Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments

02 November 2006


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 prayed.

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.

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