On Culture, Caesar, and Biblical Critical Theory
There is plenty of incisive commentary in the new volume by Watkin:
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.
He cites Augustine and Bonhoeffer to reinforce the point that all that we are, all that we have, and all that we do, is ultimately God’s, and should be viewed in that light. Whether it is paying taxes or raising a family or leading a church service, it is all to be an act of worship to God.
As Watkin states: “[E]very good gift and providence that we enjoy from God – life, health, relationships, career, holidays, gadgets, taxes, you name it – should be used as kindling on the roaring fire of our love for God; it should be loved for God’s sake and not for its own.”
And this is what separates the Christian from the non-Christian: “The unbeliever pays his taxes, and that’s it. The Christian still pays her taxes, but that’s not it; the gesture is now part of a bigger story, a note in a richer melody that transcends and transfigures the single act. Paying taxes to Caesar becomes a small part of giving myself to God.”
Loving God includes loving the world he made for us and the gifts he has given us. Sure, in a fallen world all this is distorted and skewed. If you love the world and things in it for themselves, then yes, we can commit spiritual adultery. But not if we love them because we first love God and want him to be Lord of all.
One implication of all this is the truth that my ultimate commitment must be to God alone, and not to anything else. Only God is absolute. The state is not, so Caesar is under God’s authority just as we are. Only God owns us – not the state. Only God can demand of us total allegiance.
A further implication is that the old sacred/secular dichotomy vanishes in this regard. Working 9 to 5 jobs and paying taxes are not just secular things, while pastoring a church is a spiritual thing: “It is not that we labor in the home or work for our employer, and then we give our Sundays to God. Our work should be part of our offering to God, part of our full-time 24-7 ministry, and part of our obedience to God’s commands.”
Watkin goes on to elaborate upon a point Bonhoeffer had made about the ultimate and the penultimate: “The ultimate is the justification of the sinner by grace alone. The penultimate is all that precedes the ultimate: all that pertains to life in this world such as food, clothing, shelter, and work.”
Thinking this way helps us avoid the errors of radicalism and compromise. While radicalism absolutizes the end, compromise absolutizes what exists. He lays this out as follows:
Radicalism hates time. Compromise hates eternity.
Radicalism hates patience. Compromise hates decision.
Radicalism hates wisdom. Compromise hates simplicity.
Radicalism hates measure. Compromise hates the immeasurable.
Radicalism hates the real. Compromise hates the word.
What radicalism and compromise share is that they are equally opposed to Christ.
He notes how various modern thinkers look at all this, and then offers “a more adequate account of the relationship between this world and the next.” He continues: “First, my giving to Caesar is transfigured by my giving to God because all my earthly offering is gathered up as part of my offering of myself to God. But second, my giving to Caesar is also conditioned by my giving to God because offering myself to God sets limits on what I can allow Caesar to demand of me.”
Watkin teases this out further in how the Christian should view and relate to culture. We are neither to reject everything nor blindly embrace everything. Instead:
Christians find their measure of good and evil outside the created order, in God’s character and word (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19), in a way that is not open for negotiation… Locating an ultimate measure of what is good and evil outside creation, Christians find that nothing and no one in this world is completely and purely good. No cultural artifact, novel or play, building or song, person or movement, ideology or church, is utterly good: everything is a mixture of creation and fall, of beauty and ugliness.
The implications of this for cultural criticism are huge. It means that a biblical attitude to cultural artifacts can neither be one of utter affirmation or of unlimited condemnation. Wherever Christians look in the cultural and intellectual world, we are sure to find evil and rebellion against God. But by the same token, nothing in culture is so full of sin, falsehood, and ugliness that it can fully erase the goodness of the original creation.
He rounds this off by presenting a way in which we can live this out as we interact with culture and interact with our non-Christian neighbours. He calls this a “hermeneutic of charity” and explains how this will look in practice. And in part, this “is not a curate’s egg, an exercise in finding and affirming the good, however slight and well-hidden it may be. We are not to get to the end of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and praise its vivid metaphors. To assume that love always affirms is a modern heresy of charity, not the biblical pattern.”
This is just one short chapter of a quite important and thoughtfully-argued volume. As mentioned, I hope to do more articles on this book in the days ahead. And bear in mind that one need not agree with everything found in it to still appreciate the fact that there is very much of value here. So stay tuned.
4 Replies to “On Culture, Caesar, and Biblical Critical Theory”
The Biblical reference to ‘Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God’ is far reaching in that when we break every item down to its last denominator then none of us can not give to God all things as all things -seen and unseen belong to God as God created all things and all things are God.
When each of us claim that the law this and the law that, the question should be asked – which law, God’s law of State law?
In this, each of us hangs in the balance as Christians are compelled by the Christ’s edict to obey those who govern us and how we apply that edict to all things belong to God.
When we claim ownership of anything such as ‘my body my choice’ we give to Caesar that which belongs to God.
We pay the taxes not to Caesar but to pay for the services we obtain from the State as Caesar does not claim ownership of the taxes and the State represents the services to the community. In this, even so Caesar’s image appears (Queen, King, President or famous citizen) on the coin it does not mean that any of these images receive the tax and nor did Caesar as the coin collected went into the consolidated fund/revenue to pay the legions and those employed by the State.
In my opinion, Jesus was well aware of this and gave his all consuming answer that each of us must decide with each decision of who own what. Those who beckon to Caesar may be told to go to Caesar to open the seed of life.
To me the various “critical theories” supposed analysis of power is simply a guise exploiting the prophesied unwillingness of people to subject themselves to authority, even the authority of the Truth. Whereas truth was in the past a defence against slander and libel charges, the modern approach wants to force people to lie and even attempts to use the law to do this. No prizes for guessing where that is coming from. So we now even have laws which are based on lies and laws attempting to force people to lie, making it even harder for people to respect authority.
This, it appears will be the trick going forward. As Christopher Watkins has pointed out, we need to render to Caesar what is his and what is God’s to Him. Where this leaves us with library transgender story hour, protection for what children are taught in schools and laws against conversion etc. is the really big question. People are God’s. We can’t give them over to the state to clearly ruin. The image on the coin may have been Caesar’s but people are made in the image of God.
Have you read Naomi Wolff’s new essay, Bill? Definately worth a look
Thanks Damien. Yes it is a great article and I still might yet write it up.