Review of “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” Pt II

Tony Sig

See the first part here along with links to where to purchase the book.

Picking up where we left off, in the third chapter Smith examines Foucault. Because of the subtleties involved in Smith’s utilization of Foucault this ends up being longer than previous chapters and his critique of Foucault is more subtle than for the last two thinkers (Derrida and Lyotard). This likely has to do with the fact that elucidating Foucault’s “one liner” – “Power is Knowledge” – takes one into the larger Foucault corpus whereas Smith was able to examine smaller bits of work from Derrida and Lyotard.

There is some initial difficulty examining Foucault’s work as many believe there are several Foucault’s.

There is a Nietszchian Foucault who seems to be interested only in examining the interplay of power. This Foucault has no agenda but genealogical description and cynical nihilism. He has no desire to “prescribe” solutions to the seemingly ill reality of power exchange and he is not attempting to assert that “power” is “bad.”

There is also a “Liberal/Modernist/Enlightenment” Foucault. Later in his career Foucault admitted that he saw himself as in an Enlightenment line stemming from Kant. We see this even in the way he describes his conclusions which seems to have a moral connotation built in, so to speak: “There is only a single drama [that] is ever staged. . .the endlessly repeated play of dominations”

Smith examines Foucault’s early work mostly, especially his work Discipline and Punishment. By means of a genealogy of sorts, Foucault concludes that power is necessary and constituitive of society. He also shows how the subtle relations of power exchange shapes people into who they think they are. Foucault would not much buy into all this discussion of “who I am” as an isolated thing/person who has intrinsic qualities. More appropriate to say that a person is a construct of discipline and culture.

This critique seems ripe for the creation of narratives of “salvation” and “liberation.” “Freeing” people from the subjegation of power seems like something that Christians should jump right on.

But the question becomes, Smith rightly says, what types of power and discipline might be appropriate for Christians?

And does an iconoclastic liberative narrative truly create the types of people we are meant to be?

Smith looks to the Christian ascetical tradition and discipleship practices as means of forming an alternative discipline. Being shaped into the people we are meant to be involves becoming subject to the disciplines of our respective Churches as well as historical means of being shaped. Especially a Daily Office, a Lectionary, and the Liturgy. These can give us the horizon for discernment and the imagination to take Christian truths deep within us so that “being” Christian becomes an intuitive matter of habit. This falls in the Christian tradition that appropriated Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics.

Here Smith begins to sound very much like Hauerwas and much less like his Reformed and Charismatic bretheren who tend towards, respectively, the iconoclastic rupture of “The Word” and the “free” movement of the Spirit.  I am in near total agreement with Smith on this. We will be formed by something(s). It is absolute and inevitable. And so allowing ourselves to be shaped by the greater Christian ascetical Tradition is one of the only ways of beginning to overcome the subtle and systematic ways that our culture shape us towards other Teloi than that of conformity to the Mind of Christ.

In his closing chapter Smith briefly, very briefly, lays out what he feels is the/a way to integrate “postmodernity” and Christian faith. That is by Radical Orthodoxy and redeeming dogma. Not only does he feel that this puts postmodernity in service to the Church and not the other way around but ironically it is a more persistant postmodernism than even Derrida can muster up.

I hesitate to elaborate too detailed a sketch of Radical Orthodoxy for a few reasons. Even in his concluding chapter Smith does no more than point in the general direction of the theological sensibility that is Radical Orthodoxy, but also because I plan on doing further posts on this very topic. I will venture this, quoting from George Weigel’s “Letters to a Young Catholic,” Smith essentially believes that any “protestant” theology worth a buck in the future will be decidedly “post-protestant” in that it cannot be afraid to be “catholic;” by which he means apparently that Protestantism itself take up a “Resourcement” project, it should have it’s very own nouvelle theologie movement. I am to a large extent content to agree with him. Where I would press back is that he seems to think that becoming “catholic” is simply a matter of using Augustine or St. Gregory of Nyssa. As wonderful as that is I think that being “catholic” has a little bit more to do with a theological vision of what the Church is and embodying that practice in our church structure and life, than with merely a resourcement.

On another mildly critical note I would have liked it if Smith had spent more time elucidating Radical Orthodoxy and less running the analogy of RO to the movie “The Whale Rider” into the ground. Way way too much time spent on that movie in my opinion. Still, overall, I think it is a very helpful book for getting the totally uninitiated into the pluralistic entity that is “postmodern theology” and what’s more, showing how it speaks well to the heart of the church.

Too see a complete and academic (though not so academic I couldn’t “get” most of it) introduction to Radical Orthodoxy from James K A Smith see this intro.  I look forward to comparing it to Simon Oliver’s and John Mibank’s intro when it comes out.



  1. “But the question becomes, Smith rightly says, what types of power and discipline might be appropriate for Christians?”

    Great question.

    I’ve just finished reviewing another book in the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series, Graham Ward’s “The Politics of Discipleship.”


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