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It was with great sadness that members of the Society of Biblical Literature heard of the death of Jacques Derrida, on Friday 8th October 2004. The sense of loss was particularly marked among those who had participated in the conference Other Testaments: Derrida and Religion, hosted by the SBL/AAR in Toronto in 2002.

Yet for others reading this, this caricature-defying sense of loss might need some explanation. Clearly it would make very little sense if Derrida really had stood for something like "the critical method which virtually declares that the identity and intentions of the author of a text are irrelevant to the interpretation of the text, prior to insisting that no meaning can be found in it" (so Alister McGrath).[1] What loss could there be in the loss of such a loss? As certain crudely celebratory media pundits put it over the last week (illustrating just how far the special cultural license to savagely comment on Derrida seems to extend, if it allows us to even trample on sacrosanct humanity of the obituary genre) such a loss of loss would be tantamount to gain.

But deconstruction was never about destruction, nor was Derrida just about "deconstruction." Deconstruction was never about taking a troglodyte's club or, as Derrida himself jokingly put it, a "crowbar" to texts. One has to wonder, incidentally, how we got to such a strange place where deconstruction is widely denounced as nihilism and, at the same time, everyone seems to want to claim that they are "deconstructing." Confusedly, we seem to love that little term that smacks of technical rigour, even as we are drawn to it as a target for all that we deem most dangerous.

For all the over-use and abuse, the term "deconstruction" still has some useful life in it. Some popular definitions of "deconstruction" still remain quite helpful. One of these is the definition that "every structure is constituted by necessary exclusions": the idea that, in creating structures—be they political systems, philosophies, narratives or theologies—we choose, consciously and unconsciously. We choose because our range of vision is limited, because we inhabit certain contexts and not others, and because we can never achieve perfect, even-handed justice, even though we may strive for it. We would have to be a god to achieve this kind of justice. This thought of justice and of God has been a significant part of Derrida's work, particularly over the last twelve years or so—giving his work an unexpectedly "religious" flavour. Derrida is constantly talking of that which we must strive for precisely because it is beyond our grasp. He calls this, variously, the impossible, justice, messianicity or perfect democracy: democracy-to-come. (Derrida was always equally passionate about "religious" and "secular" expressions of that which we hold most "sacred").

Starting as it does from the observation that every system maintains itself through accidental and necessary exclusions, deconstruction is neither counter-intuitive, nor deeply difficult. But then some ideas are rejected not because they are esoteric but because, on the contrary, they have always been widely acknowledged, even as it is feared that they would be too disruptive should they be brought to the forefront of what we do. The fear is that taking this fairly fundamental observation into account would slow our writing and our thinking down and make it less confident, powerful and certain. And this is not incorrect, for Derrida has described deconstruction (again in terms that might make us think in terms of analogies with religion) as an experience of the limits of our power.

Derrida does not, ludicrously, see himself as introducing the fairly basic idea that the totality eludes us. He shows how this is widely-known in ancient wisdom, including the Bible. But he does see a particularly timely urgency in the emphatic return of the philosophical truism that "the whole is the false." The "little Arab Jew," who grew up in Algeria and who was excluded from school for his Jewishness, has a passion for the person whom the system/the nation excludes by definition, and, relatedly, for the unthinkable idea that the system cannot—must not—think. As early as the late 1960s, he was writing about "white mythologies," by which he meant foundational texts and ideas that can be color-blind, gender-blind and contingency- and context-blind.

Derrida, who never once associated himself with the much-abused term "postmodern," tended to regard newness with suspicion. Newness is too prone to make a straw man of "old"-ness, and to demolish old world orders to make new ones (often with catastrophic results). Commenting on Jesus's saying about new wineskins and new cloth (Matt. 9.14-17; Mk 2.18-22; Lk 5.33-39), he recommended a more humble, less apocalyptic form of "newness." Newness should be aware that it is always repatching and reweaving old cloth.

As if to drive the point home, Derrida habitually worked with old, often unfashionable, texts such as, say, Plato or the Bible. And this is what makes him difficult: there is little point in showing up for his tutorials if you haven't done the reading in advance. His two-edged readings attempt to draw out the text in its own logic and idioms, but also to think about the limits of the text by holding it up to the scrutiny of its own logic. Not infrequently these limits are encountered at points where the text is not faithful enough to the ideas and ideals for which it strives.

One of the problems with "deconstruction" is that it has so dominated discussions of Derrida that other ideas have been neglected. This is unfortunate, because headings such as "autobiography and confession," "translation," "mourning," "sacrifice" or "debt and inheritance" could be at least as useful to us. "Inheritance" in particular is a particularly useful Derridean theme for biblical scholars, and indeed anyone who thinks about the "old" texts in a twenty-first century context. Thought-provokingly, Derrida says that before "even wanting it, or refusing it, we are inheritors," that "to be& means to inherit," and that "the being we are is first of all inheritance, like it or not, know it or not." But he also says that "inheritance is never a given, it is always a task." Born into the world in medias res, we enter a soap opera of ideas and systems that began long before us, and will continue long after us. Even without thinking about it, we in the so-called "West" are influenced by a complex of different traditions that we will only ever get to know and think about in part. Derrida would say that Christianity, Greco-German philosophy, and the legacies of the Enlightenments shape all of us, know it or not, like it or not. Thus it is not possible to be a pure Christian or a pure secularist, for the most religious of "religious conservatives" and the most liberal of "secular liberals" still inherit, in uneven ways, from both. Because these traditions are so complicated and because they subdivide into different thinkers and traditions, it is impossible to think of ourselves as having wholly accepted or rejected a particular line of thinking. Traditions do not come to us neatly packaged as a gift, or served up to us on a plate, for us to digest at one gulp.

Thus Derrida deliberately sets himself against modes of thought that work on the basis that we have, a priori, accepted/rejected "The Bible as a whole," "Kierkegaard as a whole," or, indeed, "Derrida as whole." He writes against the fanaticism with which we tend to make ourselves disciples to a single master-text. Those of us who draw on Derrida in our work may find this rather ironic. For as soon as one cites Derrida, one is assumed to be a wide-eyed, brainwashed disciple who has somehow "swallowed" the Derridean corpus whole. This is curious given that Derrida talks so explicitly about the whole problem of what he calls "counter-signing": that is, the act of signing up to something someone else has written, and accepting it as fully as if it were our own. Could we ever do that? And what would it mean to do that to Derrida or, say, to the gospel of John?

What Derrida teaches us to do is to focus on little acts of micro-choosing: that is, questions of how we relate to a particular idea, word, passage, sentence. He encourages us to think in terms of these little acts of micro-choosing, rather those large acts of macro-choosing that seem to exonerate us from every subsequent decision, or decide it for us in advance. (For example, "I am a Christian: therefore I know, in advance, that the Bible is morally good"). He exhorts us to "filter, select, criticize" in good Enlightenment tradition, being open to finding commonality where we least expect it, but also being prepared, when necessary, to "criticize" (in more than a euphemistic sense) texts that we deeply "love." This opens up the possibility of a more open-minded Academy, where judgment is reserved until one has done the reading and where we expect to be surprised by scholars from another "side" in the academic trench wars. This dream of the University without straw-men (or straw-women) or straw-texts might be the basis of a more faithfully, impossibly "universal" "University-to-come."

The persistent popularity of Derrida (despite all the warnings that he is not good for us, and particularly not good for our curriculum vitae) stubbornly points to the attractions of a very different way of thinking. In the tradition of the first shall be last, biblical scholars may (shockingly) have something to learn from Derrida about the importance of questions that they tend to omit. For example, Derrida (disarmingly) talks about the big-naïve questions that we tend to reserve for devotional literature: "What does it mean to pray?"; "What is the book of Revelation trying to make words do when it says 'Amen, Come Lord Jesus'?"; and "What does this text mean for human living and human being?" And Derrida is very savvy about the vacillations and anxiety of being a human being. Without doing us the disservice of thinking too highly of us, he writes of anxious, narcissistic, selfish, frightened human beings, rather than the confident "I's" of some theological and philosophical discourses who act for clear reasons (that they can always articulate), and who are always humane. When he talks about mourning he does movingly, but also in full awareness that we always weep, in a sense, for ourselves. Reading Derrida one discovers not the arrogant Derider, but someone more like, as Helene Cixous puts it, a poet of "the soul's aching, of the soul's suffering." He often sounds like a mix between a psalmist, Paul, an ancient Jewish rabbi, the Augustine of The Confessions, and a very self-knowing expositor of the human condition such as Montaigne.

In his very unusual-seeming Bible Studies, Derrida seems to come closest to Søren Kierkegaard, whom he reads and cites extensively. He is concerned with what it might mean to read the Bible "humanly," in relation to questions of responsibility, ethics and religion—and ethics and religion are never assumed to be one and the same. The kinds of questions that he asks are: "What are the best possibilities of this text and what are the worst? Can I separate them, and how would I do that?" or "What might be the promises and dangers of such a text for an 'I' who is, despite his/her best intentions, still deeply self-protective and self-obsessed?" They are also questions about what it might mean to read the biblical text in multiple contexts, for Derrida is not about abandoning, but multiplying, contexts. Refusing to offer himself as an ally in our assumed inner-disciplinary duels between "The Pomo and The Historical" or "Literature and History" —duels that, it might be added, seem suspiciously unique to Biblical Studies— he insists on the necessary "guardrail" of context(s). A text should be read in its contexts, which means the contexts of its writing, its revisions, and its afterlives and consequences in the contemporary world. A reading with an eye on the so-called contemporary should always also look at the past, because the contemporary, in complex ways, inherits. It is naïve to think that we could look at the biblical text only in the "contemporary" world.

It is regrettable, but not too worrying (yet), that we are living in the shadow of the legacies of early responses to Derrida's work, which was interpreted in less than helpful ways by both detractors and admirers. Early readings of his inaugural essay "Structure, Sign and Play" or Of Grammatology established a cartoon "Derrida" who allegedly released "floating signifiers" up into the air (rather like a child releasing helium balloons into the sky). Derrida was understood as inventing something that was basically understood as Hyper-Reader-Response-Criticism and Hyper-New-Criticism (so, at one and the same time unleashing the unlimited power of the reader and doing away with the context or even the text). Jacques Derrida, or rather the name of "Jacques Derrida," became a modern Jacques from As You Like It, his slogan being "All the world's a text and we are merely player." Then the world was divided into whether you were (absurdly) for or against "play." Not surprisingly, many people, for very good reasons, were "against." The idea of glibly endorsing whichever reading was most attractive or expedient without any sense of debt to world, author, and context, could not have been better designed to provoke heated denunciation (for different reasons) from the political "right" and "left." Derrida became the name through which we registered a very important fear—a fear that has intensified in the current climate, where, for example, Platonic fears of "rhetoric" surface in response to shifting justifications for war, and slick market-led election campaigns. Derrida's relation to truth is, in truth, not simple, but he basically strives for readings that are more faithful, more just, while maintaining an ever-wary sense of the dangers of The Truth: the truth that is sure, certain, single and, of course, securely in "my" possession. This results in self-destabilizing and tradition-destabilizing strategies that come close to certain strategies in the Bible. Compare the book of Amos's "Are you not like the Ethiopians to me? Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?" (Amos 9.7).

Those who, like Derrida, hope for more "truth" —not least more truth about Derrida—might take comfort from the fact that time, so far, has been short. In the eyes of scholarship and the history of ideas, forty years is but a day (cf. Ps. 90.4) And the books remain, and there are lots of them. Derrida's was seventy-four when he died, and had published prolifically since the late nineteen sixties. Like other disciplines, also stuck in the 1970s and 1980s in their understanding of Derrida, Biblical Studies is only just beginning to hear of the many thinner volumes published in the 1990s—books which engage more specifically with ethics, politics and religion and, increasingly, (if on an ad hoc basis), biblical texts. (The best place to start reading Derrida these days might well be, for example, Monolingualism of the Other and The Gift of Death). In the 2002 conference, we attempted to provoke new, close readings of this more recent Derrida in tandem with equally close readings of biblical passages. A call for papers issued to members of AAR and SBL resulted in a disproportionate number of essays on Derrida and the Bible, as opposed to other areas of theology and religious studies, suggesting a strong sense of work remaining to be done. No less than twenty-three of these are now published in Derrida's Bible (Palgrave: 2004), and Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (Routledge: 2004). In these readings, close reading, as it always does, changes our perceptions of familiar names and passages. They offer new ways of thinking about, say, "Paul," "Amos," and indeed "Derrida."

For readers of Derrida this question of what is happening and what will happen to the name has a special poignancy. For Derrida wrote a great deal about the inbuilt pathos of the name that will survive you, and also about the lack of control over "your" name. But it would also seem trite and inappropriate, at a time like this, to simply substitute the name and the books for the man (as if there were no real loss in this loss). For as Derrida shows so movingly in his own memorial speeches, not least his Adieu for Emmanuel Levinas, the time of dying is also a time to speak in a "childlike" and "disarmed" way. So I would like to conclude, if I may, by saying something about the warmth and generosity of Jacques Derrida—something that, paradoxically, might have more impact precisely because I was far off and not a "close" friend. (After all that Derrida has written about speaking for the dead and claiming them as "ours," one should feel distinctly uncomfortable about attempting to grab a little "greatness" by elbowing one's name close to a great name). I remember with fondness how he greeted me, a virtual stranger, as a friend at a conference in Paris. I remember with gratitude how, though clearly tired from the conference, he was unnecessarily generous, introducing me to his friends and welcoming me to his table. And I remember the mock-seriousness and the serious-seriousness of the moment at which, at once earnest and joking, he gave a "promise" to come to Toronto—a promise that anyone who knows about Derrida's work on the "promise," would know that he would keep (deus volonte, or somesuch qualifying phrase). At the conference, I remember his mischievous humor and also his anxiety, particularly before the plenary interview. Feeling propelled into a place of authority he did not deserve, he insisted that he was not a religion or Bible expert, and he did not want to be misunderstood as claiming more than he claimed. I remember with gratitude his humility and eagerness to learn what was happening in Biblical Studies and Religious Studies—the way in which he came to virtually all the panels at the conference, and kept up correspondence thereafter, despite his illness. There was something about Jacques Derrida that was extravagantly generous and deeply gracious.

Together with others who participated in the Other Testaments conference, I am grateful that Jacques Derrida had time to keep his promise. I also hope that, partly because of this conference and the publications that have come from it, more things are yet to happen-perhaps even new thoughts of what might even be meant by "Biblical Studies," as well as new understandings of biblical texts. This, of course, is outside my or Derrida's control—which is, after all, what he was always writing about. Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned from Derrida is that writing is an imperfect and hazardous science: you have to write as carefully as possible, but take risks, believing in the other person's desire to read you carefully and try to do you justice (instead of expecting them to just grab a couple of sentences to bash you with—something I try to bear in mind when reviewing!). For Derrida, writing is an act of faith. Perhaps one of the reasons that Derrida is associated with fear is because he introduced us to the scandal of writing—which is, of course, also the scandal of Scripture. For writing and Writings know that, for reasons to do with the nature of language, the nature of contexts, and the nature of the people who read you (who will always be, in some sense, a mystery to you), no writing will ever control its effects.

Yvonne Sherwood is senior lecturer in Old Testament/Tanakh at the University of Glasgow. She currently chairs the Reading, Theory and the Bible section of the SBL.

[1] A. E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2nd ed., 1995), p. 114. McGrath, of course, is hardly the only theologian or biblical scholar to produce such strange cartoons of deconstruction. I chose it because the description seems particularly bizarre.

Editors note:

Session Audio Files from the 2002 SBL Annual Meeting in Toronto

"On Religion: An Interview With Jacques Derrida"


Jacques Derrida, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Yvonne Sherwood, University of Glasgow

John D. Caputo, Villanova University

Kevin Hart, Monash University

Note: the audio for this session spans 3 files

MP3 Format:

Derrida 1

Derrida 2

Derrida 3

Citation: Yvonne Sherwood, " Jacques Derrida and Biblical Studies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2004]. Online:


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