Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart, editors
Routledge £17.99 (0-415-96889-5)
Church Times Bookshop £16.20
Try it, even if you lose the plot: For Derrida, this is relatively
accessible, says Duncan Dormor
ONCE described, or maligned, as the Nero of contemporary philo-sophy,
Jacques Derrida, who died last year, was widely caricatured as one calling the
impressionable into the anarchy and abyss of nihilism.
Caricature is, of course, an easier task than struggling with difficult
ideas, especially if those ideas are expressed by a writer convinced that the
meaning of texts needs to be deconstructed to reveal their hidden ambiguities
and contradictions. In such circumstances, one might predict a smaller
readership than for those who peddle brisk certainties.
Nevertheless, the existence of Derrida and Religion (at a modest
price and in paperback) witnesses powerfully to the fact that a significant
following is prepared to wrestle, and to reap the rewards.
Throughout his writings, Derrida has drawn on, and been drawn to — even into
— religious texts and phenomena, including Paul, Augustine, prayer, confession,
the spirit and the letter, the Talmud, the sacrifice of Isaac, Messianism,
mysticism, the Book of Revelation, and the name of God.
Having begun as a joint conference of the American Academy of Religion and
the Society of Biblical Literature, in November 2002, this book brings together
27 scholars, mostly from the US, in a conversa-tion focused on "the complex
space" that is the Judaeo-Christian. The third Abrahamic faith, Islam, remains
(unfortunately) outside, though its presence is felt "as a strategic pressure
from the wings".
With an excellent introduction, and a long interview with the man himself
conducted by the editors and John Caputo, this warm and in places almost
hagiographic appre-ciation of Derrida’s contributions is loosely gathered under
six headings: the Christian, the Jew (the Hyphen); reading a page of scripture
with . . . Derrida; sacrifices and secrets; revelation(s);
la/le toucher (touching her/him); and hostipitality (sic).
Peppered with both playful and more consequential deconstructions of
language (neologisms such as "hostipitality" are abundant), this collection has
many original, lively, and, yes, relatively accessible essays (especially those
by Jantzen and Althaus-Reid on touch; Pyper on reading the Hebrew scriptures;
and Lowe on the importance of Romanticism).
Derrida and Religion should be purchased by any educational
institution that aspires to take the task of theology seriously. It will also
interest and excite a readership already acquainted with the writings of this
Jewish Arab who conceded that "he rightly passes for an atheist" — yet who
For others, the experience may be akin to seeing an opera in unknown
language for the first time, without a synopsis: one may feel moved or inspired
by snatches of song, but the plot (what plot?) may prove elusive.
The Revd Duncan Dormor is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.