The Devil Reads Derrida: And Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts
by James K.A. Smith
Eerdmans, 160 pages, $18
Some may dismiss James K.A. Smith’s polemics against mainstream conservative ideas and sentiments (especially celebration of American power, wealth, and cultural predominance) as the bromidic ranting of a mere muddle-headed “leftist,” but this judgment would be very unfair. This new collection of essays provides abundant evidence that Smith has a strong, lively mind and, more important, good faith. Still, this book is unlikely to establish him as a major contemporary thinker.
One problem is style. Smith, a trained philosopher, has not quite mastered the popularizer’s delicate art of simplifying as much as necessary, but not more so, in order to show confidence in his audience’s intelligence and breadth of knowledge. For instance, while arguing that Christian churches’ attitudes toward sex reflect a low view of the created world, he says “we have adopted a version of Platonism (forgive me, I’m a philosopher) . . .” Many readers will be annoyed by such frequent touches of what could be mistaken for condescension.
To his credit, Smith is aware of the challenges faced by the intellectual attempting to serve the Church with his learning. In his introduction—arguably the strongest essay in the book—he identifies the temptation to elite smugness and exasperation with unsophisticated brethren. To explain how this difficult vocation should be lived, Smith makes almost miraculously constructive use of a catastrophically depressing portrait of dysfunction and perversity, the film Little Miss Sunshine.
But the main trouble with The Devil Reads Derrida is one that afflicts many compilations of occasional essays: The essays are too short and conversational to constitute important interventions in any debate. They are therefore amplificatory or illustrative at best and platitudinous at worst. This is not a bad book, but it is very dispensable.