Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Part 1)

At my core, I consider myself a shepherd-teacher. And, hence, I would not classify myself a historian, biologist, political scientist, nor a philosopher. Still, at times, I try to engage in some of these areas at some simple level. I think a thoughtful Christian, at least within western confines, would do well to consider points of interest coming out of these fields. Of course, it is probably of no great consequence if all do not. And, again, I only do so sparingly. But it might be worth it as we look to be salt and light within the context God has placed us.

With philosophy, well, I suppose I took a Philosophy 101 class in my first year at university. But I don’t remember much about it, other than it was one of the easiest classes I ever took, as the teacher gave pretty much open space for discussion around varying relevant topics of the day. But more of a thoughtful engagement with philosophy has only come recently. And that involvement was mainly ‘on the side’ with the books I’ve read recently.

One of the primary opportunities came in the lengthy first chapter of Kenton Sparks’ work, God’s Word in Human Words (he also does an even more simplified intro in his newest work, Sacred Word, Broken Word). In both works, he distinguishes between the perspectives of the premodern, modern and postmodern eras. You can see some brief thoughts in this article.

I’ve also read Peter Rollins’ work, How (Not) To Speak of God, one in which you see a very Derridean postmodern perspective coming through his thoughts on theology. But I’ll leave this text to the side for now.

But my most recent reading has brought me to James K.A. Smith’s text, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. Smith is a philosophy and ministry studies professor at the well-known, reformed school, Calvin College (see his page here). I have a few friends that have raved of his many books, including this text on understanding postmodern thought. Thus, following my entrance into the shallow waters of philosophical thought, I decided to purchase a copy of Smith’s book assessing postmodern thought and culture.

The book is not long at all, being 160 pages in total. It basically stands as a lay text for the non-philosopher, like myself. I still have one final chapter to read, but what I want to do is to take 5 articles to look at the 5 chapters – introductory thoughts, assessment of Derrida, assessment of Lyotard, assessment of Foucault, and the conclusion thoughts.

For me, the first 2 chapters have been the creme de la creme. As the church father Tertullian asked so long ago – What does Athens (or the Academy) have to do with Jerusalem (God’s people)? – Smith is asking a similar question in his work – What does Paris (where postmodernism was birthed) have to do with Jerusalem (God’s people)? Many were and have been skeptical of academia, which is without warrant at certain points, knowing the anti-God perspective of many scholars. And the same stands true with postmodernism. Such is seen as a very anti-Christian model of thought, given to tear down truth as a whole, which would then specifically include obliterating the foundational truth of Christ and the gospel.

But, interestingly enough, this reformed professor, Jamie Smith, presents quite a different thesis than one would have first imagined. As opposed to the position of many Christians, Smith believes postmodern thought is not all evil. Rather, a balanced practical postmodernist approach can actually bring a healthy perspective to our Christian worldview. Oddly enough, this is what Kenton Sparks also advocates in his works – a practical realist position (we can come to a reasonable grasp of truth, though not fully objective), as opposed to an anti-realist position (we cannot really know truth at all).

In presenting a more positive approach to postmodern thought, Smith tackles the ‘bumper sticker’ sayings of 3 postmodern giants:

  • “There is nothing outside the text.” (Derrida)
  • Postmodernism is “incredulity toward [not willing to believe] metanarratives.” (Lyotard)
  • “Power is knowledge.” (Foucault)

At first glance, these 3 slogans seem quite anti-Christian. But Smith is convinced we have not understood them in the context in which they were originally given:

The problem is that all questions are rooted in a misunderstanding of the claims being made. In other words, these slogans (which were never intended as slogans by their authors) are treated like bumper stickers: claims made without a context. (p21)

But he believes these slogans, properly understood in their context, can be helpful, not just harmful. He goes on to remind us:

…just as the Hebrews left Egypt with Egyptian gold to be put to use in the worship of Yahweh (even if they misdirected its use at times), so Christians can find resources in non-Christian thought – whether that of Plato or Derrida – that can be put to work for the glory of God and the furtherance of the kingdom. (p22-23)

Smith believes that the supreme characteristic of modernism, that of reason and rationality, has actually taken over much of the theological and apologetic approaches of Christianity. If we rationally think and reason about these things long enough, we can come to objective and incorrigible conclusions about the truth. This will prove our Christian stance on Christ, the gospel and Scripture. Yet, Smith believes much of western Christian faith has been too strongly tainted by modernism if we fail to remember the great affect of sin upon our reason. We cannot reach the place we are most likely trying to attain.

Consequently, Jamie Smith champions a more practical postmodern, and subsequently much more anciently rooted, perspective of narrative story over that of objective reason:

Modern Christianity tends to think of the church either as a place where individuals come to find answers to their questions or as one more stop where individuals can try to satisfy their consumerist desires. As such, Christianity becomes intellectualized rather than incarnate, commodified rather than the site of genuine community. (p28-29)

…postmodernism can be a catalyst for the church to reclaim its faith not as a system of truth dictated by a neutral reason but rather as a story that requires “eyes to see and ears to hear.” (p28)

Though America is still in somewhat of a transitionary period, with Europe already having led the transition into postmodernity, Smith believes we can take the meat and spit out the bones in learning to reach this current generation. If we tell the ancient story of Christ, the gospel and of Scripture, this will be much more effective in drawing people into our faith journey with Christ than that of giving verifiable proof to every question that exists.

And so he ends the chapter with these words:

Nothing is more countercultural than a community serving the Suffering Servant in a world devoted to consumption and violence. But the church will have this countercultural, prophetic witness only when it jettisons its own modernity; in that respect postmodernism can be another catalyst for the church to be the church. (p29)

I believe Jamie Smith brings a very helpful introduction to understanding postmodern thought, one that dispels the idea that postmodernism is simply of the enemy. Of course, Derrida and his counterparts were not championing anything of Christ. Yet, if we realistically engage with some of the more practical aspects as presented in postmodern thought, we can, as Smith suggests, use it ‘for the glory of God and the furtherance of the kingdom.’

I tend to agree. Fear will not lead us forward, but rather faithful involvement before the Lord in the context of our own culture.

Next it is on to Smith’s assessment of Derrida.

3 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Part 1)

  1. You should have come along with me in Philosophy in a Catholic College (UK), back in the 70’s, oh that’s right, you were not born yet! 😉 And I have lived long enough to have seen both modernism to postmodernism, and the loss of the Judeo-Christian culture!

    • Robert –

      I am a 79-er kid.

      You might be surprised in reading such a reformed theologian-philosopher as Jamie Smith. Somehow the church utilised modernism for a few centuries. Perhaps we might utilise the thought framework of postmodernism. Perhaps…….nah, never! Right?

      • Old man eh? lol Yes, the Church has always worked the edges, I remember how the Church used “existentialism” to enhance the understanding of Scripture, Pascal, Kierkegaard, etc. But of course it was/is also fallible! 😉

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