Skip to main content

The Devil Reads Derrida

James K. A. Smith
Published by Eerdman’s Publishing Group in 2009

The title of James K. A. Smith’s book, The Devil Reads Derrida, might prove misleading to those (non-Derrideans) who believe that a text should possess a coherent meaning and that this meaning be evinced in the title. For in fact, the most important word of the title isn either “Derrida” nor “Devil,” but the innocuous “Reads.” Smith’s book is all about reading: reading popular culture, reading the church, reading the academy, and reading Smith. The essays demonstrate a multifaceted reading of diverse types of discourse, none of which can be described adequately by what we refer to commonly as a “text.” Smith’s passion for pushing the borders of our usual practice of reading by envisioning a variety of “texts” becomes evident in his recurrent question (raised both implicitly and explicitly): “is there only one way to. . .?” (60, 78, 79). In other words, while his book is about neither Derrida nor the Devil, it is a witty provocation to the plethora of thoughtless “readings” so prevalent in Christian culture.

Yet reading through the book’s 29 previously published (and extremely brief) essays and its (slightly more lengthy) introduction rendered my initial confusion regarding the title as perhaps founded on a more substantial concern: if this book was for neither Derrideans nor Devil worshippers, then who is the intended readership? In his introduction, “The Church, Christian Scholars, and Little Miss Sunshine,” Smith attempts to answer this question by explaining his own vocational shift from academic philosopher to “public” scholar. This collection of “occasional” (xi) writings is an exercise by the latter, and he tells us: “[T]hese pieces reflect my settled conviction that Christian scholars have a responsibility to function as public intellectuals for the church as ‘public’” (xi). So the “pieces” assembled here were written originally for a general Christian audience, not Christian “guild” members (that is, scholars). But two issues gave me reason to question whether the book as a whole is suitable for the former: 1) his meta-reflections on his vocation offered in his introduction, and 2) the vagueness concerning just to whom the church-as-public refers.

Concerning the first point, Smith aims in the introduction not only to etch out his own conviction about how philosophy should be put in “service to the church”—including “those who might never darken the door of the academy” (xii)—but also to invite other scholars to engage the “diaconal” role of philosophy (xi). Given his interest in encouraging scholars to follow his example, I began to wonder whether the subsequent essays should be read more as practical examples of how scholars should engage the church—for example, a sort of How-To-Write-For-The-Masses For (Scholar-) Dummies?

Let us assume for a moment this is a plausible way to approach Smith’s book and ask about the efficacy of such a strategy. Certainly Smith’s introduction presents a topic more academics need to wrestle with: is there any good reason to strive to be a “public” intellectual? I appreciated his insights about the Christian academic elite’s insidious smugness that we have escaped the dingy realms of mass Christianity. Smith is candid and gracious in his call for patience and long suffering in approaching popular religion and deserves kudos for helping scholars “read” ourselves more incisively so we might notice the ways in which elitism and aestheticism can seep into even the Christian academy.

At the same time, I could not but help compare Smith’s enthusiastic call for scholars to jump feet-first into the shallow waters of mass Christendom with what seemed like a much more realistic and sober approach to popularizing as set out by Ron Sider (CSR 36.2, Winter2007: 159-167). Sider warned that when it comes to academics attempting to popularize: “Not many people should do it!” (166). Sider detailed the costs involved in undertaking such a venture—costs not just to one’s ego (which Smith seems quite aware of [xxi-xxii]) but to one’s own scholarship. Smith is puzzlingly silent about the fact that since one cannot read everything in one’s academic field and still have the time to popularize, sacrifices and choices must be made. Accordingly, his tendency to extol the “you can have it all” mentality comes across as less than reflective in places.

But what of the rest of the book’s relevance for scholars? In an effort to avoid “bourgeois whining” (xxii) about the philosophical holes in his arguments, my comments will aim to hold Smith accountable to what I take to be one of his theoretical mainstays, what might be called the “thinking outside of the box” strategy: his ability to reframe issues to get Christians to think differently.

Let me first give some examples that demonstrate the success of many of Smith’s efforts to do just that: his contention in the final essay that Sam Mendes’ 1999 film American Beauty is more Christian than Disney movies and in fact that Disney movies are the only type of movies that Christians should not watch at all (157); his insistence that “we’re not out to win a culture war; we’re just trying to be witnesses. We’re not out to ‘transform’ culture by marshalling the engine of the state; we’re trying to carve out little foretastes of a coming kingdom” (104); and finally, his challenge, in a discussion of the lack of redemption present in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, that

the price of sitting at the table of American security and prosperity [is] the quiet acceptance of Abu Ghraib[.] Who are we to be aghast at the Cusak family’s complicity when we live under the regime of an Attorney General who has defended the President’s right to authorize practices that clearly violate the Geneva Convention? (138-9).

These are just a few of the gems to be found throughout.

Yet for all of his insights about how we might push open the box-lid and see that many of our most cherished beliefs are based on unquestioned assumptions, one might have wished for more consistency from Smith himself along these lines. I will offer just two examples. In “Constantinianism of the Left? On Jim Wallis and Barack Obama,” Smith merely assumes that Obama’s “pro-choice” view on abortion is forged solely along “secular”—that is, universal—lines and that Obama has “set aside his religious beliefs” too readily (109). This family of claims seems to be based on Smith’s unquestioned assumption that all evangelicals must align themselves with the so-called “pro-life” movement. But “is there only one way”for Christians to approach abortion? I was disappointed that Smith chose to reinforce the standard “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” rhetoric rather than help us move beyond it.

In “Teaching a Calvinist to Dance: On Being Reformed and Pentecostal,” Smith writes as if Pentecostals have the market on being surprised by God:

If you’re Pentecostal, you take the sovereignty of God so seriously that you are open and expectant that the Spirit of God is sometimes going to surprise you because God is free to act in ways that might differ from your set of expectations that you’ve been bringing to the encounter (28).

If he has in mind instantaneous healings, speaking in tongues, and so on, then I suppose he is correct on one level (although Anglican Nigel Mumford would beg to differ). But does not this assumption just reinforce a certain prejudice about the way in which the “freedom of God” plays itself out in the human world? Why are “non-Pentecostal” surprises, such as receiving a kind word from an enemy, a sudden and miraculous ability to forgive a grievous wrong, the beauty of nature, not equal grounds for declaring the mysterious and surprising presence of God?

Let me turn now to the other possible intended audience of his book, the broader Christian community. But just who is meant by the term “Christian public?” As Smith himself admits: “I also find some of [these essays] still a bit more ‘highbrow’ than most folks at church are going to be comfortable with, and thus the ‘public’ I’m writing for is perhaps still circumscribed quite a bit” (xxi). So at times he acknowledges the stratification within the mass church itself. But at other times he overlooks this fact, such as when, in the Introduction (xiii-xv), he lumps together Calvin graduates with devotees of celebrity preachers and family radio. Such ambivalence contributes to the confusion concerning the intended audience of the book as a whole.

In spite of the lack of focus of the book, I am grateful for Smith’s willingness to challenge a facile way of reading culture and to reflect on the surprise appearances of God in the dirty, smelly, messy places we would least expect such an appearance. Normalization, consumerism, and patriotism, are practices that too easily become defining marks of evangelicalism, and Smith exposes them as detrimental to the fleshy, dancing, bleeding body of Christ. But if scholars conclude that his book is only for those who inhabit the low-lying regions of evangelicalism, then we have missed the encroaching bourgeois-ification of our very own academy.

I therefore laud Smith’s effort to bring the ideas of the academy down to earth—which is, after all, what Plato (an unfortunate whipping boy of Smith’s, if I may register one philosophical complaint) tells us philosophy is all about. Returning to the cave out of which we all proceed is the vocation of philosopher-educators, as the Republic instructs us. I can only hope that this book serves as a stimulus for other academics to journey with Smith down the dark slopes of the cave and join in the risky attempt to drag others up the tortuous path to the light.

Lauren Swayne Barthold

Gordon College
Lauren Swayne Barthold, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Gordon College