Book Review: Whose Afraid of Postmodernism? (Sep-Dec 2007)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ken Haynes
January – February, 2007

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

Some readers might look at this book and immediately assume it is for a narrow audience. However, I also realize that there are many readers of New Wineskins seeking to be holistic and broad in their reading. You know who you are. You seek to engage poetry and prose, nonfiction essays and classic novels, political science and constructive theology. If you happen to be looking for an engaging work to round out your reading in the area of postmodern philosophy, and if you are looking for a work on how three continental “postmodern” philosophers can actually build and inform your faith, then this is your read.

I have a tremendous appreciation for authors who can take something potentially very esoteric and “bring it home” to how I think, relate and function in the world. It takes a gift to bridge the gap without dumbing down the subject.

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? by James K.A. Smith is the best work I have read on engaging and redeeming postmodern philosophy for a life of faith. The works of the philosophers he addresses are too often dismissed. This dismissal is understandable for at least two reasons. First, these philosophers did not explicitly profess orthodox Christianity. Second, these philosophers were often misunderstood because people tried to capture their thoughts in one sound bite. Smith does not seek to baptize postmodern thought, but neither does he seek to demonize it. He does think our life of faith can be assisted by engaging these works.

Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College and has been published widely in this particular field. James is an academician who has seriously engaged the “Radical Orthodoxy” work of John Milbank (someone who has had “rock star” status in philosophical/theological circles over the past several years). This, however, is a different type of work. Smith seeks to introduce, unpack, and relate the work of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault in just 146 pages. He does this in a very engaging way, weaving movie illustrations with the daily life of faith.

Smith first unpacks Derrida’s slogan there is “nothing outside the text.” He uses this to counter the enlightenment tendency to have a high view of unadulterated objectivity. He challenges us to have a higher view of scripture that mediates our understanding of the world. He also reinforces the healthy practice of interpreting scripture in community.

Exiles - The Church Has Left the BuildingThen, he takes us to Lyotard’s slogan of “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Smith reminds us that Lyotard defined metanarrative in distinctly modern terms. Metanarratives not only tell a story, but also attempt to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason. The author encourages us to not subject the grand story of scripture to modern reductionistic characteristics of metanarratives.

Last, Smith considers Foucault’s claim that “power is knowledge.” Here he reminds us of Foucault’s insight into the cultural power of formation and discipline, suggesting that the church should enact a counterformation by counterdisciplines. Smith uses the last chapter to gesture toward Radical Orthodoxy as a possible outcome of engaging the postmodern. He warns us of how modernity has eroded our identity as the body of Christ. Considering the modern critiques sketched by our philosopher friends above, he suggests that Radical Orthodoxy can lead us to a robust confessional theology and ecclesiology that claims premodern practices for the postmodern culture.

I have been waiting for a book like this for six years. It is a delight to see a person of faith really engage continental philosophy and translate it for the nonprofessional academic. Smith effectively highlights and deconstructs the modern dysfunctionalities of our faith, and there are more dysfunctionalities than you may think. Most importantly, it is the first work that I have been able to engage that truly attempts to be pastoral with respect to Radical Orthodoxy (an esoteric subject for me prior to this book). It is an exciting time to be living a life of faith. If you too are seeking to learn more about why and how this philosophical shift opens up new windows into how we think, pray, read scripture, worship and live . . . don’t be “afraid of postmodernism,” but read this book.New Wineskins

Ken HaynesKen Haynes is an executive with IBM. He lives in Birmingham, AL. with his wife, Deborah. They have three children Will, Meg and Wesley. Ken is an MBA graduate of Auburn University. He shares a life of faith with a tribe known as Disciples’ Fellowship (http://www.disciplesfellowship.com) and is active in the Birmingham Emergent Cohort. He enjoys college football, life on Lake Martin and reading books he does not understand. E-mail him at [haynesk@us.ibm.com].

You might also enjoy reading his Ancient Future Time.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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