Review: James K. A. Smith's 'Who's afraid of postmodernism'?

Cover of James K. A. Smith's 'Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?'

This week’s post takes the form of a brief book review, my first as a blogger here (but hopefully not my last; I’ve got a few other books in mind that I’d really like to share with you). I thought I’d start with one of my favourite books on the intersections between Christian thought and academic culture, James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). It’s a slim little volume, but don’t let its slight dimensions fool you: this is a lively, provocative book with a lot to say.

The title of the book sets out Smith’s basic thesis pretty well. Essentially, he suggests that postmodernism, as a significant movement within academic discourse, has suffered unfairly from a severe image problem within the Christian community, especially by comparison with modernism. Modernism – with its basis in scientific rationalism and humanistic narratives of technological and social progress – is often presented as an intellectual framework whose only defect is its tendency towards atheism, its willingness to explain God away; by contrast, postmodernism is seen as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, the antithesis of modernism’s calm rationality and hopefulness, flagrantly rejecting every value that the Church should be holding dear. Smith’s aim is to redress the balance: he points out a number of ways that postmodernism serves to reemphasise vital aspects of our faith and witness that are all too easily obscured by an uncritically modernist worldview.

By its very nature postmodernism, more than perhaps any other intellectual movement, can only be understood as a (far from unified) patchwork of individual thinkers’ contributions. Smith’s approach is thus to move away from the kinds of generalisation often found in (generally dismissive) Christian discussions of the topic, and instead focus on the contributions of three of the most influential writers associated with the movement. Hence the subtitle: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

All three of these writers have a pretty fearsome reputation (I’m ashamed at how glancing my own engagement with them has been over the years), and the first impressive achievement of this book is to make their thought so accessible. Each chapter begins by using a relevant film as a lens to approach the ideas of a specific author (the origins of the book in a lecture series are quite evident here). It’s a gesture that could easily seem clichéd or superficial, but in practice it works remarkably well – Smith’s insightful analysis of his chosen examples leads smoothly into a discussion of the key ideas of each author that is surprisingly rich, given the brevity of the book as a whole. He focuses on key statements by each writer that have become in effect postmodern ‘slogans’ within contemporary culture: Derrida’s claim that ‘there is nothing outside the text’, Lyotard’s description of postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, and Foucault’s equating of power and knowledge. 

I can’t hope to sum up Smith’s responses to each of these in such a short review, but I was particularly struck throughout by his ability to find redemptive meaning in each writer’s work, and to move from it towards a thoughtful and loving critique of contemporary Christian culture. He focuses in particular on the importance of the church as an active, distinctive and engaged community of truth; he suggests that postmodernist ideas can help us to engage more with the insights of the historical church, and even to rediscover helpful liturgical practices that set the body of Christ apart from the world and redirect our gaze towards Jesus. In the end, he suggests that postmodern ideas, far from undermining the basic tenets of Christianity, can in fact act as a stimulus for revitalising our thought and action.

What do you think? Do leave a comment to let me know!

Comments

Really helpful book - was very useful to me as a student in finding ways to engage constructively with postmodern thought, as well as casting light on the question of how to relate reason and faith.

This is the second time in three days that this book has been recommended to me - may be a sign! Thanks for this useful review Mark.

Thanks for this, Mark. For those interested in Christian perspectives on postmodernism, I would like to highlight Dr Christopher Watkin's upcoming free online course (MOOC) on 'Postmodernism and the Bible' running weekly for seven weeks starting in March. Chris is Senior Lecturer in French Studies at Monash University in Australia, with a particular expertise in contemporary French philosophy. The course will focus on themes in the thinking of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault in relation to selected Bible passages, and is designed especially to help Christian undergraduate and graduate students engage these influential thinkers productively in the light of Scripture.

For more details and to sign up, see https://www.openlearning.com/courses/postmodernism-and-the-bible-underst...

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