Review: “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism” Pt1

Tony Sig

***My special thanks to Caitlin at Baker Academic for the review copy!***

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic & Brazos Press; 2nd edition (April 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080102918X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801029189
  • Baker
  • Amazon

See Part II here.

If a pastor or educated layman or undergraduate were to ask me where to start with getting a grip on “Postmodernism” and Christianity I would without question point them in the direction of the series put out by Baker Academic – now spanning an impressive 5 volumes – entitled “The Church and Postmodern Culture.”  We will be examining several of the volumes and I think that they shall prove quite valuable to the task at hand.

The first volume is authored by the Series editor James K. A. Smith.  What separates this book from say, Stanley Grenz’s intro is that Smith is a professional philosopher trained in Phenomenology.  Smith was an AG elder for some time but has since moved on and now teaches at Calvin College.  Unlike Grenz’s intro which looks into the various cultural manifestations of postmodernism, this book makes no attempt at comprehension.  There is an introductory chapter, a chapter on Derrida, a chapter on Lyotard, one on Foucault and a final chapter which points to “Radical Orthodoxy” as faithful way for the Church to incorporate postmodern insights to be more fully itself.

Each chapter begins with an illustration from a film, then moves into an examination of a particularly famous phrase from one of the three thinkers and attempts to move us past “bumper sticker” interpretations of these phrases.  Concluding each chapter is a section on “Taking X to Church” that moves us into praxis.

Smith sees himself as doing what Francis Schaeffer did for a previous generation.  Rather than thinking that “culture” gives birth to “ideas” both Smith and Schaeffer see “ideas” and academic ideas in particular as having the primary place of influence.  And so Smith intends to look at the issues with a critical depth and one never gets the feeling that they are reading a shallow critique of the issues.

After the introductory chapter Smith begins with an examination of Derrida.  More specifically the famous Derrida quote that “There is nothing outside the text.”  This phrase is often taken to mean that Derrida believes that there is nothing “real” or that there are just “ideas.”  This position would make it difficult to reconcile with Christian witness that there is a transcendent God prior to the world on whom the world is dependent for existence.

Smith rejects this interpretation and points to later Derrida to help fill in some gaps.  Derrida explained later that the phrase should be taken to mean that there is nothing outside context.  Smith points out that “On Grammatology” is in large part an extended dialogue with Jean-Jauques Rousseau’s essay “On the Origin of Language.”  Rousseau posits that language is a sort of lens or film clouding our understanding of what objects are.  That is, language distorts reality and the objectively real is something that must be known in ways that do not use language.  To this Derrida says “NEIN!” – Well actually he says something in French but you get the idea.

Against this Derrida says that there is no reality that is experienced without interpretation; without mediation.  Even seeing a cup “in the flesh” requires interpretation.  It is just that our extensive cultural conditioning does not allow for an easy look into our a priori understandings of how things are.

To illustrate this Smith uses the cartoon “The Little Mermaid.”  As a whole he takes the story as an evil that promotes consumerism and greed, but he makes swell use of the pericope of “The Dinglehopper.”  Not having any knowledge of how humans act apart from her information received from Scuttle the Seagull.  It is Scuttle who informs Ariel that a Fork is actually a Dinglehopper and is used to comb ones hair.  In an amusing scene once Ariel is finally ‘human,’ at a dinner she grabs a fork (or is it really a Dinglehopper?) and confidently begins to comb her hair.  Obviously this is “not” what a fork is for.

At this point one may not actually feel that Smith has made a convincing case for Christian appropriation of a Derridean insight because if “everything is an interpretation” then Holy Scripture and the Gospel is “merely” an interpretation.  Smith proposes that this is not as bad a thing as it initially seems to be and challenges readers to think about the  implications.

Instantly the Scriptures become a public and communal document thereby in a certain way legitimizing historical readings of Scripture against individualism and a spirit of non-accountability.  Which, at the same time does not shut off new readings in Community.

What then…?  Some might ask.  Isn’t there any way to “truly” and “objectively” “know” the truth of the Gospel?  In a word, no.  But, Smith points out, one can reduce the message of Salvation to “The Romans Road” or a series of logically symbolic propositions and teach them to a goat but that doesn’t produce saving faith.  Similarly, we should never have been expected to “know” the Gospel in such a fashion.

He finishes on a brief note supporting a “deconstructive” Church that refuses to close the text off from new readings.  He could have quoted the ole’ saying: “God hath yet more light to break forth from Holy Scripture.”

From Derrida Smith then examines Lyotard and his famous quote “Postmodernity is incredulity toward Meta-Narratives.”  Aptly using the film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” to begin the chapter Smith says: “Postmodernism can be understood as the erosion of confidence in the rational as sole guarantor and deliverer of truth, coupled with a deep suspicion of science – particularly modern science’s pretensious claims to an ultimate theory of everything.”

It is plain to see that we have not broken into a new “postmodern” world, rather postmodern suspicion is evinced by the landscape of LA with the curvaceous non-linear architechture of  Frank Gehry next to the crumbling and pathetic modern glass boxes and projects from the likes of Le Corbusier.  A few posts into the future I will examine Architecture as a key to understanding Modern and Postmoder.

It is right here though that the scared Christian (or scientist!) might wonder how we can possibly support such a claim.  Is not the Bible a “meta-narrative” of epic proportions covering everything from Creation to Apocalypse?

This is precisely where Smith insists that the bumper sticker reading of “meta-narrative’ is simply not correct in its diagnosis.  Smith believes that Lyotard’s “Metanarrative” is not concerned with the size of the narrative but the nature of the claims they make.  Modernity is the original “meta-narrative” because it tells a story and appeals to authority in “Universal Reason:”  Science, like any story, when pushed must give reasons of legitimization which it claims to find in “Reason,” an a-historical, trans-cultural, pre-linguistic, universally excessible “thing” called “Reason” to which any rational creature anywhere at anytime has direct and near infallible access provided they use objective means to search out their answers.

Another way of putting this is that modernity (because to the “modern” scientific, “real” science began post Enlightenments) appeals to authority outside of it’s own story.  Lyotard says it thus:  “I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit [Hegel], the hermeneutics of meaning [Schleiermacher?], the emancipation of the rational [Kant] or working subject [Marx], or the creation of wealth [Adam Smith]…”

Against this Lyotard says that narratives are and should be auto-legitimizing needing no justification outside of their own story.  Calvin comes almost precisely near this by speaking about the self-authentication of Scripture.

This allows for the Church to be faith-full to its witness and need not sacrifice its story the many competing stories.

Note, that this is not a call for modernity or “science” to give up its narrative.  Rather it needs to recognize the narrative as such and seek to put some freakin’ clothes on.

Practically speaking this Christian giving-up of a meta-discourse should entail that we become a story-telling-Church again.  The/a Lectionary is a must to allow the Church to be governed by the whole Scriptures and not the whim and favorites of a lone pastor.  And in the final two chapters we will discuss in more depth the discipleship practices that these thinkers open up.


  1. (P.S. I did read the post. Not trying to derail.)

    I can’t decide if the structure of the book would work for me or make me feel like I was back in youth group. 😛

    “Each chapter begins with an illustration from a film, then moves into an examination of a particularly famous phrase from one of the three thinkers and attempts to move us past “bumper sticker” interpretations of these phrases. Concluding each chapter is a section on “Taking X to Church” that moves us into praxis.”

    I was just at the Physical Therapist earlier, and the guy is smart and all… but he talks to everyone like their in third grade. I just wanted to have an adult conversation.

    So yeah… I might pick this one up and thumb through it, but I have my reservations.


  2. Tony,

    Like I said, this is not at all an academic or comprehensive intro. I think that it would not necessarily fulfill what you might be looking for.

    But in it’s defense, Smith is a professionally trained philosopher not some hack. He knows his stuff. It is not at all like a youth group kind of intro. The movie usages are very normal for phenomenological writing which applies advanced psycho-analytical critique to pop-cultural phenomenon.


  3. i really appreciate your insights here as i come to this book with only a general understanding of postmodernism and these specific thinkers. im looking forward to reading it now.

    i am particularly inspired by your discussion of the meta narrative. understanding such frameworks helps sift some of the proof based apologetic approaches that my parents ascribe to and why we have such a difficult time conversing about our shared faith.

    i look forward to the next post..


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