrelated truths found in Scripture tends to be ‘splintered’ by a governing cultural dichotomy – between God’s love and God’s justice is his initial example, or (in the example of 1 Corinthians 1) between power and wisdom, leading us either to keep the two artificially separate and demand a choice of either one, or to reach for an unsatisfying compromise between them. A diagonalising approach seeks to ‘present a biblical picture in which the aspirations of both options are fulfilled, but not in a way that the proponents of those options would see coming’ – a surprise or a subversion.

I’m intrigued by this concept although I have yet to stress-test it on my own research! I deeply appreciate Watkin’s desire to rethink the ‘engagement’ model with which we often conceptualise faith and scholarship, which tends to keep them separated and to visualise contact between them as effortful and artificial. If we instead pay attention to the many divisions and dichotomies in our thinking and culture, and the radical and surprising wholeness which a thorough understanding of the Biblical ‘world’ can offer, then we may find we have a more natural integration of our commitments in faith and in scholarship.

One way I think that literary scholarship might benefit from this approach is with regard to how we conceptualise the relationship of reader to text – are we fully separate, unaffected observers to what we read, or are we deterministically constructed in certain ways by what we read? In my own work, the figure of encounter has helped me navigate a ‘third way’ (also a term Watkin uses) which affirms both our complex imbrication with the text and its producers, and how in that encounter we nonetheless retain individuality and responsibility enough to enable new, subversive, or surprising responses to it.

What are your responses to these ideas? Do any of your approaches to your research resonate with Watkin’s diagonalising method?

📢📢 A reading and discussion group on Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory is in the works for the summer, co-hosted by FiSch and the Kirby Laing Centre through KLC’s Scripture and University Seminar. Stay tuned for more details if you’re interested!

Alicia Smith
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Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

1 Comment

Bruce Wearne · February 25, 2023 at 10:57 pm

Thanks Alicia: My question would be this: is there a “dichotomy” presupposed in the concept of diagonalization in Christopher’s work and Derrida’s concept of “différance” which then is overcome by the diagonalizing concept itself? From what I understand of the “high texts of twentieth-century critical theory” – I’m recalling my “immersion” with the published translations of Foucault’s lecture of 1970 “L’ordre du discours” – this is the kind of question that would arise naturally (!!) from such immersed post-modernist scholars who, coming across “Biblical Critical Theory”, would have their own interpretation of what is at work here: is that then “critical bible theory”? So what happens when “diagonalization” a la Christopher is set over against “différance” a la Derrida? I note your comment: “A diagonalising approach seeks to ‘present a biblical picture in which the aspirations of both options are fulfilled, but not in a way that the proponents of those options would see coming’ – a surprise or a subversion.” What surprises or subversions arise?

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