Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Part 2)

I’m in the midst of a 5-part series, particularly walking through Jamie Smith’s book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. I am engaging with the 5 chapters of the book over 5 articles. My first post can be found here where I lay out some of Smith’s introductory comments, ones that exhort the church to realise we could actually utilise healthy bits of postmodern thought for the glory of God and the expansion of his kingdom.

But, from Smith’s perspective, the problem remains two-fold: a) much of the writings of postmodern giants (such as Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault) has been gravely misunderstood, taken out of the context in which they were given and b) a commitment to a modernist, Enlightenment approach to truth.

In their place, Smith advocates that we can learn from these postmodern thinkers and that our approach to truth should be grounded in a more practical postmodern approach (which will be explained in this article).

In an effort to combat wrong perspectives of postmodernism, Smith begins by assessing Jacques Derrida himself.

Smith argues that we’ve had a misconception in regards to the more well-known phrase of Derrida, ‘There is nothing outside the text.’

As such, many have understood Derrida as a linguistic idealist who thinks there is only language, not things – only texts, not cups or tables. This is how he is commonly understood by Christians, especially Christian theologians.

Of course, a Christian could not be a linguistic idealist (someone who thinks there are only words, not things) for at least two reasons: First, if there is nothing outside the text, then a transcendent Creator who is distinct from and prior to the world could not exist. In this sense, linguistic idealism would have to entail atheism. If Derrida is a linguistic idealist, then deconstruction and Christian faith are mutually exclusive. Second, if there is nothing outside the text, then it would seem that what the Bible (admittedly a text) talks about – what it refers to – is not real. When the Bible speaks about the incarnation, or the effects of the work of Christ, or a spiritual warfare in the heavenly realms, all these references must not be real. But if these claims are not real – if it is not the case that Jesus really is God in the flesh (John 1:14), or if his death on the cross did not effect a cosmic transformation (Col 1:20) – then Christianity is at best a fiction and at worst a waste of time. Thus the common conclusion is that Derrida’s claim that there is nothing outside the text is antithetical to authentic Christian confession. (p34-35)

But what is Derrida really getting at about text, about words?

To make his point, Smith brings in the thoughts of the earlier Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Derrida interacted with in his own works. Rousseau, coming out of a more 16th century, modernist era, longed for the ‘simpler’ days, one when interpretation of life through words wasn’t needed. We could just experience things ‘as is’, as they were meant naturally. None of this interpretative interference and distortion would be needed.

But is this possible?

This is where Derrida’s thoughts come in to help bring our heads out of the Rousseaun clouds. Derrida would assert that it’s not actually possible to evade any sort of interpretation of life or texts. And Smith agrees, noting our human approach while even reading simple texts or books:

But most of the time, we don’t think we interpret; we simply read. In these cases we assume that the text under consideration is clear and therefore doesn’t require interpretation. We might need some background or context, but once those pieces are in place, we don’t need to interpret. Instead, the text takes on a kind of transparency so that we can simply see what it means…When I read the newspaper, I don’t need to “interpret”; I simply need to read. (p37)

And this perspective can invade our interaction with Scripture in much the same way:

And most of us think that when we read the Bible, the same is true; yes, some passages are difficult, or the poetry of Song of Solomon might throw us for a loop, but if we’re reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, things are pretty clear. We simply need to provide a commentary that gives us the background and context. Such a commentary is like a cloth that cleans the text to grant it the transparency that makes interpretation unnecessary. (p37)

Of course, there is hardly anyone that would argue that we do not interpret Scripture on some level (though we might forget we interpret all of life and texts). But there is a kind of myth that can exist amongst Christians, one where we believe very little interpretation is ever needed as we engage Scripture. The Bible is clear with the creation narrative, the slaughtering of the Canaanite peoples, the historical reporting methods of the Scriptural authors, the nature of the incarnation, the setting for Christ’s arrival, the gospel and justification in Paul’s letters, etc. Yes, we can pull out our books to give us a little background, but the ‘code’ is rather easily unlocked as the jigsaw pieces fall together.

But this approach fails to realise how much of our engagement with Scripture (or any text) is deeply rooted in interpretation. Such interpretation proceeds when we head to the ‘other’ books (commentaries, etc), then continues after we leave the other books to head back into Scripture. Actually, we might add that even greater interpretation is now taking place as we add to the data bank. Whereas it was simply an open Bible (though that would call for enough interpretation itself), it is now multiple ‘layers’ helping to form our newly developed lens. Thus, there was never a fully objective approach in the whole process.

For example, I’ve written before how very, very difficult it is to read Romans 5 without reading an Augustinian view of ‘original sin’. I’d love most evangelicals to try it as an exercise. And, hopefully by engaging some of these thoughts of Smith, we might now recognise the silliness in saying, ‘Well, it’s clearly there in the text.’

Is it? Not so fast.

Jamie Smith clarifies the Derridean insight:

It is not just that writing or texts are the portal through which we must pass in order to get to things or the gates that provide access to an uninterpreted reality; rather, 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. Textuality, for Derrida, is linked to interpretation. To claim that there is nothing outside the text is to say that everything is a text, which means not that everything is a book, or that we live within a giant, all-encompassing book, but rather that everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced…all our experience is always already an interpretation. (p39)

This is how it is. We don’t realise it most of the time because we go through the interpretive process very quickly. Boom! And we have already interpreted the message of this article, the motive of this article, all the while interpreting the taste of the coffee sitting in the cup just next to our computer.

Smith continues by engaging with the opposing perspective about truth and knowledge, mainly that of reformed theologian, D.A. Carson (particular in Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church):

While Carson rightly notes that human knowledge can never pretend to omniscience [which just about every Christian would agree to], this doesn’t mean we can’t claim to know in a finite but real manner. But his affirmation of finite knowledge always elides into an affirmation of objective knowledge. Although he does not define objectivity (quite an oversight, given his project), Carson clearly means this to carry some connotation of self-evident givenness: if a truth is objective, then it is not a matter of interpretation. (p43)

Thus, for such people, Derrida’s thoughts are anti-biblical because what is true must be ‘objective’. If the gospel is in any way non-objective, then it would seem it cannot be true. The same would be argued for the authors of Scripture.

But this is an overstatement, an over-reaction to reality. We find not only interpretation on our level as we engage with the biblical text, but even the biblical writers are giving an interpretation themselves (and, thus, a non-objective reporting). The varying different details found in the Gospels or between the different history records in Samuel-Kings and Chronicles shows us that a particular interpretation is being given. Each is giving their own perspective into the situation.

Now, just wait a moment! Let me flesh some things out more.

Smith, nor I, am arguing for some kind of evil, deceptive, false accounting in Scripture. And, as hinted at earlier, this is a major problem with those wanting to advocate a modernist-objective perspective about truth and knowledge, such as Carson. We think it must be objective if it is truth, or actual truth must come in the objective format. If it’s from God, it is completely 100% objective. Nothing less.

But this is an assumption that does not line up with how God has given his revelation – through finite (and fallen) human beings. God, in his essence, is the only one who is fully objective. We, as finite (and fallen) humans, are not objective. But truth can come in non-objective formats. Scripture still remains true. We can still reasonably understand God’s revelation and truth in Jesus Christ. But there is a subjective, interpretative element to it. And it’s ok. Again, simply stated – this is the way it is and it is ok! God could have written his own book, but he chose to use real, finite and fallen people to give us his revelation.

Not only that, but even if Scripture were to contain 100% objective accounts at all points, it does not negate the reality that we subjectively engage with it at an interpretive level. Still, I can’t see us being able to evade the point that the Scripture writers were also, on some level, interpreting God’s revelatory work.

This is where faith (the all-important aspect of faith) becomes so important. This is why we are believers. If everything were objective – for both the Scripture writers and us today – faith would not be needed. Even if God were to step out of heaven himself (and we believe he actually did this), there is still a level of a non-objective engagement, interpretation of God’s work in Christ.

So what does this practically mean for us as Christians who believe the gospel?

It doesn’t mean that truth is completely unattainable, as a more anti-realist postmodern perspective would suggest. Rather we can practically and reasonably know God and his revelation in the gospel (though not 100% objectively). We have not only the testimony of our personal reading of Scripture, since Scripture was never ultimately meant to be personally interpreted. But we have all the good tools God has given us – the Holy Spirit himself, the historic body of Christ, the current body of Christ we are connected to, our leadership, good general-creational revelation and, of course, the testimony of the God-breathed Scripture.

And our response, as Smith suggests, is that this should create more of a humility in our public engagement with theology. Yes, this can be taken too far. And Smith recognises this in parts of the emerging church. Some reject any grasp on real truth and walk around with a false humility. He does not advocate such.

But, whereas Smith believes a more modernist approach to truth has led us to polarise ourselves from the rest of humanity created in God’s image or, even worse, the body of Christ itself, he advises us to relax a little and learn from one another, knowing none of us has the corner market on understanding God’s revelation. Matter of fact, Smith reminds us of where our confidence lies:

But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective). (p51)

Yet he also reminds us that a loss of 100% objectivity should not lead us into a tailspin of despair, nor destroy our boldness for the gospel. We have a solid and reasonable testimony for the gospel. It just calls for a bit of an adjustment in our epistemology (knowing how we know things) and a level of humility together.

In all, Smith believes that Derrida’s statement – ‘There is nothing outside the text.’ – should lead us back to understand, as best we can, the greatest text God has given us, that is holy Scripture. But this text should also find its best interpretation within the Spirit-governed community of the church. God forbid we find ourselves thinking the highest attainment in the Christian life is private interpretations of Scripture.

So the answer is not an extreme modernism that leaves us with an insatiable appetite for objectively empirical truth. Nor is the answer a completely anti-realist postmodernism that says everything is simply the interpretation of our own little communities and, thus, we cannot ever really grasp truth.

Rather, there is a middle ground, a balanced approach. And I believe the view Smith is commending, via Derrida, that of a more practical realist approach of postmodernism, is most healthy. God has revealed himself, ultimately in Christ. That revelation has come to us itself through an interpretive act in Scripture and continues today in our interpretive engagement with Scripture. But we can still reasonably, practically and healthily grasp God’s revelation in Christ, the gospel and holy Scripture.

In the next post, I will engage with Jamie Smith’s thoughts on Lyotard.

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