How does the Bible guide us in applying its truths to our culture? Of course the Bible applies to our individual lives, but the Bible is also a rich resource for critique of any culture. Join Scott and Sean with their guest, British philosopher Chris Watkin for a fascinating journey through the major theological emphases in Scripture and how they apply to various aspects of contemporary culture. This is theology articulated like you’ve never heard it before!

Christopher Watkin is Associate Professor of French Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. He describes his work as “I make sense of how people make sense of the world.” He is author of several books, including, From Plato to Postmodernism: The Story of Western Culture through Philosophy, Literature and Art, and Thinking Through Creation: Genesis 1-2 as Tools of Cultural Critique.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: What is the significance of our theology and the biblical narrative to the critique of culture and the critique of society and its systems that the Bible calls us to? For example, what does the doctrine of sin have to say about our culture? What's the connection between the idea of original sin and things like democracy? Where do you see the idea in the understanding of Marx and Freud and Nietzsche? How does it critique the notion of human autonomy that's so widespread today? What about the Exodus? What's the political implication of the Exodus since it's been widely used in that regard? What about the incarnation? What's the cultural and societal significance of the incarnation, the life and ministry of Jesus, the last days? I mean, if this sounds like we're going to be on a very broad swath of theology, in part, you're right, but we're going to dig deeply into a handful of areas with our guest Professor Chris Watkin, who has authored a terrific new book entitled “Biblical Critical Theory”.

Now, this is part two of what we started last time in the discussion of this very insightful work giving us the societal “so what?” about the biblical narrative. So Chris, thanks for joining us again. Delighted to have you with us.

Chris Watkin: Lovely to be with you again, Scott and Sean.

Scott Rae: Let's start with the doctrine of sin. And just for example, what's the connection between the idea of original sin and a societal system like democracy?

Chris Watkin: I would make the argument in relation to the universality of sin. So I don't think you need a full-blown doctrine of original sin with all its sort of bells and whistles in order to make this argument. I think what you need is Romans 3 verse 10: there's no one righteous. And what that gives you is a fundamental equality of all people. No matter how rich you are, no matter what ethnicity you are, no matter how old or young you are, whether you're a king or a pop, you are in need of God's grace. There are no exceptions to human simpleness. And I think that provides a very robust basis for an understanding of human equality, that it can be surprisingly hard to get if you don't have that biblical frame.

Because in what way are we, in fact, equal, concretely, without the Bible? We're different heights and weights, we've got different strengths, some of us are more intelligent than others, some are better with our hands. We're different in all sorts of ways. Some of us have privileges in life, others don't. It's really hard to find a robust basis for equality, but I think sinfulness, the universality of sinfulness provides one. And so he's just brilliant when people like Dante, in Council of 19 of his Inferno, he puts some popes in hell. And that's sort of satirical and it's funny, but it's also really profound because he's saying, “You can be the Pope and in need of forgiveness by God”. Everyone is equal. Everyone comes to God on the same basis, requiring his grace. And so that's a very strong basis for equality within the Christian tradition.

But it also leads, I think, to a basis for democracy. And this is really C.S. Lewis' argument. He's got this really thought-provoking passage where he says something like, "I'm a Democrat," says Lewis, “because I believe in the fall of man." And you think, "Okay, well, that sounds intriguing." And he says, most philosophers actually are Democrats because they think that human beings are really, really good and we can rule ourselves and we all should get a say in how things go. But he says, “I'm a Democrat for the opposite reason, because I don't trust any sinful human being to rule us alone." He says, "I want to spread the power around because none of us has shoulders broad enough or virtue strong enough to take the weight of ruling a society by ourselves”. And so I think sin also provides a very powerful argument for democracy as well. And so those are two ways that I think sin is not the only biblical doctrine, but it's certainly one of the biblical doctrines that helps ground a view of human beings as equal and helps ground the idea of a separation of powers or sharing power around in the society rather than gathering it together in any one person or any one small group.

Sean McDowell: Chris, just for clarification, when Lewis says, "I am a Democrat," I'm guessing he meant something very different than the modern political system, but more a supporter of democracy. Is that fair?

Chris Watkin: That was a good catch. Yes, Democrat with a small “D”, someone who supports the democratic system rather than someone who is affiliated with the Democratic Party. That is absolutely right.

Sean McDowell: All right, good. I anticipated some emails Scott and I are going to get on that one.

Scott Rae: Yeah.

Sean McDowell: So I just wanted to jump in there. All right. So let's keep moving on. This is really helpful to make the connection between democracy and between sin. Where do we see the idea of original sin or like a substitute for original sin in thinkers like Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche?

Chris Watkin: Yeah, thank you. I think if we take that, that verse from Romans 1 of Paul's, where he says that the people suppress the truth in wickedness because what's to be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. That structure of there being a truth about the world and about ourselves that deep down we really know, but that we smother and push out of the way, that structure of thinking is all over modern critical thought. So Marx has his version of it in what he calls false consciousness. So his idea is that living in modern society, we kid ourselves that everything's really fine. Anyone can rise up in society if they want. Anyone can become rich. It's all peaceful and there's no sort of nothing structurally wrong with society. Whereas he would say that suppresses the truth of the radical inequalities and the way that society is very mean towards some people are kind to others and so forth. And so he would use that same structure.There's an ugly reality that we're trying to suppress.

Nietzsche does the same thing and he actually directs it at Christians. He says that Christians are suppressing the truth that what they call love and virtue is really just weakness. So Nietzsche has this warrior ethic. You've got to be strong, you've got to assert yourself, use power. And he says that those who can't do that, or those who are really weak, try and pretend that being weak is actually a virtue. He calls it a slave morality, and he talks about them as sheep in some of his writing. And so he would say Christians are suppressing the truth, the brute power of society and pretending that being weak is actually a virtue.

And Freud also has his version of this suppressing the truth idea, in that the central notion of his called repression: that there are certain traumatic events that happen to us probably in our youth, in our childhood, that we can't confront directly, that are suppressed out of our conscious mind, but that nevertheless govern and shape who we are and manifest themselves in all sorts of tangential ways. And so I was really struck by time and time again, in different modern critical theories, this idea of suppressing the truth, of there being a truth that we can't face up to, that we don't want to face up to, is there again and again and again. In the book I just try and tease out how that relates to the idea of suppressing the truth in wickedness from Romans 1, and what we can make of that from a biblical point of view.

Scott Rae: So, Chris, one more question about original sin, and then we'll leave this depressing subject. But the notion of individual autonomy is so widespread today. It's all, I mean, there's almost no other alternative to it that's culturally even considered. But how does the idea of original sin critique that very popular notion of individual autonomy?

Chris Watkin: I think you're right. It's a given today, isn't it, that we're autonomous. And I think it actually ties into the previous question that sometimes the autonomy functions as an illusion that keeps from our minds a truth about ourselves and our society that is much less palatable. I think Genesis 3 is where a lot of work is done on this biblically. And if you just look at the way that Satan approaches Eve and Adam, it's very clever. So he's essentially framing what's going on to them as he wants to liberate them. He wants to make them everything that they can be. You won't surely die, all this sort of patriarchal nonsense about this tree being dangerous for you. God just wants to keep you small and infantile. And so he sells, very convincingly, he sells Eve and Adam this lie.

And philosophically speaking, it's in the tradition of what's called the noble line, which is where a group that wants power over another group tells that group something that sounds quite plausible and nice to them, but actually gets them to do the will of the one in power. It's a little bit like this idea, you know, it is sweet and proper to die for your country, says the king. Oh, and by the way, to uphold my regime while you're at it with your line. It serves the purposes of those in power. And so Satan is, in a sense, he's whispering a false dream into Eve's ear, this dream of autonomy. And then he says to Eve, go follow your dreams. And the irony of it is that it wasn't her dream. She's been conditioned to want that by

Satan. And I think that pattern of being told a noble lie about our autonomy and then sort of being let go to follow that noble light is really pervasive in modern society as well.

I did a little bit of research a while ago on the little phrase, "Go your own way." And it just became hilarious in the end. The number of advertising campaigns that have used the hook, "Go your own way," there's about eight different car companies who essentially say, "Go your own way and buy our car." (laughing) We laugh, but it works.

Sean McDowell: Right, right. Scott Rae: It does work.

Chris Watkin: Essentially, the way that you assert your autonomy is by purchasing these products. And when you put it like that, of course we all laugh, and of course we all say, "That's ridiculous." But I challenge anyone listening to this, and I'm included in this, to say I've never fallen for anything like that. I don't construct my individual identity through identifying with a series of symbols, some of which are purchased. So the argument that I try and make in the book is that there's a very poignant sense and a very deep sense in which we are being sold our autonomy today, that it's being constructed as a product that we have to purchase. And at that point, it no longer becomes creative. It's no longer something that we've decided. And I try and make the distinction between autonomy and duty.

So it is in a pre-World War I society, where it was sort of the done thing to do your duty. If someone came along to you and said, "I want to do my duty," I think today we tend to say, well, yeah, of course you do. You've been conditioned by your society to want that. That’s what everybody wanted when you were living. And if that's true for the person who in a society where they got the message time and time again in many different ways each day, do your duty, do your duty. If it's true that we say, "Yeah, well, you want to do your duty because you've been told to," then is it not also true in our society today, where we're being fed the message in lots of subtle ways, every single day of our lives, go your own way, be your own person, do your own thing. If someone says, "Hey, I want to be my own person and do my own thing," are they not equally conditioned as the person who wants to do their duty in a society full of people telling them to do their duty? So the very idea of autonomy has been commoditized and sold to us to the extent that now when we say, "I want to be my own person, I want to go my own way," it's like, well, yeah, that's what society is telling you to do.

Scott Rae: Interesting.

Sean McDowell: I hope our listeners are picking up on some of the unique critique that you're bringing because your book is full of it, but it reminds me of a satirical piece I saw recently about this teenage girl who came out with a new sexual identity in rebellion to express her autonomy. And then it said, "Like everybody else in her generation does too." And I thought, you know what? You can't have it both ways. Well, we've talked about creation. We've talked about the fall. One of the next big things you cover again in your book, “Biblical Critical Theory” is the Exodus. Now, it's obviously central to the biblical story, but it's been used as a paradigm for abolitionism, civil rights legislation, and liberation theology. What do you think is the proper political impact of the Exodus?

Chris Watkin: I think that in order to understand the function of the Exodus narrative biblically, it should be no surprise, that it needs to be put in its biblical context. So it's part of a wider story. It's this creation, fall, redemption, consummation, rhythm of the Bible. And obviously, it comes in that redemption portion. It's the redemption of the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. And I think when it's used well, it's used within that rhythm. So it's not the only game in town, but it's part of a subtler, more complex story where redemption is contextualized by creation of fallen and consummation. I think when it's over-frated with importance, when it's taken out of biblical context and made the only move that we make, if you like. It sort of becomes like that adage about the person with a hammer for whom everything is a nail. It's the person with a liberation narrative for whom everything must necessarily be an oppression because the only move you can make is one of liberation from oppression. This is the point that Jean-Francois Lyotard is making in the postmodern condition and elsewhere where he says that the modern mind has become captivated by this idea of an emancipation narrative. The way that we understand ourselves today, the identity that we give ourselves is as people who are being progressively emancipated from a whole series of oppressions. And that really is the primary and in some ways the only game in town. So if we stop feeding that narrative, if we stop, as it were, finding more oppressions to be liberated from, then we lose our very sense of ourselves and our very sense that we're making progress. I think that sort of hypertrophied sense of the Exodus narrative feeding an idea of liberation that is, in a sense, like a wheel spinning in the air, not making contact with anything else is where it gets problematic. But where it can really do fundamental load-bearing work in social theory is when it is contextualized in this broader sense of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.

Scott Rae: I think that's helpful to set that in that broader context. And I think that's a nice segue into our next part of this, because I want to move from creation and the fall into the element of redemption when we come to the incarnation and the life of Jesus. So you make, I think, an important point about the incarnation of Jesus being about a specific bodily person that was a real historical event, not a myth, not a story, but a real historical event about a particular bodily person. What's the impact of the incarnation being that type of thing that you describe it as?

Chris Watkin:I think it's a coin of face from Paul, you know, much in every way. The modern world in particular, and we started sort of talking about, you know, post-Descartes, that sense of modernity, really doesn't like the sort of truth that Jesus brings with the incarnation. We like, we moderns, like our truths to be abstract and impersonal and repeatable, universal. And then Jesus comes on. And God doesn't sort of give us a universal set of abstract rules, as I think modernity would have rather liked him to do and rather sometimes pretends that he has. A person who says very inconveniently, very scandalously for the modern mind, "I am the truth." How ridiculous for the modern mind for someone to say that. There are four ways, I think, in which the incarnation really ruffles the feathers of the modern world and puts its nose out of joint. The first one is that it gives great dignity to history. We quite like our truths to be unchanging and eternal. We sort of get this from Plato and the idea that the only reality worthy of the name is an unchanging eternal one. And lo and behold, the logos becomes Sarks, the Word becomes flesh, and it is the normal Greek word for flesh. It can be translated as meat in some circumstances. Jesus becomes proper flesh, fleshy flesh. And that's just not how we like to think of ultimate reality in the West. That's a scandal for us. And it's also a scandal, I think, for us.

And there's a passage actually in the “God Delusion” where Richard Dawkins makes this very point that the Logos becoming one particular first century Palestinian Jewish carpenter is just so parochial for the modern mind. You know, we want our truths to be free of any particularity, but here we are, that one particular man, not sort of an everyman or not sort of a universal human, but this one, you know, Mary's son says, "I am the truth." And there's a scandal of particularity in the incarnation for the modern mind. And the fourth and final scandal, as if we hadn't scandalized our modern friends enough at this point, is a scandal of the personal. The Logos should not reveal itself as some sort of impersonal force, obviously, who is a principle, or even an energy. But as a person, Jesus, he's got a name. He could have shaken his hand. You could have sat down for a meal with him. The idea that truth in the full-bodied, three times distilled, pure sense of that term, truth itself is personal. I think that does not compute to the modern mind. So in all these different ways, the incarnation just messes with our categories and therefore gives Christians such a rich and fertile series of jumping off points for engaging with modernity and for coming modern ideas from left field and bringing something genuinely new to the table.

There's a lot of talking in academia these days, and rightly so, I think, about non-Western forms of knowledge, indigenous forms of knowledge. People are seeking to recover these different ways of engaging with the world that are not your Cartesian abstract rationalism. I think as Christians, one of the ways that we can contribute to those debates is to say nobody in the modern world sees the incarnation coming. This is a category confounding, very non-modern, staunchly non-modern way of viewing the world. It's a way of understanding truth that I think we need to recover and Christians need to lean into. Part of it is disengaging ourselves from the ways in which we breathe modern air. We assume things that Descartes assumed and we assume that that's how truth has always been. I think the more we immerse ourselves in these biblical doctrines like the incarnation and try and trace out what on earth Jesus means when he says, "I am the truth." The more we'll be able, meaningfully and constructively, to critique the modern world in which we live, as all these other indigenous knowledges are also seeking to do.

Sean McDowell: Chris, there's so many other areas we won’t have time to get to, like what the prophets teach and how that shapes our cultural engagement. But at the pinnacle of the book, and of course history, it's just the life and ministry of Jesus. And you could say it's shaped by what is called the great reversal. What do you mean by the great reversal of the cross? And what are its social implications?

Chris Watkin: Thank you so much, Sean. This is just one of those wonderful, wonderful biblical truths that is such a tonic, I think, in the world in which we live. And it's the beautiful reality that time and time again, God chooses intentionally, goes out of his way to choose the least of these to receive honor and to bear his name and to do his will. So, you know, he doesn't choose Esau, the first born. He chooses Jacob, overturning all the conventions of society at the time. He doesn't choose Jesse's big strapping, you know, Marshall sons. He chooses little smelly shepherd David to be his great king. You know, it's not Saul, the great giant, you know, you can imagine him with bulking huge muscles. He's not him who's God's king. It's a very different idea of kingship. And so time and time and time and time and time and time again in the Bible, God is overturning our expectations about what to value and what to seek in the world. We seek strength and power and wealth and all those sorts of things. And God says again and again, "Nope, no, no, that's not what I'm going to do. I'm going to do something different." And it's this reversal of these series of expectations that we've got about society. Mary is another wonderful example of that. She's not a king's daughter. She's a woman in society at the time, but very little account indeed. We think she may have been quite young when she was visited by the angel, yet in the Magnificat, don't we see this amazing geopolitical, sociologically aware, theologically rich treatise of world historical proportions, you know, coming out of the mouth of this peasant girl? And it's just so God, so typically God to do that.

And of course the prime example, the ultimate example to end all examples is the Lord Jesus Christ himself, you know, Galilean carpenter.

I like to say when I'm back in the UK that it's as if Jesus came out of Barnsley. It's like, Barnsley, like where's that? Nobody even knows where it is, never mind. It is not London. And it's like God is systematically saying, I am not gonna go to the [inaudible] and the boardrooms. I'm not gonna go to the universities, which is probably serving news for people like us, isn't it? I'm not gonna choose the people you think I'm gonna choose. And it's the carpenter who saves the world, the carpenter who is the Logos made flesh. And there's just something so powerfully, but also delicately subversive in that. Because we still live in a society that values power and money, don't we? You know, we judge people by how much they've got and all their connections and, you know, all of that sort of stuff. And God is just constantly tapping us on the shoulder in the Bible saying, "Don't do that. Don't look at the outward appearance. Go after the least of these things. The last will be first and the first will be last. Don't be fooled by the society around you.” And in terms of cultural critique, I mean, you could write books and books and books, I'm sure, on that motif itself and the implications that it has for the way that Christians engage with society and the way that we understand our world today.

Scott Rae: Wow, Chris, I wish we had several more hours with you. Sean McDowell: Agreed.

Scott Rae: This has been just incredibly rich. And again, for our listeners, honestly, we have just scratched the surface of this. And I want to commend your book, Chris, "Biblical Critical Theory," subtitled, "How the Bible's Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture." And you have really delivered a great work that's going to be a contribution to the church and to the kingdom, I think, for many, many years to come. This has been such a good time to be with you. Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us, to explain this, and for, I think, for those of our listeners who are in church leadership or in theological education, I think this book models beautifully how we ought to be teaching theology today. It's focusing on the, not only getting the doctrine clear, but focusing on the so what, not only for our individual spiritual lives, but also for the broader culture in which we find ourselves called to love our neighbors. So, Chris, thanks so much for being with us. We trust that the book's going to get a very wide reading, and we commend it to our listeners.

Chris Watkin: Scott and Sean, thank you so much for your wonderful questions. I've just been struck again in our time together today by just what a remarkable, utterly remarkable book the Bible is, and what a joy it's been to write about it. So, thank you for giving me the excuse to remember that once more.

Scott Rae: Our pleasure. It's been great to have you with us. This has been an episode of the podcast, “Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture.” The “Think Biblically” podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including the new fully online bachelor's degree in Bible theology and apologetics. Visit in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with our friend Chris Watkin, give us a rating on your podcast app and please share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.