James K.A. Smith, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism

James K.A. Smith (2006). Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Postmodernism–this word is essentially a profanity in many evangelical circles. It has also been (ab)used as a war cry for those Christians who have “emerged” from their modernist coreligionist. Most people have no idea what it means…maybe this is the most accurate appraisal.

For those confused by postmodernity evangelical philosopher James K.A. Smith provides a road map. Along the journey the reader is invited to worship God in the presence of the “unholy, Parisian Trinity” of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. For those wondering what Jerusalem has to do with Paris this book is a starting point.

Smith begins by introducing the postmodern situation. The reader may find herself scandalized or he may shrug his shoulders as if Smith is describing the town in which you were raised. For both the modern peering in at postmodernity and the postmodern who is like a fish in water this book will provide a description of the world that is coming/has come.

It is from there that we are introduced to Derrida and his project of deconstruction. We are challenged by Derrida’s direct assault on our myth of objectivity when reading a text. At the same time we are challenged to ask where Derrida goes too far in his literary criticisms and what this means for a church that reads Scrip-ture.

Lyotard is next with his criticism of meta-narratives. How does Christianity–a story that explains everything from Creation to Eschaton–survive in a world post-meta-narrative (if we are in such a world)? Is the result some sort of cultural relativism?

The third and final stop is lunch with Foucault and his critique of power. Is all knowledge power? Is power bad in and of itself?

Smith is often very accommodating of these philosophers, but I found this helpful. We often hear from Christian writers how demonic these Frenchmen are. It is nice to see there is a good side (especially as one with French roots).

It is from here that a reader can launch into her own exploration of the merits and demerits of postmodern thought. Before the book ends Smith takes a look at the ecclesiological implications. I found myself struggling more with this chapter than the other ones. As a Reformed philosopher Smith’s arguments for dogmatics seems more befitting of a Papist. I wondered how a “Protestant” could appeal so strongly to tradition and catholicity in the sense that he does. It gave me a lot to ponder and I am sure it will do the same for you.