Book Review:  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church - James K.A. Smith

Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church – James K.A. Smith

In one of the only legitimate Christian treatments of postmodernism that I’ve come across, James K. A. Smith argues that postmodernism presents a window for Christians eager to preach a communal and redemptive gospel into a society atomized by consumerism, bipartisan political rhetoric, and a mind-numbing entertainment industry.  In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, Smith presents a rigorous investigation of some of the main arguments of postmodern thinkers that is both accurate, concise, and accessible for those unfamiliar with postmodern thought.  Reformed Christians like Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer have a good deal in common with the postmodernists, who like these theologians rejected the idea of an unbiased or objective knowledge of the world.  By dealing with the claims of postmodernists, Smith says we can move beyond an obsessive concern for the rational presentation of Christianity and recover nothing less than the proclamation of the Gospel itself.

Smith begins his analysis with a brief study of Jacques Derrida, the
French thinker who coined the idea of “deconstruction.”  Derrida is
[in?]famous for saying that “There is nothing outside the text.”  What
Derrida means is that objective knowledge is impossible, since, as
subjective individuals, we interpret everything around us.  This claim
means that we cannot avoid the process of interpretation, that we
cannot jump over a text to some kind of objective knowledge of a text.
This seems to present a danger for Christianity, since if Christ did
not really become flesh, did not suffer, die, or return from the dead
then our faith, as the apostle Paul says, is futile.  But Smith
suggests that this fear stems from a misinterpretation of Derrida.
Smith uses The Little Mermaid to illustrate Derrida’s real point – in
her underwater home, Ariel uses a fork to comb her hair, but when she
steps on dry land, she discovers that a fork is used into eat instead.
She has moved from one interpretation of the fork to another, from her
personal interpretation of something to a communal one.  Smith shows
how this is similar to the Roman soldier’s interpretation of Christ
dying on the Cross – the soldier realized that Christ is the Son of God
– compared to the Christ’s detractors viewing the same event.  Smith
argues that Christians are not primarily searching for some kind of
objective knowledge of Scripture, but an interpretation guided by the
Spirit and by community that brings true knowledge.  A hyper-rational
system of apologetics is not the only (or best) way to see the world or
understand truth, and Christians learn just as much about God through
singing, confessing, and the sacraments that go beyond non-Christian
ideas about empirical or objective (a space in the Christian tradition
reserved for God alone) knowledge.

Smith moves next to Jean-François Lyotard, who argued that we should be
skeptical towards “meta-narratives.”  What is bigger, however, than the
Christian narrative of history as the story of God’s redemption of
mankind?  Like Derrida, Lyotard appears to be moving to strike the
heart of the Church’s preaching of the Gospel.  But Lyotard isn’t
concerned about the vast scope of a narrative but the claims made about
the nature of such grand narratives, and he connects “meta-narrative”
not with religion, but with secular reason and science.  Rationalism,
while claiming to deny all narratives, still puts for the idea that
reason will lead to peace and prosperity, and that by rational inquiry
every individual can arrive at the truth.  Rationalism, then, is a sort
of parody of the Christian story.  Scientists have blasted Christian
and other religious narratives while creating their own
“meta-narrative,” a series of ideas about universal progress and
scientific rationality that are supposedly devoid of any kind of
mythos.  Rationalism tells us we can arrive at the truth of this
without any bias.  It is precisely this “neutrality” that Lyotard
attacks; rationalists have created a new narrative while saying they
were not at all.  Lyotard, instead of attacking the church, proves to
be an ally in the fight against modernity’s claims to an objective
stranglehold on the story of humanity.  Additionally, Lyotard’s
critique of science should make us think twice about presenting
Christianity simply as a series of logical propositions which require
intellectual assent alone – the scope of Christianity is far more
redemptive than that and faith involves the entire person.

Smith then comes to Michel Foucault and his text Discipline and Punish,
the Birth of the Prison
.  Foucault argues that the modernization of
punishment (i.e. the move from torture and execution to confinement)
now leaves the body alone but subjects the soul to a more insidious
horrific psychological and spiritual torture.  But this Parisian
intellectual is not simply discussing the birth of the prison; the same
values that created the subtly oppressive system of the prison also
created modern institutions and values, and our modern society which
emphasizes freedom constricts human beings more than the societies
prior to the Enlightenment.  Additionally, Foucault argues that power
is knowledge and that power produces knowledge – therefore there is no
human knowledge that is unbiased, pure, or objective.  In a society
crafted by these same ideas that led to such a prison, Smith proposes
the church as a counter-institution based on peace.  While the church
does engage the world, it also stands against cultural formations that
violate the image of God and human dignity.  Smith locates an
institution like MTV, an oppressive and disciplinary institution, as an
example of the opposite of the church, where the discipline of
redemption is practiced.

So why are these postmodern thinkers important?  They are important simply because they ask questions of Christianity, and it is our duty as being motivated by both love and truth to work at an answer.  These questions are difficult, Smith says these problems should send us back (or is it forward?) to an orthodox understanding of Christianity, especially because Christianity today is so damaged by adopting basic modernist values (seen in classical apologetics or a rationalist approach to church services that abandons liturgy).  Derrida’s emphasis on interpretation directs us not only to our present community of believers, but to the countless Christians who have interpreted the story of Scripture throughout the history of the church.  Lyotard points out how everyone has a story, and we can see how we are not to present a diced-up version of the Gospel in rational terms, but we are to proclaim the whole story of God’s redemption.  Foucault shows us that when left to ourselves, even desiring our own freedom, we end up repressing each other and effacing ourselves.  It is surprising, then, that so few Christians have adequately and intelligently addressed some of the foundational issues of the postmodern philosophers.  Already people are asking "What is next after postmodernism," and if we pay attention to Smith and other Christians addressing these issues, we will be able to answer this question.  Smith has done a great service in treating the complicated subject of postmodernism in such a way that neither waters down the meaning of these thinkers, nor requires an advanced degree to understand.  Although it will be helpful to have some background in Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard, if you are willing to labor with the book I think it will serve as a great introduction and primer on postmodernism as well as an appropriate Christian response.

Daniel P.