catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 12 :: 2006.06.16 — 2006.06.30


Re-examining the roots

James K.A. Smith’s most recent book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?  Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church, follows Paul and Augustine’s example of cultural engagement by displaying God’s sovereignty in a postmodern world.  Though many Christians believe postmodern thought is in direct opposition to the established principles of Christianity, Smith’s arguments display God working within the postmodern movement itself.  And when all is said and done, Smith shows that the “unknown god” of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault is none other than the one true God who makes Himself and all things known through Jesus Christ.

Though it might be tempting to interpret Smith’s defense of postmodernism as a surrender to the relativism of our age, the author is in no way equating postmodernism with the truth of Christ.  Instead, Smith warns against accepting the tenets of postmodernism in and of itself.  Postmodernism must be held up to the light of Christ so that proper distinctions can be made.  Though there are many ways of doing this, Smith chooses philosophical argumentation.

Smith’s knack for expressing Christian principles in contemporary philosophical language is evident here as much as in his previous work, but Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is directed toward a broader audience of non-philosophers.  Continuing in the tradition of Francis Schaeffer, who urged Christian readers to explore the philosophical roots of societal movements, Smith focuses on the work of three French thinkers who must be dealt with if a legitimate Christian response to postmodernism is to be formed. Smith begins each chapter with a movie that exemplifies or supports the points he wants to make for that section.  The Matrix, Whale Rider, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Little Mermaid all contribute to the philosophical argumentation Smith presents.  Smith does not use these films merely to lure people in to the heady dialogue that follows.  He wants to put the philosophy of postmodernism in a context so that the ideas are seen as embodied principles—thoughts in the flesh, so to speak.

If the philosophical contributions of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault serve only a small group of academic specialists who get their kicks playing in a world of abstractions, then Smith’s careful consideration of their work would be pointless.  But Smith connects their work to broader social movements, popular culture and outlines the theological implications for today’s church-goer as well.  Smith acknowledges the role postmodernism has played in the emerging church, a movement—or “conversation”—that has been growing among Christian believers, but suggests that understanding the work of these French thinkers is necessary for such a dialogue to be truly fruitful.  Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault actually differ quite strikingly from what many people consider postmodern today and ignoring the work of contemporary philosophers only contributes to the confusion of Christians who accept or criticize postmodernism for something it really is not.  Smith also warns that the conversation of the emerging church must resist the impulse to make Christianity “relevant” to contemporary postmodern society.  Such a strategy would be no different than that of liberal theologians who tried during the modern period to update the teachings of Scripture to fit the demands of modern science.  If the emerging church wants to be a true postmodern church, it cannot merely replace the black suit of modernism with postmodernism’s new clothes.               

So how should Christ’s followers bear witness to God’s ongoing work in a postmodern age?  The best way to be truly postmodern, Smith concludes, is to be incarnational, an embodiment of Christ’s Spirit.  Modern theological attempts at uniting Christian belief are limited without the bond of shared Christian practice.  The critique of modernism brought about in part by Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault can be used by the church, therefore, to break from the limitations of modernism just as Augustine used Rome’s best thinkers in City of God and Paul used a monument to a Greek god.   By reading Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault in this way, Smith gives definitive proof that God is still working in a postmodern age.  

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