Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

By James K. A. Smith
Grand Rapids : Baker (2006). 156 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Vlach
17.2 (Fall 2006) : 249-251

Tertullian’s famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” is given a new twist by James K. A. Smith in his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? For Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, the question before the Christian church now is, “What has Paris to do with Jerusalem?” (10).

The aim of Smith’s book, which is part of the The Church and Postmodern Culture series, is to offer a non-technical introduction to postmodernism and to show how postmodernism should be a catalyst for the church to recover its authentic mission. He also attempts to show how the unholy trinity of French postmodern scholars—Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, when correctly understood, offers insights that “have a deep affinity with central Christian claims” (22).

Smith’s work has five chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the concept of postmodernism and why Christians should be aware of the cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism. Chapters 2–4 are the heart of the book. Here Smith discusses how the primary postmodern thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault “can push us to recapture some truths about the nature of the church that have been overshadowed by modernity and especially by Christian appropriations of modernism” (23). Chapter 5 is Smith’s attempt to show how postmodernism can actually be a stimulus for authentic Christianity. Here Smith chastises the evangelical church for being too modern and relying on outdated concepts of objectivity, absolute truth, and Cartesian certainty. The postmodern church, on the other hand, is in a position to recapture important elements such as tradition, catholicity, the sacraments, community, liturgy, and aesthetics (136–143).

While trying to position himself between those who see postmodernism either as savior or devil, Smith clearly aligns himself with those who view postmodernism as a mostly positive development. In doing so, he also finds himself in agreement with much that is going on with the Emerging Church Movement, which has openly embraced postmodern concepts.

The most helpful part of this book for this reviewer was Smith’s analysis of certain “bumper sticker” slogans that are most associated with postmodernism. For instance, Smith shows that Derrida’s oft quoted statement, “There is nothing outside the text” is not a claim that only language exists and that everything else such as cups or tables do not. As Smith points out, Derrida is no linguistic idealist. Instead, what Derrida meant by “There is nothing outside the text” is that everything is subject to interpretation (39). Thus, even the most basic objects taken for granted, such as cups or forks, must be interpreted.

Smith also does a similar analysis of Lyotard’s claim that postmodernity is “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Smith argues that Lyotard is not arguing against big stories or epics that tell an overarching tale about the world. Instead, what Lyotard is against are claims that metanarratives can be proven with certainty by appeals to universal reason. Smith also attempts to show the proper understanding of Foucault’s statement, “Power is knowledge.” Since even postmodern thinkers deserve to be understood in context (although some may not offer the same courtesy to us), Smith has done a good service by clearing up confusion on what these popular philosophers believed.

This reviewer did find fundamental points of disagreement with the book. First, while profiting from a clear explanation of what Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault meant by what they said, a convincing case was not made as to why the church should be interested in applying the ideas of these non-Christian philosophers. The church at various times in history has been influenced by non-Christian philosophers (Augustine–Plotinus, Aquinas–Aristotle.). Plus, there is no denying that non-Christian philosophers at times make statements compatible with Christianity (even stopped clocks are right twice a day). However, the Scriptures do not call on God’s people to incorporate non-Christian philosophy into the church. In fact, the church is instructed to guard itself against the infiltration of worldly philosophies (see Col 2:8–10).

A second concern is that Smith promotes the common belief among postmodern scholars that no objective truth exists. Apparently, Smith has concluded that since all things are subject to interpretation and that all people have biases and presuppositions, then objective truth must not exist. However, the fact that certain factors make epistemic certainty difficult at times does not mean that absolute, objective truth does not exist.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Smith’s denial of objective truth has dangerous consequences such as holding that Christianity is not more objectively true than other religions. For example, Smith claims the Christian understanding of reality is an interpretation and is no more objectively true than the Buddhist understanding: “Both are interpretations; neither is objectively true” (50).

Giving a readable summary of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault is no small task. For this Smith should be commended. Yet this reviewer remains unconvinced that Paris has much to do with Jerusalem or that Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault are wells from which the church should drink.