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.
Thanks for the informative review. I received a copy of this book for Christmas, and I really enjoyed reading it. While I think Smith’s writing gets a little weak near the end of each chapter, where he makes strained Christian “applications” of these philosophies, I agree with you that the book is an excellent introduction to postmodernism, a way of thinking that our pocket of Christianity has almost universally dismissed out of hand or ignored.
In that vein, I would like to suggest another reason why these postmodern thinkers should be important to Christians. Postmodern theory and its antecedents—late modernism and structuralism—have done more to increase our understanding of communication and language than has any other field of knowledge in the last century, perhaps even in the entire history of literacy. The fact that Christians are members of a community that is formed around a text—the Bible—should be reason enough for them to strive to incorporate this new knowledge and the practices associated with it into their reading and other interpretive behaviors.
Unfortunately, postmodernist insights about language are largely absent from the PCA as I know it. Perhaps this is because the term “postmodern” is so closely associated with the Emergent Church, a movement whose mere mention in PCA circles tends to prompt frenzied bouts of stake-sharpening and holy-water-dousing. It is a bit of a shame that Emergents have so co-opted the conversation about postmodernism because the theories that go by that name have much more to offer Christianity than the journal-writing and related practices that this movement has developed in an attempt to reach the “postmodern” generation.
Good comments. I agree with you. The postmodern critique of modernism has allowed for much more depth and breadth of insight in terms of how knowledge and communication actually work. What else have you read that you have found helpful in this regard?
I’m not sure I understand your statement about how structuralism and postmodernism have significantly increased our understanding of linguistics – I might need a little more info on that one, and it sounds like a curiously modernist statement to me. When I read St. Augustine or St. Gregory of Nyssa (or any church father or classical philosopher, really), I find them saying the kinds of things that our postmodern philosophers are saying right now (not to mention in a more succinct and compelling manner). For example, compare Plato’s and Augustine’s concern about images with Jean Baudrillard’s. They are virtually the same. While we should really engage these thinkers (which for a Christian operating as such is really unavoidable), we need to know our own toolbox. I think this is the real strength of Smith’s work as he levels an orthodox critique of postmodernism using some very old (and yet not rusty at all) tools.
Let me know if I’m missing your main point though – I might be.
What we (Christians) need to adopt is neither postmodernism nor modernism, but a philosophy of science called “critical realism.” Critical realism builds on the work of Michael Polanyi and offers (or perhaps uses) the same critiques of postmodernism without embracing postmodernism’s ultimately self-defeating conclusions. N.T. Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” is a good source to learn about critical realism, and Newbigin’s “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” never uses the critical realist label but is a critical realist take on ecclesiology. Critical realism is popular in England but unfortunately has not had much play in American academia, though that might be changing.
Can you explain critical realism a bit more? And I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say “postmodernism’s ultimately self-defeating conclusions,” unless you mean that postmodernism falls short of Christianity.
For a brief explanation of critical realism, see pages 1575-1577 of this article: http://www.prc.utexas.edu/upload-files/20080630-181426-smith_sf_2008.pdf . (Evidently html coding doesn’t work in the comments…)
For an even briefer explanation, N.T. Wright explains, “…I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence “realism”), while fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”). (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, pp. 35)
Re: self-defeating conclusions. I come at this from a social science perspective, wherein this issue raises its head with respect to social constructionism. There are strong and weak versions of social constructionism, the strong being that all reality is a social construction, the weak being that *our understanding of reality* is socially constructed. The weak form is useful; the strong form is self-defeating. I have no reason to believe the claim of a strong constructionist because it itself is just a social construction. We have no referent from which to judge its merit, and ultimately no basis for anything. Essentially, even strong constructionists are making absolute claims. If they didn’t, why should anyone listen?
Some of the individuals behind the idea of social construction are invariably modernists, though, so it’s unfair to equate it with postmodernism. James K.A. Smith includes Foucault out of necessity, not because the man belongs in a line-up of postmodernists. Foucault himself rejected the label and believed that some kind of reality existed, but did not believe that we had gotten at it (his sentiments do not sound that far of from N.T. Wright’s on this subject). This is why the distinction between weak and strong social construction, in my opinion, seems like a charming but ultimately fruitless concept. It doesn’t matter if we can get at reality or not if we can’t understand it. Weak social construction seems just as dangerous as the strong, with the only element to be gained from the weak being a mind-relaxing idea of reality being out there.
I’m interested in this statement of yours, “I have no reason to believe…” to which a proponent of social construction would say “it’s a construction that reality is predicated upon the operations of logic.” Of course, you can respond as you did – both of the arguments are circular and ultimately self-defeating. You may argue that such an argument is all construction, while a constructionist could ask that you demonstrate the rationality or necessity of a commitment to a form of rationality or logic. In doing so you’d be begging the question, assuming the very thing you’d be trying to prove.
But I think this really strays too far from the subject at hand, which is that postmodernism does not really challenge the church to the extent that most people think it does, which was my point in reviewing James K.A. Smith’s book. In fact, it might end up that the Bible could speak to postmodernists.
“It doesn’t matter if we can get at reality or not if we can’t understand it.” I would disagree here. And it’s not that we can’t understand it; it’s that we can’t really claim–given our human limitations–to have absolute knowledge of absolute reality. That doesn’t mean we can’t make claims with universal intent, just that no one person can legitimately claim to possess absolute knowledge. Ultimately we all make an a priori commitment to some empirically unverifiable narrative about what is real, etc., and go from there.
You are probably right that this is going off track. My larger (and rather simple) point is that we need to be aware and knowledgeable of other philosophies of science that might fit into a Christian worldview, and not just postmodernism.
I’ve enjoyed reading these comments. They are pretty much above my level of comprehension — much like Rafael Nadal’s level of tennis compared to mine. I was struck by your comment, Daniel, that “it might end up that the Bible could speak to postmodernists”. Forgive me for sounding overly simplistic, but isn’t that true for any reader of the Bible if the Holy Spirit is at work in the reader? That we aren’t open to its truth without the work of the Spirit? I fully realize I could be missing the greater point you have made…
Jill, it was more a sarcastic and rhetorical comment than anything. But I do think you’ve emphasized a very profound point about the subject that I didn’t mention enough much in the original post – too many people talk about different groups of people, and in my experience it’s the “postmodernists” that get this treatment more than most, as if they have to convert to something else before converting to Christianity. We are quick to look at people who believe very different things and we instinctively think they might need to embrace something else (perhaps a pro-life position) before they can embrace Jesus. But you’ve rightly pointed out that Jesus has to be embraced first before anything else falls into place. The Bible does speak to the concerns of the postmodern thinker, and I think we’d do best just to get out of its way.