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

(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.


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

  1. jrlookingbill Says:

    I rather appreciate your analysis here, though my perspective differs considerably. First, I appreciate the clarity with which you express yourself. As a future scholar, I particularly appreciate following an argument which not only stretches my understanding but contrasts with it, and therefore shines light and contextualizes.

    One difficulty I ‘m having, largely I expect because I haven’t gleaned enough information to know where you stand in reference to this, is where a critique of modernism fits in here. Of course as a book review it makes most sense that you should respond to that which James K.A. Smith most strongly urges, but is there some redemptive movement here?

    I.e., is there some value postmodernist thinkers (and their apologists like Smith or Westphal) provide for the Church? Does n’t decentering lead to a revaluation where orthopraxy becomes as important as orthodoxy (and orthodoxy has been in motion far before the results of Cartesianism and will continue to be)? Although I ‘m less positive about the postmodern manifestations of the church, I believe significant questions are being asked as a result.

    Thank you for pointing to the incommensurabiliy of belief systems as a real issue. It very much is. How to legitimate one’s truth claims thoughtfully and faithfully is a question that needs to be asked. Modernist frameworks fail to legitimate that question, where few clear options emerge and postmodernism leaves us with few tools with which to find the answers. But it still asks the question, even when it begs it. Better and worse answers exist, but we need to self-reflect carefully and compare against the values emerging from the Scriptural texts.

    Where I would take considerable issue with your analysis concerns the manner with which you dismiss the minimalization of the text ala Derrida. Smith means to show how Derrida speaks to the infinity of the text, not asks that we stop interpreting or making them. Surely the Scriptures are an endless and living source. This I understand better with not without Derrida.

    Thanks very much for the mental exercise, but I hope that fruitful discussion may result. I surely have overstated in some places, but have done so in hopes of understanding your positions better (and therefore better understanding mine own). Regardless, stumbling here was a happy find and I pray it is not for myself alone.

    Blessed be He!
    Josiah L.

    • elmerjohnthiessen Says:

      April 12, 2012

      Dear Josiah:
      Thanks so much for responding to my book review of James Smith on postmodernism. It is always good to get some feedback on one’s writings. Let me respond to some of your concerns.

      It will probably surprise you to hear that I am really quite sympathetic to postmodernism. I believe that postmodernism’s critique of modernism is to be welcomed. I agree with the claim of postmodernism that there is no such thing as a completely objective universal reason. My worry is that postmodernists go too far in their critique. I believe we need a third way which acknowledges the insights of both modernism and postmodernism. I have tried to outline this third way in my two earlier books on education (later chapters), and also in an article in Cooling and Short, Agenda for Educational Change, “Curriculum After Babel” – which is also on my blog.

      My worry with Smith and company is that they go too far in accepting and defending postmodernism. We need to be open to truth wherever it is found, but at the same time we need to critically evaluate current trends in thinking. I react instinctively to phrases like “taking Derrida, etc. to church.” Perhaps we need to take the church and its truth to Derrida!!! This is not to say that we don’t have something to learn from Derrida. But let’s be critically discerning when we read him.

      Regarding Derrida and interpretation, here again I worry about expressions like “the infinity of the text”. Yes, we always have more to learn from Scripture because our understanding is always finite and tainted by sin, but there are limits to the multiplicity of interpretations. The author of a text finally had a specific meaning in mind, and we need to try and capture that meaning. Further, there is an objective world out there which sets limits to interpretation. And above all, we need to reject the notion of interpretation all the way down. That ends us in complete subjectivity, which is the fundamental problem that I have with postmodernism taken to an extreme without the corrective of modernism.

      Postmodernism has all the marks of an over-reaction to modernism. I am convinced that 50 to 100 years from now, philosophers will be looking back on the postmodern era and will be critiquing it as severely as postmodernists are now critiquing modernism. So it behooves us as Christians to critically evaluate all schools of thought. Perhaps if Smith and company were more moderate in their appreciation of postmodernism, I would be more measured in my reviews of their works.

      Again, thanks for your comments.

  2. jrlookingbill Says:

    Much thanks for the reply.

    I honestly intuit something similar – it seems what is marketed to most as postmodern is really just modernism with a twist, so at the popular level I very much disapprove of postmodernism. It’s ultimately not a helpful term. I’m not sure how well PM philosophers can really be grouped.

    Not being familiar with your work, and only truly familiar with the French philosophers through a few seminary courses plus personal study, my ear caught something of a modernist counter. Having heard you better on the subject, I must say that their significance is short-sighted in my estimation as well. I far prefer to critically evaluate Medieval perspectives if I have my druthers. I seem to have followed C.S. Lewis down that rabbit hole, and perhaps too far.

    I’m not for losing meaning within infinity. Taking a philosopher to church who didn’t intend to go there seems a bit shoddy – agreed. The critical discerning aspect is very much what should come into our interpretations. We can and do interpret. I don’t think we escape the hermeneutical circle, but we do live and make significant decisions and interact in our world and follow Christ faithfully in our world as the two texts of experience and deep reading interact. I just made that sound flowery, but of course interpretation is a messy process – it doesn’t mean we give up and we also oughtn’t place the value of experience too high. I won’t pretend we’ll agree on the same center in this activity, but I am gaining an appreciation for your intuition. I’ll do all I can to maintain that via critical apparatus until further notice (and likely humbling).

    Again blessings and appreciation for the stimulation,
    Josiah L.

  3. Christian: “Jesus is the truth!”; Postmodernist: “…whatever” « factorysense Says:

    […] A Critical Review of James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard,… (elmerjohnthiessen.wordpress.com) […]

  4. mokus Says:

    Great Post. I’m glad to hear real interaction with books like this. A couple of things I’d like to clarify, though:

    In relation to Smith’s view of Derrida you ask, “But is there a reality beyond our interpretations?” I think Smith would answer ‘yes’. However, many have a view of knowledge which promulgates a false objectivity (Baconian hermeneutics, later day ‘common-sense realism’, or ‘naive realism’), where we fail to see the subjectivity lurking behind our logical schemes. Note: being locked in a “prison” of interpretation does not necessarily make all interpretations equal. Perhaps the real angst most have with contemporary bias in interpretation is that all claims are given equal weight. But I think this is clearly not true with Derrida or Smith.

    In regards to Smith’s view of Lyotard, I think his claim stands: that Lyotard’s project was to show the modern ‘metanarrative’ for what it was, a story. Again, Smith is not advocating Lyotard’s return to pagan plurality, but is suggesting that we should agree with where Lyotard was right: that the secular logic of the modern mind, the authority given to science and to enlightenment project as a whole is founded on sand.

    I share with you an ambivalence to ‘postmodernism’ and in particular the way our current culture practices moral thinking. I think what Smith was trying to do with this work was to offer a way forward that didn’t simply paint a caricature of postmodern thinkers—as many other books do. While taking a stance like Francis Schaeffer on Kierkegaard, for instance, might help us feel better about our choices to be faithful in a world awash with 60s existentialism, it doesn’t necessarily help others, and it isn’t really necessary to remain faithful—it tends only to polarize and confuse things further. I see Smith as taking an opposite approach to Schaeffer, he wants to address the thinkers of our time—the cultured despisers of our age—in relation to culture at large, but to agree with them where they have something to say, and to take their critique head on where it might helps us uproot idols and remain faithful to Christ..

    • elmerjohnthiessen Says:

      Thanks for your response to my review of Smith on postmodernism. I think you may be right that in the end Smith would answer “yes” to the question as to whether there is a reality beyond interpretation. But I would like him to say so, clearly and unequivocally. I reread Smith’s chapter on Derrida, and although Smith in a few places does hint that there is a reality beyond interpretation, he never clearly says so. As I say in my review, he tends to skirt this issue, and that is a serious failure on his part. And sometimes he even seems to deny that there is an objective reality beyond our interpretations (p. 54). This failure is also related to the problem of identifying which interpretation is the best. Without a clear affirmation of a reality beyond interpretation, we have no grounds for saying one interpretation is better than another. Sometimes reality itself has a way of challenging our interpretations of reality, and we had better be open to what it is trying to say to us!
      I disagree with you that the modern meta-narrative is merely a story, although I would be the first to object to the extreme claims to objectivity and rationality that often accompany the scientific enterprise of modernism. I also don’t accept your generalization that science and the enlightenment are founded on sand. There is still something to be said for the enlightenment project. As I have argued in several places, what is needed is a blending of the insights of modernism and postmodernism in order to get a defensible epistemology.
      I quite agree with much of your final paragraph where you talk about the dangers of caricaturing postmodernism, and the need for Christians to address the thinkers of our time which might in fact help us to uproot idols and so remain more faithful to Christ. My concern with Smith is that he does not accurately distinguish between truth and error in interpreting postmodern writers, and in so doing is not helping the church, or remaining entirely faithful to Jesus Christ.

  5. mokus Says:

    I’m glad to see others wrestling with books like Smith’s—and in my hometown of KW no less!

    I hear you in regards to Smith being evasive as to reality beyond our interpretation. I think this issue, though, comes down to perspective; for between the poles of complete objectivity and total subjectivity—neither of which can be consistently lived out—is a spectrum of appropriations with consequences on all sides. So, many today worry about the abject subjectivism of this or that school of thought. These people argue that we need to revisit truth and method, history and logic. From this vantage point, and on many issues, I certainly agree. But from another perspective, the one in which Smith is writing to, the issue is in a form of subjectivism that purports to be objective. I think much can be said of this kind of error in evangelical/restorationist hermeneutics that are indebted to the Scottish Commonsense realism. From this perspective, I think, the talk about reality beyond interpretation is attenuated to drive home the point of what we are really doing when we interpret. It is not really about the fact that there is a reality out there, it is that it is impossible to speak or reflect on that reality without pronouncing an interpretation.

    Fundamental to Smith’s whole program is his belief (and I would agree) that hermeneutics is part of the human condition, and moreover a part of God’s good creation. It is not a result of the Fall (though the Fall has frustrated the affair). It is therefore not something to be overcome, as is often suggested in many schools of interpretation. (read his ‘Fall of Interpretation’)

    My comment that the ‘Enlightenment project is built on sand’ is in relation to a few specific criticisms of the enterprise: (1) the Enlightenment is a tradition against tradition that thinks it’s not a tradition, (2) it has often crystallized in to a form of positivism that truncates any talk of the spiritual (a disenchanted world), and (3) it is overly optimistic at the rationality of mankind. I agree with you that we don’t want anti-Enlightenment. But certainly logic and reason, truth and exploration predate the Enlightenment project. For the most part the Enlightenment has been acidic against historical Christianity—it is based on man’s ability to think for himself (sapere aude)—anything not founded on humility toward God and His Word is built on sand, in my view.

    “I have emphasized the things themselves (empirical transcendentals) as binding for interpretation in an attempt to counter the charge of arbitrariness that is leveled against the creational hermeneutic emphasizing the ubiquity of interpretation. But this discussion also deprivileges a “hermeneutics of suspicion” inasmuch as it argues that interpretation is not left to the caprice of the interpreter because it is confronted by a structural or “objective” reality—a world outside and before interpretation. While interpretation is rooted in the situationality and traditionality of the interpreter, it is not produced only by those conditions; interpretation is not simply the effect of the will to power.” (The Fall of Interpretation – p.178)

    • elmerjohnthiessen Says:

      Thank you for including that quote from Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation. I need to read this book which has just been reissued. Yes, here we have a clear statement of a reality beyond interpretation, and the beginnings of a treatment of how such an admission affects interpretation. That is what worried me about Smith’s tendency to skirt the issue of the existence of an independent reality in his book on postmodernism. Once we admit a reality beyond interpretation, we will be forced to deal with the complex question of the relation between reality and interpretation. I think more work needs to be done on this.

      I think you and I are very much in agreement with regard to postmodernism and Enlightenment. Thanks for the exchange.

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