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Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

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The philosophies of French thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault form the basis for postmodern thought and are seemingly at odds with the Christian faith. However, James K. A. Smith claims that their ideas have been misinterpreted and actually have a deep affinity with central Christian claims. Each chapter opens with an illustration from a recent movie and concludes with The philosophies of French thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault form the basis for postmodern thought and are seemingly at odds with the Christian faith. However, James K. A. Smith claims that their ideas have been misinterpreted and actually have a deep affinity with central Christian claims. Each chapter opens with an illustration from a recent movie and concludes with a case study considering recent developments in the church that have attempted to respond to the postmodern condition, such as the "emerging church" movement. These case studies provide a concrete picture of how postmodern ideas can influence the way Christians think and worship. This significant book, winner of a Christianity Today 2007 Book Award, avoids philosophical jargon and offers fuller explanation where needed. It is the first book in the Church and Postmodern Culture series, which provides practical applications for Christians engaged in ministry in a postmodern world.


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The philosophies of French thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault form the basis for postmodern thought and are seemingly at odds with the Christian faith. However, James K. A. Smith claims that their ideas have been misinterpreted and actually have a deep affinity with central Christian claims. Each chapter opens with an illustration from a recent movie and concludes with The philosophies of French thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault form the basis for postmodern thought and are seemingly at odds with the Christian faith. However, James K. A. Smith claims that their ideas have been misinterpreted and actually have a deep affinity with central Christian claims. Each chapter opens with an illustration from a recent movie and concludes with a case study considering recent developments in the church that have attempted to respond to the postmodern condition, such as the "emerging church" movement. These case studies provide a concrete picture of how postmodern ideas can influence the way Christians think and worship. This significant book, winner of a Christianity Today 2007 Book Award, avoids philosophical jargon and offers fuller explanation where needed. It is the first book in the Church and Postmodern Culture series, which provides practical applications for Christians engaged in ministry in a postmodern world.

30 review for Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Aitken

    This book corrected a lot of my misunderstandings about postmodernism. In it Smith examines three of the most crucial claims by postmodernists and shows how, given a proper deconstruction, they support a most radical Christianity. postmodernity has suffered from naive supporters and savage critics. I had my own misunderstandings. I thought postmodernists were those people with dark eye-liner, low-brow culture, readers of Nietzsche and those who sit around all day watching *Fight Club.* Claim 1: D This book corrected a lot of my misunderstandings about postmodernism. In it Smith examines three of the most crucial claims by postmodernists and shows how, given a proper deconstruction, they support a most radical Christianity. postmodernity has suffered from naive supporters and savage critics. I had my own misunderstandings. I thought postmodernists were those people with dark eye-liner, low-brow culture, readers of Nietzsche and those who sit around all day watching *Fight Club.* Claim 1: Derrida: "There is nothing outside the text." Response: This appears to say that the bible's claims to metaphysical truth are false. While Derrida is an atheist, and would probably beleive that, that wasn't the point he was getting at in the statement. He meant that nothing escapes interpretation. Interpretation of the text and of all events is inevitable. In other words, see Van Til. Claim 2: Lyotard: "The end of all metanarratives." Response: This would suggest that the Christian story, with its claim to all truth, is false. Again, Lyotard being an atheist would agree with that. BUt that wasn't his point. He was saying that Enlightenment claims to an "absolute standard of universal truth" are merely just powerplays. Lyotard was rebutting the notion of an autonomous, equally accessible "reason." The Enlightenment claimed to transcend other narratives by its definitionally superior reason. Lyotard shows that the Enlightenment's project is simply another narrative, not a metanarrative. A Radical Orthodoxy? If the Enlightenment project is dead (praise be to thee, O Christ), what remains for Christians? Nihilism is not an option. Smith shows how many postmoderns are turning to the ancient church and drawing upon Patristic and Medieval sources. The result, while flawed at times, is quite stunning.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    Long ago, when I had yet to read anything "postmodern" beyond Donald Miller, and McLaren's New Kind of Christian, I picked up Smith's little book and didn't know what to think of it. Since then, my faith has crumbled, I've question nearly everything, dove head first into the bottle, been taken sea-sick by the flux (see above review), re-picked up Smith's little book only to put it down after 10-15 pages, gotten sober, re-built some faith-ness, re-read the "flux literature" in the context of that Long ago, when I had yet to read anything "postmodern" beyond Donald Miller, and McLaren's New Kind of Christian, I picked up Smith's little book and didn't know what to think of it. Since then, my faith has crumbled, I've question nearly everything, dove head first into the bottle, been taken sea-sick by the flux (see above review), re-picked up Smith's little book only to put it down after 10-15 pages, gotten sober, re-built some faith-ness, re-read the "flux literature" in the context of that faith-ness, and re-re-picked up Smith's little book. I have to say its one of the best books on postmodern faith that I have read. My first reading was plagued by a closed mind to anything not 7 point fundamentalist Calvinism, my second reading plagued by anything that reeked of anything like faith. This reading I was able to appreciate Smith's brilliant treatment of complex thinkers and elucidating communication. Smith takes these thinkers to church, critiques the church with their thoughts and then turns around and critiques their thoughts with the newly critiqued church. Very good read. (A Five star reating system is not specific enough. I give this one a 4.5)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Giovanni Generoso

    I realized two chapters into this book that Smith had not yet given any rational-based arguments for rejected modernism. Then it hit me: Smith, with Lyotard, insists on an incredulity toward meta-narratives. I cannot expect him to appeal to reason in defense of his view since he rejects universal access to autonomous, neutral reasoning. I suppose Smith would explain my realization as being rooted in my deeply modernistic (Western) roots. He would be right. I have been heavily influenced by the C I realized two chapters into this book that Smith had not yet given any rational-based arguments for rejected modernism. Then it hit me: Smith, with Lyotard, insists on an incredulity toward meta-narratives. I cannot expect him to appeal to reason in defense of his view since he rejects universal access to autonomous, neutral reasoning. I suppose Smith would explain my realization as being rooted in my deeply modernistic (Western) roots. He would be right. I have been heavily influenced by the Cartesian project without even knowing it. I am an evangelical Christian with a conservative background. When I was first introduced to Christian apologetics, I simply assumed that men like William Lane Craig, Norman Geisler, and Lee Strobel used the "standard" approach to this biblically-commanded discipline. It never occurred to me--not one time--that there could be various "schools" of Christian apologetics. Upon picking up the standard evidential-based books on defending the Christian faith, I became rejuvenated with confidence, assurance, and passion for my Lord who presented me with a "reasonable faith." A couple years later, I began studying philosophy (specifically epistemology). After studying the history of Western philosophy (from the Pre-Socratic thinkers in ancient Greece to the modern Enlightenment), I experienced a perspective change. Before, postmodernism was something that the evidential books made me laugh at. "They believe that there is no truth," I thought to myself. "What morons! That's self-contradictory!" Postmodernism was simply dismissed a priori because it was nonsensical. However, I believe that Smith has provided a very intriguing introduction into this most difficult topic. I give it 5 stars, not because I have adopted everything in the book--there is still much that I am concerned about--but because it was well-written, enjoyable, engaging, and perspective-shattering. Smith has piqued my interest enough to inspire me to buy some more books on "Radical Orthodoxy."

  4. 4 out of 5

    Matt Muller

    Smith attempts to clarify some of the major themes of postmodernism and argues that these themes are not entirely problematic for Christianity. In fact, according to Smith, postmodernism provides some very positive opportunities for the contemporary Church. Focusing on the three icons of postmodern theory, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francouis Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, he explains how each is caricatured by one of their own quotes (which have become "bumper-stickers") Many people know of them but Smith attempts to clarify some of the major themes of postmodernism and argues that these themes are not entirely problematic for Christianity. In fact, according to Smith, postmodernism provides some very positive opportunities for the contemporary Church. Focusing on the three icons of postmodern theory, Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francouis Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, he explains how each is caricatured by one of their own quotes (which have become "bumper-stickers") Many people know of them but they fail to understand them because they are unaware of the context. He begins each chapter with a short synopsis of a film which serves to illustrate a particular theme of postmodern thought. While these are helpful as illustrations, they are not essential to understanding each chapter and I suggest could be skipped over for sake of brevity. He begins with Derrida whose bumper sticker quote is: "There is nothing outside of the text." This is misconstrued to mean that there is no reality outside of the text. There are only words on the page, but they do not describe anything that actually exists. This he calls linguistic idealism. This is not what Derrida meant however. Rather, while there is a reality beyond the text, we are helplessly enslaved to text. Our languages, our words, are the only means we have to know the world around us. But our words are always interpretations of the external reality. Therefore, there is nothing we can do to get to the reality. The problem for Christians, Smith says, is that they fear that this enslavement to interpretation undermines the Scriptures. Smith attempts to ease this problem by pointing out that the New Testament itself is an "interpretation" of the events of the life of Jesus. Smith goes on to point out that Derrida did not intend for everything to be deconstructed. Rather, he wished for us to merely recognize that it is within communities and contexts that words and texts receive their meaning. With communities the project of construction takes place. This is where Smith is able to find an opportunity for Christians. He argues that Derrida's emphasis on interpretation in communities opens Christians from an individualistic, low-ecclesiological background to the importance of understanding that they must live and interpret the scriptures within an ecclesial community. This is something that should come more naturally to Catholics, but may not for less traditional Protestants and Evangelicals. Taking on Lyotard's bumper sticker that postmodernism is "incredulity toward metanarratives," Smith argues that this phrase should not be construed as incredulity towards grand stories or epics. If this were the case, as many suppose it to be, then the grand narrative of Salvation History contained within Scripture should be held with "incredulity." But, as Smith points out, Postmoderns like Lyotard do not have a problem with epic stories or grand narratives. Rather, they recognize that claims to objectivity and pure reason made by science in the modern era were themselves wrapped up within a broader narrative. They emphasize that what modernity considered knowledge and truth was rooted in indemonstrable presuppositions about reality. Smith sees this as an opportunity for Christians to rediscover and re-present the narrative of God's plan of salvation. Since postmodernism has demonstrated that "the emperor of modernity has no clothes,"(66) Christians should no longer stress demonstrative apologetics. Rather, Christian apologetics should be "unapologetics," presenting the Christian story and offering it as the best of those to choose from. With that in mind, Smith argues that in order to present a story to postmodernity, Christians must rediscover the uniqueness and otherness of their story, resisting the temptation to build churches that look like shopping centers or convention halls, and witnessing to the world rather than chasing after it. Finally, Smith analyzes the false understandings of Foucault's bumper-sticker: "power is knowledge." For Foucault, the world is a system of power relations, which chaotically collide to bring about the institutions and ideals that generations live with and often cherish. Modernity's claims to objectivity, reason, and truth, argues Foucault, are not the result of pure logic and scientific inquiry. Rather, they rest on a disconnected set of power relations. Smith identifies two later understandings of Foucault. The first, the Nietzschean Foucault, simply seeks to reveal the power relations at work in our lives. He does not recommend any particular course of action because he does not make any moral judgments (this would be too modern for him). The second, the Liberal or Enlightenment Foucault, sees these power relations as corruptions, and therefore, he implicitly recommends the overthrow of those in power. This latter Foucault is the one who is most frequently used, and Smith recommends this as the best way to understand him. Smith argues that for the Christian, this does not have to be as problematic as it may sound. Rather, he draws on the Christian call to be disciples of Christ. To be a disciple is explicitly to put one’s self under the power of another. For Christians power is not always corrupt or evil. Furthermore, Smith points out that if Foucault is correct, then whether we intentionally put ourselves under someone else's authority or not, we are being worked on and affected by someone else's power. The point is that the Christian should choose to be under the power of Christ for only Christ has his best intention in mind. If he does not, then it is the power forces of contemporary society and culture which the individual is placed under. In the last chapter, Smith applies a movement within Protestant Theology called, "Radical Orthodoxy" which, "seeks to articulate a robust confessional theology in postmodernism."(117) Radical Orthodoxy attempts to make a clean break from the "Cartesian anxiety" of modernism, which was insistent upon "quasi-omniscient certainty."(118) Postmodernism, argues Smith, has demonstrated that our knowledge about the world is founded, more or less, upon beliefs. Radical Orthodoxy does not say, "I know that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." Rather, it says, "I believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself." The difference between "I know," and "I believe" in modern theology caused great anxiety but in postmodern theology the difference is not so stark. Smith argues that theologians who insist upon a Cartesian-modern view of knowing, "effect the worst sort of violence on those who don't know," and tend to subject anyone who does not know, "to all kinds of legalistic rules."(119) Radical Orthodoxy makes another break with modern techniques of theology which end up being merely apologetic. Specifically, Smith has in mind "correlational methods" which look in more secular fields of study like philosophy, sociology, or psychology, for 'correlations" with theological claims. The assumption being that these other forms of knowledge are in some way neutral, or scientific, and provide proof of theological claims. Smith argues, however, that the correlation method forfeits theology's autonomy and allows secular sciences to determine its boundaries, methods, and discourse. Postmodernism has shown, however, that even secular sciences are not neutral or free from indemonstrable presuppositions. Therefore, Smith goes on, postmodern theology is capable of reasserting itself into the broader intellectual discourse as its own, legitimate, autonomous field of knowledge. In these two aspects of Radical Orthodoxy, Smith draws on themes that can quite easily be located in the thought of Blessed John Henry Newman. In his "Grammar of Assent," Newman brilliantly argues against Lockean rationalism. He demonstrates that almost all of our daily life is lived by making "assents" to things that cannot be logically or scientifically demonstrated. In reality, we make our decisions and hold beliefs based on the convergence of many evidences and the "illative sense." In Newman's, "Idea of a University," he defends the place of theology within the university curriculum as a legitimate piece of the "circle of knowledge." Smith is merely restating Newman's argument that theology is, first, legitimate knowledge, and second, that if you remove theology from the "circle" then some other field will inevitably attempt to takes its place. Smith also draws upon another Catholic source, this time more explicitly, in George Weigel's "Letters to a Young Catholic." Smith cites Weigel's work as a model for postmodern Christians because it takes tradition seriously, it presents a "catholic" (Smith is thinking universal, not Roman Catholic) view of Christianity that draws on theology, history, philosophy, as well as time and space(s). Smith says that Weigel's "Letters to a Young Catholic" has the correct postmodern approach in two ways. First, it presents a living, incarnational tradition instead of "traditionalism." Second, it demonstrates a reappropriation of the importance of time, space, and the body (incarnationalism). In closing, Smith seeks to take all that he has been arguing about a postmodern church and illustrate what it would be like. He describes a Church which is not Roman, yet catholic. The postmodern Church involves, "the centrality of the Word, the use of the lectionary, the engagement with the arts, practices as ritual discipline."(144) While his principles seem to coincide well with Roman Catholic (really all Catholic and Orthodox Christians) his proposed application is not original if one were to walk into many Catholic Churches built from 1965-2000. He describes the worship space as ergonomically oriented with the congregation seated in a circle all facing each other with the sacraments placed in the middle. Forced to look at one another, the congregation would be reminded, "of the iconic gaze of God, who confronts us in the other."(144) There would be surrealist stained glass, candles, jazz ensemble for ambience, and large screens displaying slideshows of Christian symbols and art. We would be called to worship by an "a-capella call to worship in the form of a chant from Afghanistan," there would be a rendition of U2's "40" based on Psalm 40, the Old Testament reading would be performed as a liturgical dance. There is a baptism and communion, the congregation is reminded of all the great events and community outreach activities of the week, told not to participate in the "economic cycle" on the Sabbath, and everyone walks home because they live nearby. From the experience of a Catholic who has been experiencing similar re-orientation of Catholic liturgy since the Second Vatican Council, I would have many reservations about Smith's recommendations. Primarily, Smith's earlier calls for Christian theology and worship to be autonomous and true to itself seem to be missing in his ideal Church. It seems many of the practices and sources of ambience are taken from the contemporary culture and not from a Christian tradition of any sort. Why a chant from Afghanistan? I don't think the church he is describing is located in Afghanistan. My experience of attempts to be multicultural in mono-cultural churches is awkwardness and confusion. Furthermore, how does a Jazz ensemble add a sense of other-worldliness to worship and where is it found in the tradition? Again, it depends on the local tradition and culture. But again, if this is the recommendation for all, then it is not an authentic tradition, but a manufactured one. Smith is definitely correct that all of our senses should be engaged, that the community should be equipped, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, to live their faith powerfully in their communities. He rightly asserts the need for a community, for a church, and for a proper understanding of our beliefs as unashamedly legitimate. Postmodernism, as Smith shows, does provide some positive areas for Christianity to assert itself in the public square and academic world. It is not something that should be feared or rejected in total. Smith provides some good principles and his book is starting point for deeper reflection and conversation among Christians.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Michael Miller

    “Postmodernism” is lauded or excoriated these days without careful or nuanced definition. Like it or not, we find ourselves, with the collapse of the modernist project, in the cultural condition of Postmodernity. However, there are many different intellectual, spiritual, and practical responses to this condition, hence many different kinds of “postmodernism”. Many Christian authors, when addressing postmodernism, posit a form or expression of postmodernism and attack it as unbiblical. The Postmod “Postmodernism” is lauded or excoriated these days without careful or nuanced definition. Like it or not, we find ourselves, with the collapse of the modernist project, in the cultural condition of Postmodernity. However, there are many different intellectual, spiritual, and practical responses to this condition, hence many different kinds of “postmodernism”. Many Christian authors, when addressing postmodernism, posit a form or expression of postmodernism and attack it as unbiblical. The Postmodernisms they articulate and decry are usually deserving of the treatment they receive. But these authors – usually apologists and always well meaning – rarely acknowledge they are addressing only one articulation of Postmodernism, instead implying postmodernist thought is monolithic. It isn’t, and not all such responses to Postmodernity are as unbiblical as these Christian authors assert. James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism is helpful corrective. Smith’s book examines the thought of three French postmodern thinkers who had a profound impact on Postmodernism. Each of the first three chapters examines one of these thinkers and a “bumper sticker” slogan associated with that thinker: Derrida (“there is nothing outside the text”), Lyotard (“incredulity toward metanarrative”), and Foucault (“power is knowledge”). The greatest value of the book is his explanation of these phrases and what they do and do not mean. He then “takes them to church,” explaining how these thoughts are not (necessarily) inimical to biblical Christianity. There are times, especially with Foucault, where he seems to be stretching long and hard to make this work, but overall, he makes plausible arguments and raises some very important issues for Christians to contemplate. The last chapter is his attempt to show that the Radical Orthodoxy movement is adapting to postmodernity in a manner best in line with biblical practice. While he makes some good and intriguing points here, I am still not convinced. Based on his description – I admittedly have no experience with the movement – it would seem that Radical Orthodoxy itself is not a monolithic movement. Perhaps his endorsement of it suffers from the same problem that postmodernism does in the hands of others, forcing a diverse movement with diverse ideas and agendas into one mold.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Dan Lawler

    The Radically Orthodox Thought Police Author James Smith wrote this book to honor the legacy of Francis Schaeffer, the compassionate Christian apologist and evangelist. Smith adds the caveat that he "might take that legacy in directions that Schaeffer would not." (12.) Indeed he does. Smith repudiates every substantive aspect of Schaeffer's apologetic. He does this in order to put a happy-face on postmodernism, which Schaeffer saw as the logical extension of modernism and inherently skeptical, p The Radically Orthodox Thought Police Author James Smith wrote this book to honor the legacy of Francis Schaeffer, the compassionate Christian apologist and evangelist. Smith adds the caveat that he "might take that legacy in directions that Schaeffer would not." (12.) Indeed he does. Smith repudiates every substantive aspect of Schaeffer's apologetic. He does this in order to put a happy-face on postmodernism, which Schaeffer saw as the logical extension of modernism and inherently skeptical, pessimistic and nihilistic. Smith promotes a postmodern theology under the misnomer of Radical Orthodoxy, which is a radical departure from Schaeffer's orthodox, biblical Christianity. In Schaeffer's view, the failure of both modernism and postmodern lies in language and authority: man, beginning with just himself and the world, could not speak with authority regarding objective truth or universal meaning. Modernism once held out the hope that man could discover and declare such truths. Postmodernism abandoned that hope. Because modernism could find no universals in either man's mind or the world around him, postmodernism concluded that universals did not exist and no knowledge was certain. Radical Orthodoxy has a modernist core at odds with its postmodern pretensions. It first asserts its own authority to speak to man of meaning. Smith begins the book declaring that the radically orthodox church "speaks meaning in and to a postmodern world." (11.) He then proceeds to embrace three postmodern precepts that deny man's ability to meaningfully speak of meaning. Derrida's "there is nothing outside the text" means there is no outside authority to endow any communication with objective truth or universal meaning. Objective reality is not denied, there is just no one around who truly knows what it is or what it means. Lyotard's "incredulity towards metanarratives" means there are no credible story tellers. You can have a grand unified theory of everything, but there is no rational basis upon which to adjudge one version of reality as better than another. They are all suspect. Foucault's "power is knowledge" means that truth and meaning are up for grabs, and might makes right. If you have a story to tell and the wherewithal to impose it on others, you can be the declarer of truth and meaning within your limited realm of temporal influence. Derrida and Lyotard allow for the warm fuzzies of Radical Orthodoxy: a happy, comforting narrative that makes us all feel good about ourselves. Smith proclaims that man is inherently good by merely being made of matter. Radical Orthodoxy "honors our fleshiness" and affirms the goodness of "stuff." (136.) It is Christian Materialism and, boasts Smith, "only Christians can be proper materialists!" (138.) Why are man and stuff so good? Because that's where Spirit/God manifests itself. As the story goes: "Radical Orthodoxy asserts an affirmation of time as the incarnate arena for the Spirit's unfolding and thus takes seriously the fruits of time as it becomes embodied in tradition. This is ... to recognize that time is a medium for God's continued revelation and to concede a certain authority and normativity to what precedes us." (131-132.) This progressive manifestation of Spirit in the material world occurs in a continuous "historical unfolding." (122.) (Sounds like Hegel is the patron saint of Radical Orthodoxy.) It also accounts for Smith's use, and overuse, of the term "incarnational." If you want to sound in-the-know, just make everything incarnational as Smith does. He's got incarnational theology, incarnational anthropology, incarnational geography, incarnational language, incarnational logic, incarnational medium, incarnational ministry, etc. etc. etc. Radical Orthodoxy is always "incarnational" and never "crucifixional" or "resurrectional." The Incarnation ennobles the flesh, and that's good for Christian materialists. The Crucifixion denotes an infirmity in the flesh and slays it, while the Resurrection redeems the mortal, corruptible flesh with an immortal, incorruptible spiritual body. They are not flesh honoring so Radical Orthodoxy won't touch them with a ten-foot pole. Derrida and Lyotard let Radical Orthodoxy write its own story. Foucault shows how to sell it. Power is knowledge and if Radical Orthodoxy wants to turn its narrative into knowledge, its got to apply some muscle. Because it recognizes no ultimate authority, postmodernism suffers a "legitimation crisis." (69.) When you have a crisis you call the cops, and postmodernism has its "interpretive police." (53.) These are the guys who maintain and enforce a given narrative. They are euphemistically referred to as the "interpretive community" and they turn your local institutions into "disciplinary societies." (107.) Think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Smith's own analogy): you are Randall Patrick McMurphy and the radically orthodox church is the state mental institution; the local clergy is Nurse Ratched. The goal is group-think and elimination of the free-thinking individual. Individualism is a plague borne by modernity (30), and Radical Orthodoxy has the cure. The disciplinary society employs "mechanisms of power" to transform the individual into a desired end-product. (90.) It is "aimed at formation for a specific end, and that end is determined by our founding narrative." (103.) The procedure requires inscribing new truth and value claims into the individual's mind while excising the old. The more covertly done the better. "This covertness of the operation is also what makes it so powerful: the truths are inscribed in us through the powerful instruments of imagination and ritual." (105.) This incarnational lobotomy conforms one to the founding narrative of the radically orthodox church and is the method by which it "speaks meaning in and to" postmodern man. So that's what happens when you take Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to church. Nothing to be afraid of. Right?

  7. 4 out of 5

    John Defrog

    Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about how postmodernism is a major challenge to Christianity, but denunciations of postmodernism often sound unconvincing to me, if only because it often sounded to me like too many people use “postmodern” as a descriptor with little indication that they understand the underlying philosophy. This book by James K.A. Smith (who is both a Christian and a philosophy professor) argues that postmodernist philosophy is highly misunderstood by theologians, and that if you Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about how postmodernism is a major challenge to Christianity, but denunciations of postmodernism often sound unconvincing to me, if only because it often sounded to me like too many people use “postmodern” as a descriptor with little indication that they understand the underlying philosophy. This book by James K.A. Smith (who is both a Christian and a philosophy professor) argues that postmodernist philosophy is highly misunderstood by theologians, and that if you read the works of postmodernist philosophers Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault closely, you’ll see that contrary to postmodernism being anti-Christian (i.e. anti-religion), it actually strengthens Christianity’s position in a postmodern world by bringing it back to its traditional apostolic roots. For the most part, Smith makes a lot of very good points, and does a really good job of explaining what the core tenets of Derrida (“Nothing exists outside the text”), Lyotard (postmodernity is “the incredulity of metanarratives”) and Foucault (“power is knowledge”) actually mean, and how they aren’t as anti-Christian as they seem if you just take them at face value. His use of films as an illustration of each point is also engaging. Where it falls apart for me is the end, where Smith ties all of this into his view of how the church should evolve by adopting “radical orthodoxy” (a topic he’s written about extensively elsewhere) – which may be a valid point of view, but in terms of practical application it seems unconvincing and unrealistic to me, not least because Smith’s views are rooted in catholic orthodoxy, so his points are going to be lost on denominations that aren’t. So as a call to action in regards to church reform, I don’t think the book really works. But it will definitely get a discussion started, and that’s a good thing. If nothing else, I think it’s a good primer on understanding postmodernist philosophy, and makes a good case why it’s not the boogey man some Christian leaders make it out to be. But obviously, an open mind is a prerequisite.

  8. 4 out of 5

    John Ellis

    I'm not afraid of postmodernism, but I am afraid of James K.A. Smith's legalism. While reading the last section of this book, I wanted to pack my family up, move them out of the city we live in, and move into a cookie-cutter house located on a cul-de-sac in the blandest suburb I can find. Why does Smith (and other emergent/postmodern theologians) get to define abstract concepts like "community" for everyone else? Well, worse, he didn't define it; he assumed a/his definition and then condemned an I'm not afraid of postmodernism, but I am afraid of James K.A. Smith's legalism. While reading the last section of this book, I wanted to pack my family up, move them out of the city we live in, and move into a cookie-cutter house located on a cul-de-sac in the blandest suburb I can find. Why does Smith (and other emergent/postmodern theologians) get to define abstract concepts like "community" for everyone else? Well, worse, he didn't define it; he assumed a/his definition and then condemned any and all who don't live according to his propositional truth claims. Apparently, based on this book, the gospel is only for the broken ones in the city, not for those who have bought into the modernist conception of Cartesianism as fleshed out in cul-de-sac "living" (of course, those of you who "live" on a cul-de-sac aren't living the way God intended. Shame on you! You hate Jesus, don't you?). That and his love of straw men in regards to the evangelical church is why I rated this book with only one star.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    A fine little volume by James Smith. He is at his best whenever he is helping to bring high argument down to a more approachable level for those of us who are less trained in philosophy. With a chapter each on Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, this was a quick and very informative book on how postmodernism can actually help Christians think and worship better. It will have me thinking for a while. However, some of the applications were a little clunky and awkward. For being a book written in 2006 A fine little volume by James Smith. He is at his best whenever he is helping to bring high argument down to a more approachable level for those of us who are less trained in philosophy. With a chapter each on Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, this was a quick and very informative book on how postmodernism can actually help Christians think and worship better. It will have me thinking for a while. However, some of the applications were a little clunky and awkward. For being a book written in 2006 and the emergent church all but dead, alot of the "on the ground" work was very dated -- and in only 8 years! The last chapter had some nice nuggets, but also got humorously weird. After arguing for such a rich catholic Christianity, it was like the wheels spun out of control. All in all, a great book even if the application for churches to consider is near impossible. The chapters looking at some of the thought of the three thinkers was worth the read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    John Yelverton

    The author attempts to make the assertion that if you look at postmodernism from a certain angle that it actually makes sense, and even supports Christianity. Of course, from a certain angle, the Holocaust was a novel way to control overpopulation. Then reality sets in, and you realize that no matter which way you look at it, both assertions are wrong.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Alissa Wilkinson

    Absolutely must-read if you feel that the church's response to postmodernism is a bit reductionist. This is not quite in layman's terms, but if you can comprehend the New York Times, you can understand this book. Absolutely must-read if you feel that the church's response to postmodernism is a bit reductionist. This is not quite in layman's terms, but if you can comprehend the New York Times, you can understand this book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ben Smitthimedhin

    This is probably Smith at his worst. In an attempt to do too many things at once in 160 pages (covering the basics of postmodernism, telling the church how postmodernism works for discipleship, introducing radical orthodoxy, arguing for a presuppositional apologetic, bashing low-church evangelicals, using pop-culture references to illustrate postmodernism, arguing against evidential apologetics, etc etc), Smith ended up failing because he didn't cover his bases. We don't get a thorough definitio This is probably Smith at his worst. In an attempt to do too many things at once in 160 pages (covering the basics of postmodernism, telling the church how postmodernism works for discipleship, introducing radical orthodoxy, arguing for a presuppositional apologetic, bashing low-church evangelicals, using pop-culture references to illustrate postmodernism, arguing against evidential apologetics, etc etc), Smith ended up failing because he didn't cover his bases. We don't get a thorough definition of "modernism," a huge and complicated term in itself. We don't get a thorough explanation of why he puts evidential apologetics and scientism in the same category (ok, I understand that both these camps claim a metanarrative, but that's not sufficient to put them in the same category). Smith simply draws caricatures by painting broad brushes on terms like "evangelicalism" or "rationalism" and then draws up a Middle/Third way by offering up Radical Orthodoxy as the final solution. Except it's never that simple. I have huge problems with his high-church only agenda since I'm a house church guy. His solution for discipleship doesn't even look ancient; it just looks like Western, high-medieval version of a Catholic Mass. What about the churches around the world that are doing fine without beautiful cathedrals and candles and stained-glass windows? I wonder if Christ Himself would get lost in some of these services. Ok, so I might be guilty of creating a straw-man of Smith here myself, but the point is that there are many other alternatives besides Radical Orthodoxy or of Smith's vision of discipleship, and I wish he was more generous in his words by hedging his claims a little bit more.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kate

    I'm giving this five starts not because I agree with everything the author says, but because there is an underlying attitude in his whole endeavor that is worth the highest possible praise. He doesn't just provide a well-written and fair summary of the 3 post-modern philosophers (although that's part of it). He does something which I rarely see even in philosophy, much less in theology--he actually engages with the ideas of others and makes them his own. He makes an effort to truly understand wh I'm giving this five starts not because I agree with everything the author says, but because there is an underlying attitude in his whole endeavor that is worth the highest possible praise. He doesn't just provide a well-written and fair summary of the 3 post-modern philosophers (although that's part of it). He does something which I rarely see even in philosophy, much less in theology--he actually engages with the ideas of others and makes them his own. He makes an effort to truly understand what these guys are saying, without self-serving distortion, nitpicking, or straw-manning. And then he analyzes the ideas, learns from them, internalizes the parts that he finds irrefutable, or convincing, or even just helpful, and then provides a reason for why he rejected the rest. And this type of engagement with ideas should really be a no-brainer, and yet... somehow it never seems to happen. Everyone always has an axe to grind and would rather choke than admit that someone they disagree with has at least something interesting or worthy to say. Sadly. So this book was a very refreshing exception. It's only fault was that it was too short.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Parker

    I'm largely on the fence about this book. There is plenty of good food for thought, and it's worth reading for that. There are also a lot of ideas that challenge my own convictions (especially the description of a Radical Orthodox church service at the end, which I found almost offensive). There is also quite a lot of good analysis of the current situation in evangelicalism, and some helpful clarifications about postmodern thought. My verdict on many of Smith's conclusions will probably await fu I'm largely on the fence about this book. There is plenty of good food for thought, and it's worth reading for that. There are also a lot of ideas that challenge my own convictions (especially the description of a Radical Orthodox church service at the end, which I found almost offensive). There is also quite a lot of good analysis of the current situation in evangelicalism, and some helpful clarifications about postmodern thought. My verdict on many of Smith's conclusions will probably await further reflection, reading, and conversation. This books seems like one that, years down the line, I may come to greatly appreciate, or may dismiss as garbage. I really don't know.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jackson Ford

    Very thankful for Smith’s astute summarization and analysis of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, as well as recognizing a dramatic sanctified significance that their work has to the Church.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Sexten

    Smith is excellent in this as always. The last chapter makes me want to read his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (2004) book, and also had me asking "why am I still an evangelical?" whether that was the intended reaction or not. Smith is excellent in this as always. The last chapter makes me want to read his Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (2004) book, and also had me asking "why am I still an evangelical?" whether that was the intended reaction or not.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Trevor

    I came to this book from Smith's most recent work, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Occasionally in that book, Smith mentions Derrida and while he never lingers long on him, I got the impression that Smith was quite fond of the postmodern philosopher. So I decided to read this book, which deals with the subject head-on. Originally published in 1998, the book feels a bit dated. This can be most clearly seen in how Smith gushes about the Emergent Chur I came to this book from Smith's most recent work, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Occasionally in that book, Smith mentions Derrida and while he never lingers long on him, I got the impression that Smith was quite fond of the postmodern philosopher. So I decided to read this book, which deals with the subject head-on. Originally published in 1998, the book feels a bit dated. This can be most clearly seen in how Smith gushes about the Emergent Church, a movement that has almost completely disappeared. This fall also be seen in his final chapter that argues for a postmodern catholic Christianity. Anyone who has read Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation will recognize his arguments and they are no better formulated here than they are in the later book. However, the meat of the book, a Christian analysis of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault is still relevant today. Smith spends a chapter on each of the three philosophers, focused on some of their most well-known, and misunderstood, teachings: 1) "There is nothing outside the text" (Derrida) 2) "I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives" (Lyotard) 3) "Power is knowledge" (Foucault) With each of these philosophers and their ideas, Smith sets out to highlight common Christian misconceptions of what they mean, explain what the philosopher means, and then describe how best to interpret and respond to this from a Christian perspective. I found it quite refreshing. As a Christian, I've generally been taught a strawman version of post-modernism that is both silly and evil at the same time. Smith effectively dispels this myth and shows that postmodernism may even have some ideas that are beneficial to Christianity. Unfortunately the volume is quite slim and doesn't go into as much detail as I would like. This was particularly the case with the section on Foucault, which I left with more questions than answers.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Noah

    Fighting angst-filled insomnia, I picked up "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism" thinking to myself, 'reading philosophy may just put me to sleep.' At 3am I finished the book. I requested that my library purchase the book for their shelves so that I could acquaint myself with it after a fellow church member made some disparaging remark about how postmodernism will be the undoing of the church. Jamie Smith does a great job of contextualizing postmodern philosophical concepts from well known Parisian p Fighting angst-filled insomnia, I picked up "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism" thinking to myself, 'reading philosophy may just put me to sleep.' At 3am I finished the book. I requested that my library purchase the book for their shelves so that I could acquaint myself with it after a fellow church member made some disparaging remark about how postmodernism will be the undoing of the church. Jamie Smith does a great job of contextualizing postmodern philosophical concepts from well known Parisian philosophers with themes from contemporary movies (every one of which I subsequently ordered from the library). He commits early on to avoiding jargon, but its evident that this is a challenge for him...which makes it sometimes a challenge for me to read. But it is a very rewarding for anyone who thinks, 'there should be something more to my church experience.' The final wrap-up chapter does a great job of tying the themes together, and also pulls in some related themes, ending with a description of a thoroughly modern church (a giant suburban stadium surrounded by a metal moat of SUVs) and a postmodern church (diverse parishioners experiencing worship with all senses and then walking home). This last piece, especially his affirmation of geography as an important piece of a worship community, was incredibly affirming to me in a time of discouragement. If only more people would latch onto this sort of a vision, our worship communities could be so enriching, nurturing, and compelling! I think I'll pick up my own copy at the bookstore to focus on these passages about bringing the philosophers to church and applying their principles to worship and congregational life.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Chris Brown

    After four (of the five) chapters of this book, I thought I might be generous and give it 3 stars. A few interesting points were made about the trio of postmodern thinkers analyzed, although the author made no mention of some of the core tenets of their work that are incompatible with Christianity. In fact, it is somewhat ironic that postmodern Christians lament apologist attempts to reconcile scripture and the natural world, because this author is guilty of much the same thing - trying to recon After four (of the five) chapters of this book, I thought I might be generous and give it 3 stars. A few interesting points were made about the trio of postmodern thinkers analyzed, although the author made no mention of some of the core tenets of their work that are incompatible with Christianity. In fact, it is somewhat ironic that postmodern Christians lament apologist attempts to reconcile scripture and the natural world, because this author is guilty of much the same thing - trying to reconcile scripture with postmodernism. Attempting to co-opt some ideas from postmodern thinkers and apply them to the church gave way to something entirely different in the final chapter. I went from a generous three stars, to two, and in the last pages I knew this was really a one-star book. In the fifth chapter you discover that this book is not about postmodernism at all; it is in fact a thinly veiled attempt to support the author's particular brand of denominational worship. With no sense of irony at all, the author at once lambastes denominational worship and seemingly all non-denominational churches, while holding up his own version of tradition as the gold standard. The end of the book is truly a "My worship is better than your worship" rant. I feel like I could write several more paragraphs on the lengthy final chapter of this book, but suffice it to say that if you want a Biblical look at postmodernism this is not the book to pick up. If you want anything other than a Calvinist cherry-picking ideas to support his specific version of church, this is not the book for you.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Abigail

    Once again, a book from James Smith that is sure to haunt my thinking for awhile. Really thought-provoking and wise stuff, this book. It oscillates at time between "too" accessible (if that's possible) and too theoretical, as an undergrad in philosophy I found myself bored at times but suddenly caught off guard by a sharp hike in the level of thinking. I can imagine that this might be frustrating for a more general reader, but these spots of difficulty (which appear to me moments in which Smith Once again, a book from James Smith that is sure to haunt my thinking for awhile. Really thought-provoking and wise stuff, this book. It oscillates at time between "too" accessible (if that's possible) and too theoretical, as an undergrad in philosophy I found myself bored at times but suddenly caught off guard by a sharp hike in the level of thinking. I can imagine that this might be frustrating for a more general reader, but these spots of difficulty (which appear to me moments in which Smith can't quite contain his enthusiasm for a topic/idea)should be workable - with time and a bit of patience I expect any thoughtful reader will be able to make sense of them. Also, a comment about the vision of an ancient-future church in the last few pages - beautiful, but it left me perhaps disappoinetd because it sounded so utterly infeasible. In other words, please don't close with a practical vision that seems practically impossible, Smith. Still, a highly recommended book for thoughtful Christians grappling with postmodernism, and/or anyone interested in Christian ministry.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Joel Wentz

    This is a fantastic, accessible introduction to some "big hitters" in postmodern thought: Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucalt. Smith brings their ideas 'down to earth,' directly countering common fears and assumptions that pop up in Evangelical circles, and even suggests ways to incorporate their suggestions into liturgy and worship. I absolutely adored the approach of this book, and it sparked some inquiry into more postmodern thought on my end. Overall, the assertion that the Evangelical church needs This is a fantastic, accessible introduction to some "big hitters" in postmodern thought: Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucalt. Smith brings their ideas 'down to earth,' directly countering common fears and assumptions that pop up in Evangelical circles, and even suggests ways to incorporate their suggestions into liturgy and worship. I absolutely adored the approach of this book, and it sparked some inquiry into more postmodern thought on my end. Overall, the assertion that the Evangelical church needs to divorce from it's assumption of modernist categories was extremely helpful. I highly, highly recommend this (rather, I would make it mandatory, if I could) for college/young adult ministers and pastors that are interested in working with younger generations.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Mark Alan

    Jamie's reading of these important PM thinkers is, as always, spot on. And the ambivalent relationship that he demonstrates we should have with them is right headed. His last chapter on the emergent church movement is worth the price of purchase all by itself, everything else is gravy. Jamie's reading of these important PM thinkers is, as always, spot on. And the ambivalent relationship that he demonstrates we should have with them is right headed. His last chapter on the emergent church movement is worth the price of purchase all by itself, everything else is gravy.

  23. 5 out of 5

    pplofgod

    What really irks me about this book is the way Smith seems to devalue transcendence and timelessness for a type of performative tradition(alism) in which one "performs" and acts out one's *own* tradition. What really irks me about this book is the way Smith seems to devalue transcendence and timelessness for a type of performative tradition(alism) in which one "performs" and acts out one's *own* tradition.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jason A

    I liked it. It wasn't particularly academic, but it did a good job of making the case that postmodernism isn't as scary as Josh McDowell and Francis Schaeffer make it out to be. I liked it. It wasn't particularly academic, but it did a good job of making the case that postmodernism isn't as scary as Josh McDowell and Francis Schaeffer make it out to be.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Sarahc Caflisch

    I don't think I know about Postmodernism yet to know if this book is good or not. I don't think I know about Postmodernism yet to know if this book is good or not.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Pater Edmund

    An amusing and clear introduction to Smith's version of radical orthodoxy. Much to sympathize with here, but a few missing distinctions. An amusing and clear introduction to Smith's version of radical orthodoxy. Much to sympathize with here, but a few missing distinctions.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Ian Hammond

    I disagree with the foundational point of this book. But it was interesting, and there were some good points made. Would not recommend it for an uncritical reading.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jason Panella

    I really liked this and probably should've read it years ago. But man, the cultural references in these kinds of books do not age well. At all. I really liked this and probably should've read it years ago. But man, the cultural references in these kinds of books do not age well. At all.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    I got pretty excited in 2006 when this book came out - mainly because it was a Christian book with the word 'postmodernism' in the title. I added it to my reading list. Time moves on, and here we are, 11 years later, and now I've read it. Ostensibly this is a defence of the idea that Christianity can have a productive dialogue with postmodernism, and is also a defence of that hotbed of such dialogue - the emergent church - which was causing all sorts of ripples in the mid-2000s. I never had a pr I got pretty excited in 2006 when this book came out - mainly because it was a Christian book with the word 'postmodernism' in the title. I added it to my reading list. Time moves on, and here we are, 11 years later, and now I've read it. Ostensibly this is a defence of the idea that Christianity can have a productive dialogue with postmodernism, and is also a defence of that hotbed of such dialogue - the emergent church - which was causing all sorts of ripples in the mid-2000s. I never had a problem with the emergent church, and it never really occurred to me to be afraid of postmodernism. I learnt about the latter at university and I wanted to be some part of it - mainly because I wanted to be cutting edge. And as we got fleeting introductions to French theorists with names like Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault and Deleuze (three of whom end up being main characters in this book) during lit, art history and critical theory lectures, I remember noticing points on which Christianity might possibly begin a discussion - but my university course never took me there. Once upon a time I would have been all for philosophical stuff (or movies or music or art) being appropriated for Christian ends... that spelt 'relevance' to me. But nowadays I'd rather let those forms be what they are - sure, have a conversation, but let's not force them into some Christian construct. So as I started reading this book, I worried that this kind of appropriation was going to be Smith's modus operandi... not least of all because he started off by talking about the film, The Matrix - that hapless victim of every well-intentioned 'relevant' sermon during the years preceding this book's publication, and maybe for a few years after. Smith quickly won me over though. I must admit that I was still a bit too jaded to take in his stuff about The Matrix, but in the chapters that follow he references Memento, O Brother Where Art Thou (probably my favourite movie of all time) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He does a proper job of intelligently reading these films, and I think a proper job of using them to frame his discussions about the philosophies of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault respectively. Smith, it turns out, is the real deal. In a final master stroke at the end of the book, he uses NZ's own Whale Rider (based on a novel by one of my old university lecturers - name drop) as a gateway to talking about Radical Orthodoxy. The particular postmodern ideas Smith chooses to discuss from each of the philosophers are the ones which the emergent church had (apparently) drawn the most flak for engaging with. But his discussion becomes more nuanced than that, sparking off in various directions; moving from mere defence into more rounded discussion (as space allows). The same is true for his defence of the emergent church - this is always tempered by realism and a willingness for informed critique, and eventually (as noted above) he pulls the overall discussion towards championing Radical Orthodoxy. In the end, I think it was his discussion of Radical Orthodoxy that I enjoyed the most. Radical Orthodoxy draws on the whole tradition of the Church, tapping into what Smith calls the catholic faith (small c), uniquely positioned in the postmodern world. It is incarnational and sacramental in form. Some exciting stuff, and just my cup of tea.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Zack

    All-in-all, this is a useful, insightful guide into ways that Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault have often and tragically been misinterpreted, and how accurately reading their claims can position them as helpful in formulating the response and relationship of Christianity to culture. There's a lot of greatness here, notably in Smith's helpful explanations of what these thinkers' key concepts and ideas really mean. But the book also suffers from some inaccessibility and a high-minded vocabulary that All-in-all, this is a useful, insightful guide into ways that Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault have often and tragically been misinterpreted, and how accurately reading their claims can position them as helpful in formulating the response and relationship of Christianity to culture. There's a lot of greatness here, notably in Smith's helpful explanations of what these thinkers' key concepts and ideas really mean. But the book also suffers from some inaccessibility and a high-minded vocabulary that belies its appeal to the casual reader. At times the arguments are lucid and clear, other times the philosophical vocabulary honestly overwhelms clarity and does not help paint a useful picture of the application of its ideas. This doesn't mean that the book is bad by any means, just that it's actually not quite as straightforward as it thinks it is, and thus potentially falls into the pitfalls of being perceived as the same kind of academic obscurantism that the book's subjects are accused of. In addition, Smith follows a long line of emergent church-type people who just love U2 and can't stop themselves from quoting U2 songs, which quickly becomes absurd because U2 is just not and has never been as popular amongst Christians as these books seem to make them out to be. But I suppose that's a pretty minor complaint, overall.

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