Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? – By James K. A. Smith

Smith WAOP.pngLetter PPostmodernism is an idea that is [intentionally] ill-defined and poorly understood, both by those who call themselves postmoderns and by those who attack them.

One of the groups which has set its sights on postmodernism in recent years is the Christian church, which has had no shortage of condemnations for it. Granted, we may also witness many within the Christian church embracing the movement (ie, the Emergent Church), only to be thrown into the fire by the rest of the Christian populace.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is James K. A. Smith’s contribution to shedding light on the situation by clarifying just what it is that postmodern thinkers mean and what their effect (for good or ill) on the church should be. On one level, the goal is to tackle the thought of postmodernism head on both to show how Christian critics and Christian adherents have misunderstood it in both their attacks and implementation of what they think to be postmodernism. On another level the goal is analyze the key ideas of three major postmodern philosophers – Derrida, Lyotard, and Focault – and to discuss how we may properly view and incorporate these ideas into the church, what our reactions to them should be.

Two main themes giving form to Smiths text are a discussion of postmodern ideas as they are seen in recent film and an explanation of the various bumper-sticker phrases which are often thrown out as embodying post-modern thought along with analysis of what they actually mean, whether they are really at odds with Christianity or whether they may be employed to further the interests of the church. After a short historical and philosophical introduction to the topics being discussed, Smith then analyzes these phrases chapter by chapter: Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text,” Lyotard’s “Incredulity toward metanarratives,” and Foucault’s “power is knowledge.”After giving his analysis and removing false understandings of these ideas, Smith offers his view of how these ideas can and should be incorporated into the church. Granted, he acknowledges that the ideas are not necessarily in complete agreement with the ideas of Christianity, but they are not diametrically opposed either. Thus we can see that:

  • “when Derrida claims that there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language… Texts that require interpretation are not things that are inserted between me and the world; rather, the world is a kind of text requiring interpretation (p39)… To say that there is nothing outside the Text is to say that there is no aspect of creation to which God’s revelation does not speak.”(p55)
  • “For Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal societies do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason… It is the supposed rationality of modern scientistic stories about the world that makes them a metanarrative (p65)…the problem with metanarratives is that they do not own up to their own mythic ground.”(p69)
  • “Christians should eschew the very notion of an autonomous agent who resists any form of control. By rejecting Foucault’s liberal Enlightenment commitments, but appropriating his analyses of the role of discipline in formation, we can almost turn Foucault’s project on its head.”(p99)

Thus we can create a church which removes the modern isolationism and realize the presuppositional nature of our ideas; we can recognize the story-telling nature (in a non-pejorative sense) of the church and the fault in the materialistic worldview; we can do away with modernistic view of autonomy and allow for the disciplinary and authoritative role of the church; we can refuse the Cartesian model of thought and realize that we can have knowledge without absolute knowledge, that we are finite; that we can incorporate a rich liturgy, social concerns, tradition, and a working creedal theology.

It is this “Radical Orthodoxy” that Smith promotes, a move away from the fundamentalism that sees postmodernism in a purely negative light, away from the emergent movement which misinterprets it as a reason to do away with truth claims and any sort of discipline, toward a revival of the church that isn’t caught under the presuppositions of modernism.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Whenever science attempts to legitimate itself, it is no longer scientific but narrative, appealing to an orienting myth that is not susceptible to scientific legitimation.”(p68)

-“We confess knowledge without certainty, truth without objectivity.”(p121)

-“We were created for stories, no propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”(p140)

Specific Criticisms

I don’t have any criticisms of this text. This isn’t to say that it is a perfect text or that the ideas presented have no flaws, but only that I’m not informed enough to be able to pick them out.

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