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The Devil reads Derrida

July 12, 2010

The introductory essay of Jamie Smith’s ‘The Devil reads Derrida’ (Eerdmans 09) has inspired me to read a chapter a night at bedtime for a while. I was impressed by his insights into the situation of Christian academics and his delightful reading of that wonderful movie Little Miss Sunshine. Here’s an extract in which he looks at the roots of the disconnect between Christian scholars and the church in his own context.

…There are a couple of layers to this phenomenon. First, since the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Christian scholars have recognized the importance of breaking out of our Christian ghettoes and speaking to the academic mainstream. Rather than just being teachers at a Christian liberal arts college, there was a sense of obligation – even mission – that demanded much more energy and resources be devoted to making a mark on (“transforming!”) the academy as such. Thus Christian scholars at institutions such as my own sought to move from the fringe to the center of their various guilds within the academy. This was undertaken both with a missional emphasis and with at least an implied desire to win respectability for Christian scholarship. And the campaign, one must conclude, has been remarkably successful, particularly in certain disciplines. But one of the prices to pay for such respectability was to adopt a staple stance of academic elitism: an allergic abhorrence for anything “popular,” especially popular writing. (One of the worst epithets that a scholar con come up with is to describe a colleague as a “popularizer.”) p. xiii


Smith goes on to show how Frank, the Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine, epitomizes this academic elitism, but is drawn into participation in the dysfunctional family. It is a wonderful analogy for Christian scholarship and a great interpretation of the movie. Let me conclude with another slightly sermonic quote from Smith in advocacy of the diaconal ministry of Christian scholarship.

Christian scholars need to push more VW buses with their brothers and sisters. In a very concrete way, we need to find more opportunities to work alongside the faithful who don’t attend academic conferences or find solace in the New York Review of Books. p. xix

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven Demmler permalink
    July 12, 2010 8:13 pm

    I enjoyed this. It looks like we are reading the same stuff as I just posted a short review of this on my site. Keep it up, I enjoy the site!

  2. July 12, 2010 10:15 pm

    enjoyed your post, thanks, and while that is agreed, isn’t part of the problem how all consuming operating at such levels of scholarship is, and so scholars able to work at the centre of their academic guilds simply lack the time and energy to push VW buses on a regular basis?

    personally i’d rather see a third category between practitioner and academic than the average pastor than an additional demand for the already hard working scholar. someone who spends enough time pushing buses and enough time in academia to be able to bridge the gap well between the scholars and those in buses. The question is, where is there space for such people in the church or the academy?

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