James K. A. Smith, The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009. 163 pages. $12.24 paperback (Amazon). Click here or on the image to purchase The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.

It has become all too common these days for discussions of North American evangelicalism to transpire solely in terms of disdain, so much so that the very word evangelical has almost become a slur. Obviously, this is not to say that there aren’t many grounds upon which the evangelical tradition, especially in its North American variety, can (and should) be critiqued. Many have balked at the seemingly evangelical idea that the major tragedies of the last decade, namely, 9/11, the tsunami in 2004, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent earthquake in Haiti, were somehow divine retribution for homosexuality, idolatry, or general unbelief. In addition, one could consider the ongoing campaign among many evangelicals in the United States to “take back America” through a perverse wedding of white, middle/upper class, conservative evangelicalism and a Republican agenda. Marching ever onward, this group of evangelicals frequently ends up propagating an agenda that often seems more American than biblical.

The criticism could—and should—go on, but while such critique is always necessary for the healthy growth of the church, there is a world of difference between denigrating the evangelical movement and critiquing it from within as a sort of loyal opposition. Fortunately, this is a point not missed by James K. A. Smith in his recent book, The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts. In fact, this commitment serves as his starting point. Understanding his training as a philosopher as providing the platform for a diaconal vocation, a vocation of service to and for the church, Smith here offers a collection of essays directed toward the end of building up the body of Christ.

As is the case with any book of this sort, there is the inherent hurdle of overcoming the occasional nature of each piece in order to create some coherent whole. Smith’s book is no exception in this regard, and it suffers at times because of this. Nevertheless, at the risk of these various writings being reduced to mere cultural musings, Smith successfully manages to offer substantial insights and constructive critiques throughout the volume.

In the first section, addressing issues roughly centered around discipleship, Smith takes aim at the picture of manhood put forth in John Eldredge’s book, Wild at Heart. Drawing upon his Reformed heritage, Smith argues that the Reformed tradition offers a particular theology of creation. Viewing the creation as good, humans ought to be involved in adventurous cultural engagement, finding the beauty of God therein. But one of the main characteristics of this goodness, Smith argues, is peace and harmony. However, according to Eldredge, men are inherently wired by the very same God as being wild at heart with a “battle to fight, adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue” (16). Shoring up his claim, Eldredge offers the evidence of the large appeal of several movies in the action genre with a similar plot line (Braveheart figures rather prominently in Eldredge’s disturbing narrative of the masculine). However, by offering anecdotal evidence in defense of his main thesis, Eldredge ends up painting a picture of God’s ideal male as a gun-toting, Harley-driving renegade on the search for his prized beauty. His picture is a man with the characteristics of the disruptive fall, not the goodness (i.e., peace and harmony) of biblical creation (18). But according to Eldredge, this ideal man-as-warrior finds its origin in the God who so created him. As Smith rightly notes, Eldredge’s theology is inherently “un-trinitarian” as it “makes God essentially a warrior, and by doing so inscribes conflict into the very heart of God” (19).

In multiple essays, the issue of Christian political allegiances is brought up, namely the politics of the cross in contrast to the politics of the American parties. In his essay, “Christian Worship as Public Disturbance,” Smith recounts the event in Acts 16 where Paul and Silas are being nagged by a slave-girl as they were going to pray. Annoyed by this, Paul commands the spirit to leave the girl, but as it does, it deprives her of her lucrative divining ability, infuriating her owners, who have the apostles beaten and thrown in jail. In light of this story, and the many other similar situations in the book of Acts, Smith raises the question of whether or not we are truly preaching the gospel if our proclamation does not “upset the powers-that-be” (72). In response he proposes “the model of the apostles’ counter-imperial practice as a paradigm for the nature of Christian worship and practice.” Such a paradigm, argues Smith, is founded on the good news that there is a new king, who is the King of kings, and he is creating a new people, whose allegiance is to him and his kingdom. Such a kingdom has its own political structuring that runs counter to the present ordering of this world, and that is being realized in and through God’s people.

Ironically, the question of public disturbance is answered through first hand experience by Smith in his essay, “A Commencement, a Wedding, and an Alternative Politics.” Smith recounts the story of the criticism he received from many for his seemingly hands-off approach to politics after passing on the commencement address being given by the president of the United States. Smith also received criticism from his colleagues for refusing to sign a letter of protest concerning presidential policies. Many were very upset at his actions, or as they were perceived, non-actions. However, as Smith argues, his actions were not rooted in some scheme of withdrawal, but in a much grander vision of an alternative political position: a politic that is not bound by the confines of Republican, Democrat, or even Independent, but one that is opened through the journey of discipleship, which shapes us to see the kingdom in its fullness, not through the lens of partisanship.

The collection of essays in this book covers a range of topics, offering the reader a taste of everything, and provides insightful criticism throughout. The real value of the book lies less in the individual content of the essays and more in what they model: a way of being disciples in the world, not as reactionaries or as fearmongers, but as visionaries, hoping for the fulfillment of Jesus’s kingdom. In reading through the various essays, I couldn’t help but appreciate the charitable manner that continued to appear, all while not withholding criticism of erroneous thought or action. Smith succeeds in his diaconal endeavor, put forth in this collection of essays, and demonstrates his deep care and concern for the body of Christ at large. As such, the book deserves a wide reading in the Christian community.

All in-text citations in this essay are to James K. A. Smith, The Devil Reads Derrida and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009).