Archive for April, 2012

A Critical Review of James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Baker Academic, 2006)

April 8, 2012

(Published in The Evangelical Quarterly,  83.4, 2011, 347-351)

This book is part of a series, “The Church and Postmodern Culture,” that James Smith himself edits.  The series is intended to allow “high-level work in postmodern theory to serve the church’s practice” (p.9).  Smith describes the books in this series “as French lessons for the church” (p. 10). It is difficult to miss the positive spin given to postmodernism in these statements describing the series, and in the very title of Smith’s own contribution to this series.  Indeed, efforts at accommodating postmodernism seem to be rather widespread among Christian philosophers and theologians. The reader of this review should be forewarned – I have some grave misgivings about such accommodation.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? has its origins in lectures Smith gave to the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in the summer of 2003. These origins help to explain why the book is in fact a very readable introduction to postmodernism.  Three chapters of this book are devoted to examining a central idea in the thinking of each of the three postmodern thinkers highlighted in the title of the book. All too often, these central ideas have been treated like bumper sticker slogans by Christians, Smith maintains (p.22).  The ideas are taken out of context and thus misinterpreted.  Smith’s aim is to “demythologize” postmodernism and to show that each of these central ideas “have a deep affinity with central Christian claims” (p.22).

Chapter 2 deals with Derrida’s famous claim, “There is nothing outside the text,” made in one of his first books, published in 1967.  In making this claim, Derrida is centrally concerned with naïve attempts to get “behind or “past” texts.  Such attempts are futile, Derrida argues because all our experience is always already an interpretation (p. 39).  The world itself too “is a kind of text requiring interpretation” (p.38).  “[W]hen Derrida says there is nothing outside the text, he means there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language (p. 39).  We simply can’t ever get past texts and interpretations to things “simply as they are” (p. 42).  Given this emphasis on interpretation, we can see why Derrida has been a motivating force behind the preoccupation with hermeneutics in the church today.

Smith tries to answer Christian critics who are concerned about the subjectivism implicit in Derrida’s “prison” of interpretation.  Derrida seems to deny that there is an objective world out there.  Smith however argues that Derrida is not advocating “a kind of linguistic idealism” (p. 42).  But, it is difficult to see how this can be reconciled with such radical claims as “there is nothing outside the text,” or with Smith’s suggestion that the world itself is an interpretation.  I believe Smith tends to confuse some key concepts in trying to reconcile Derrida’s claim with a Christian worldview.  I quite agree that as human beings we are stuck with interpretations of reality.  But is there a reality beyond our interpretations?  What is needed here is a clear distinction between the human search for knowledge and truth, and truth itself.  Smith is particularly fuzzy in his uses of the notion of objectivity.  True, as human beings, we can never approach reality in an objective manner.  But is there an objective world out there?  Yes.  Is truth an objective ideal?  Yes.  Any failure to give a resounding affirmative answer to these questions is to yield to postmodern subjectivism, which is fundamentally at variance with a Christian worldview.  But listen to Smith:  “There is no uninterpreted reality, no brute facts passively sitting there to be simply and purely seen.” (p. 54).   This is fundamentally wrongheaded.  There is a world out there, and there would still be one even if there were no human interpreters of this world. I have no quarrel, however, with the next sentence: “Rather we see the world always already through the lens of an interpretive framework governed by ultimate beliefs” (p. 54).  Yes indeed.  But here we are talking about the human search for knowledge and truth.  And we must never confuse this search with the object of our search.  God has created a real world out there for humans to discover.  To suggest that there is nothing outside of the text is to lock us all in the prisons of human interpretation.

Chapter 3 deals with Jean-François Lyotard’s claim that postmodernism is “incredulity towards metanarratives.”  This again would seem to go counter to orthodox Christianity, which surely is a metanarrative par excellence.  Not so, argues Smith.  Lyotard is not objecting to big stories – grand, epic narratives that tell an overarching tale about the world (p. 64).  Instead, for Lyotard, metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomena: “they are stories that not only tell a grand story … but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason” (p. 65). Metanarratives according to Lyotard  are “false appeals to universal, rational, scientific criteria – as though they were divorced from any particular myth or narrative” (p. 68).  The problem here is that we as human beings cannot ever get outside of our own narrative.  Scientists too function under the rubric of a narrative that cannot itself be legitimated by science. Thus, for the postmodernist “every scientist is a believer,” according to Smith  (p. 68).

As Smith notes, all this is very much in keeping with the presuppositionalism of Reformed epistemology (p.69).  All knowing begins with faith.  The problem with Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives (and also with presuppositionalism) is that if you push these insights too far you end up with what is known in philosophy as “the incommensurability of belief systems.”  Each of us thinks within the framework of his/her own narrative, paradigm or presuppositional framework, and thus we simply cannot communicate with one another.  This extreme position flies in the face of ordinary experience.  We can communicate with others despite our differing narratives, paradigms or presuppositional frameworks.  Further, Christians maintain that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore are to some degree similar with regard to their epistemic capacities.  We also have access to the same general revelation.  This point is often expressed theologically in terms of the notions of “natural law” or “common grace.”  Obviously, those who reject a Christian view of human nature and reality will interpret this commonness differently to some degree.  But some kind of an appeal to a common reality, and some degree of commonness in evaluating beliefs, seems to be inescapable for all human knowers.  Therefore Lyotard, and Smith, and the postmoderns, are fundamentally mistaken.  They are overreacting to the rational/scientific paradigm.

Smith is quite right that the postmodern argument that all knowing is faith-based opens up some space for Christian witness in a postmodern world (p. 73).  We too have a story to tell (p. 76).  But Christians want to do more than just tell one story among a plurality of stories that are ultimately considered to be equally valid, given Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives. Christians also want to say that ours is the best story, indeed the true story.  And in order to do that we need to do some “modernist” apologetics which appeals to “universal reason,” all of which suggests that we need to be careful not to cozy up too closely to Lyotard and the French postmodernists.

Michel Foucault and his claim that “power is knowledge” is the focus of Chapter 4.  Foucault’s history of prisons, published in 1975, isn’t really about prisons, but about the way in which society as a whole reflects a prison (p. 85).  Foucault uses Nietzsche’s metaphor of archaeological digging to describe what he is doing with regard to our knowledge claims.  In Smith’s words,  “he digs beneath the surface of what goes around as objective truth to show the machinations of power at work below the surface” (p. 86).  Foucault’s genealogy “intends to show that modernity’s claims to scientific objectivity or moral truth are fruits of a poisoned tree of power relations” (p. 87).

Smith’s treatment of Foucault is rather confusing.  While at times he interprets Foucault as not wanting to identify knowledge and power (p. 85), there are a number of places where it is rather difficult not to see them as identical (pp. 85, 87,96, 100).  There is also confusion as to how to evaluate power.  At times Foucault is interpreted as saying we should not evaluate power, while at other times power is in fact evaluated as bad (pp. 91, 87).  Indeed, Smith admits that Foucault’s analysis of power is open to two very different interpretations (pp.95-99).  Interestingly, Smith prefers to interpret Foucault as a closet liberal and thus deeply modern (97-9).  If so, one wonders why he is treated at all in a book on postmodernism!  Given this interpretation, Smith challenges Foucault’s negative assessment of power, together with the implicit appeal to an Enlightenment notion of the autonomous self (p. 101).

What cannot be denied is that for Foucault there are always some networks of power underlying knowledge claims, and that these networks are indeed very powerful (p. 85).  Here a basic question emerges which Smith tends to skirt.  What does the “reduction” of knowledge to power entail for epistemology (cf. pp. 85, 96)?  The fundamental problem with power interpretations of knowledge is that they are self-refuting.  If all claims to knowledge are merely (or even mainly) expressions of power, then Foucault’s own analysis of knowledge is just another expression of power.  So, why bother listening to him?

Now I concur with Smith that Foucault has something to teach us about the many kinds of disciplinary mechanisms in our society that form individuals into the kinds of people that the power-brokers want, e.g. consumers or sexual animals (pp. 103-5).  But I worry when Smith, in a section entitled, “Taking Foucault to Church,” suggests that we need to “stand him on his head” (p. 103).  What Smith proposes is that we apply Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary mechanisms to the church. We need to be engaged in “counterformation by counterdisciplines” (p. 105-7).  But what does this really look like?  How much power can and should the church exert in making disciples?  Surely the church needs to be sensitive to the problem of exerting too much power over individuals.  It simply will not do to distinguish good discipline from bad discipline by its goal or end, as Smith attempts to do (p. 102).  Even if discipline and formation is directed toward forming individuals to worship God, if the disciplinary practices used are excessive, it is wrong.  The end does not justify the means.  Smith’s attempt at drawing some lessons from Foucault for the church are therefore fundamentally misguided.

The final chapter is devoted to a description of a postmodern or emergent church that expresses the ideals of Radical Orthodoxy.  What Smith seeks to achieve here is a “meshing” of the central claims of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault with the insights from the Christian theological tradition (p. 116).  What is puzzling here is that Smith objects to the “correlationist” tendencies he finds in both emerging and evangelical churches (pp. 123-4).  In other words, he is objecting to the tendency of churches to try to correlate what they are thinking and doing with the findings of the secular sciences, thereby trying to make Christianity intelligible or rational to a given culture. The problem here is that this is precisely what Smith is doing with regard to postmodernism.  His is also an apologetic of sorts – he is trying to show that Christian theology “meshes” with the claims of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault.  “Meshing” and “correlation” are synonyms, and if Smith objects to the latter, he should also object to the former.

I also have problems with the very idea of a “postmodern church.”  There is only one catholic church, at the head of which is Jesus Christ.  Smith would agree with this and indeed appeals to George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic, which he sees as addressing catholic (with a small “c”) Christians (p. 133).  But, why then the repeated references to the notion of a postmodern church?  Is it because it sounds new and novel and avant- garde (p. 109)?  Smith would no doubt claim that I am being unfair to him here, because in his final chapter he is arguing for a recovery of tradition.  Unfortunately, the relation between the new and the old remains fuzzy.  I agree that a fundamental challenge for the church today is to be the church in today’s postmodern culture.  But this does not require that the church itself be postmodern, or that it should adopt postmodern ideas.  This is a form of academic worldliness that Jesus and Paul condemned.

What has Paris to do with Jerusalem? (p.10).  Much less than Smith avows.  I quite agree that the church might be able to learn something from the French postmodernists.  But before we do so we need to engage in a careful and critical analysis of postmodernism.  Sadly, Smith himself engages in bumper-sticker sloganeering in his all-consuming desire to draw French lessons for the church.