Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? – James K.A. Smith

Here’s a quick review of a really good book called Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? by James K.A. Smith

I have long believed that some of the primary misconceptions regarding the emerging church conversation stem from a substantial lack of appreciation for the impact that French Philosophical/Linguistic thought has had on the movement as a whole. Those attempting to understand this conversation often default to caricature or reductionist views (i.e., candles, couches & culture) and one of the reasons is the lack of appreciation for the thought of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault and the ways in which their ideas became the primary impulses behind postmodernity. James K.A. Smith helped me to see that the danger on the other side of that spectrum could be to actually pay attention to these influential thinkers, yet misread them in such a way as to consider them incompatible with the Christian faith. I’m indebted to Smith for this clear and imaginative foray into what I believe is a terribly complex and difficult subject matter.

The movie The Matrix serves as his metaphor for his attempt to bring us into the “real world” and help us to wake up to the world of postmodernity. His aim is two-fold: first, to demythologize postmodernism by correcting common misunderstandings and second, to shed light on the deep affinity which he sees between postmodern philosophical claims and Christianity.[1] This thesis might be surprising but he makes a compelling case for it.

“Without texts, Leonard literally would not be able to have an experience of the world,”[2] writes Smith about the main character of the movie Memento. He explains that Derrida’s famous claim, “There is nothing outside the text,” is really more of an assertion that “interpretation is an inescapable part of being human.”[3] For Derrida all experience is already interpretation or dependent upon context. This view has often been criticized as incompatible with the Christian faith for three reasons. First, it is said to necessitate atheism because if nothing exists outside the text, then there is no transcendent being.[4] Second, it renders the bible a work of fiction because it cannot refer to real things.[5] Third, if everything is interpretation, then the gospel is as well and thus it is not objectively true.[6] Smith notes that all of these objections tend to conflate the concepts of truth and objectivity. Those who object along these lines are generally holding onto a modern notion of truth which can be known objectively to all people at all times.[7] The pressing question for our time is: How can we help people in our churches to separate truth from objectivity without making the whole issue overly complex?

Smith says that acknowledging our presuppositions can simply become a way to begin our conversation by admitting that the lens through which we interpret the world is decidedly Christian.[8] Next this should encourage us to consider whether or not we really do interpret the world through the text of the bible. Have we become captivated by a consumer culture and not revelation?[9] This is the question Derrida helps us to ask of ourselves.

Next, Smith turns his attention to Lyotard and perhaps the most well known of the postmodern descriptors: “incredulity toward metanarratives.” Smith explains that what Lyotard meant to critique was not the scope of the narratives but the nature of the claims which they make.[10] The problem for Lyotard is that these metanarratives always tend toward making an appeal to universal reason in order to support their claims. Lyotard is actually exposing the conflict between science and narrative. This isn’t some 1960’s-ish suspicion of power and large entities, it is an insistence that even modernity is based in a particular narrative, but that it demands that all other narratives submit to its rules. Thus it becomes self-referential. “When judged by modern science, stories and narratives are little more than fables.”[11] But modernity, most characteristically science, steadfastly refuses to stipulate its own subjectivity and thus wants all other forms of truth, such as narrative or story, to submit to its criteria.

Smith says that some traditional apologetics might fall prey to Lyotard’s critique, however truth as can be embodied in narrative or myth is not suspect because “all knowledge is rooted in some narrative or myth.”[12] Smith affirms the role of narrative and storytelling to the heritage of our faith and supports its ability to characterize truth. Citing the fact that it activates imagination and considers the whole person actually makes narrative an important way to talk about truth.[13]

Next in Smith’s survey comes Foucault and the claim that “power is knowledge.” Here Smith seems to wander a bit in order to try and capture the essence of Foucault, finally concluding “Foucault is absolutely right in his analysis of the way in which mechanisms of discipline serve to form individuals, but he is wrong to cast all such discipline and formation in a negative light.”[14] This is the only section of the book which seemed to need some tightening, but he finally comes around to the place where he affirms the idea that power can be bad, but that within the Christian narrative we find the call to be subject to one another. The end of humanity is, after all, to become fully human. Thus any power games which seek to reduce us to economic, sexual, or violent creatures must be exposed as subversive uses of power.[15] He ends up espousing the positive dimension of discipline which can be employed to counteract the negative uses of power and discipline which society or culture might use to form human persons illegitimately.

Smith ends with a wonderful critique of ways in which we have allowed modernity to erode our ability to embrace our role as a “particular people.”[16] He calls the church to redeem dogma in order to embrace the role of “believing” over the myth of knowing since certainty is an “impossible dream.”[17] He calls the church to recover tradition by affirming the creeds, the lectionary, and liturgy in order to embrace the practice of remembering who we are as the called people of God.[18] Finally he urges the renewing of the body by affirming the materiality of God’s good creation. Affirming sacrament, icons, and really considering place as an aspect of worship, Smith calls for a properly incarnational and embodied mode of worship.[19]

This is a brilliantly composed defense of these French fathers of postmodern thought. The use of movies as narrative/metaphor for each discussion is incredibly helpful in terms of creating space to interact with his ideas. His structure, uniform through each of the three main sections, was really helpful in terms of the readers ability to sort of get in a rhythm with him and helped to sort of “format the disc” before we try to download data. I’m grateful for his ability to clarify what he considers to be the difference between the common misunderstandings of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault, and what they were really trying to communicate. This book has been quite helpful in terms of becoming more fluent in the substance and influence of French linguistics and philosophy as it pertains to postmodernity and the church.

My only negative critique concerns his foray into Radical Orthodoxy. As clear as Smith was with his exposition of the thought of the three Frenchman, he seems equally unclear about what Radical Orthodoxy is and how it might relate to the philosophers and the postmodern church. It seems like this recommendation was crammed into a work which didn’t really require that label. He has written another book called Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, which I hope to read soon. My ignorance about the whole arena of Radical Orthodoxy could have been the real problem, though that remains my critique.

All in all, James K.A. Smith’s book is well worth the read and I’ve already begun to recommend him to discussion partners. This book is a welcome antidote to one of the fundamental misunderstandings of emerging churches and ministries today: most people have not even bothered to try to grasp Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault. I’m by no means an expert on any of these philosphers and linguistic theorists, but I believe that anyone who wishes to critique postmodern ministries needs to do their homework first. This book can be extremely helpful in this regard.

[1] James K.A. Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to the Church, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006. p. 22.
[2] Ibid. p. 33.
[3] Ibid. p. 38.
[4] Ibid. p. 35.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid. p. 42.
[7] Ibid. p. 48.
[8] Ibid. p. 55.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid. p. 64.
[11] Ibid. p. 65.
[12] Ibid. p. 69.
[13] Ibid. p. 75.
[14] Ibid. p. 99.
[15] Ibid. p. 102.
[16] Ibid. p. 116.
[17] Ibid. p. 119.
[18] Ibid. p. 127-133.
[19] Ibid. p. 136-142.

"i'm kinda split on it i do think the very rich should pay their fair ..."

The Free Market v. Big Government ..."
"You know, the simple turth is that those 'pastors' (which are an extreme minority) wouldn't ..."

Fleecing the Flock: A Snapshot of ..."
""One of you will betray me."The standard joke about this painting is:Actually, he's just said, ..."

10 Stunning Facts About Davinci’s Last ..."
"Isn't it interesting that a painting known around the world was though little enough to ..."

10 Stunning Facts About Davinci’s Last ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tim,

    There has been a truckload of deep stuff that you’ve been writing about. Sounds like you’ve been having a blast with your reading list lately.

    I’ve got a bunch of questions.

    I don’t get the whole point of separating truth from objectivity. You’ve remarked on this on some of your prior posts and I don’t see how people get to this place. Could you summarize how someone arrives at this conclusion?

    Furthermore, please elaborate on why someone would desire to arrive at this conclusion? Does this not result in embracing relativistic positions on just about everything?

    If truth is not truth in an objectively verifiable way that can be observed and confirmed, then what good is it? The objectivity of truth seems to be inherent in its definition. If you remove objectivity, then how do you define truth? How are you defining objectivity?

    “Science refuses to stipulate its own subjectivity” this makes no sense to me. 2 +2 =4. This is correct in the past, present and future. Can you elaborate on this?

  • Hey Todd,

    Good questions. Sorry this is a sort of long response, but it’s a complicated thing & I just didn’t have enough time to pare it down. This is also not the last word on any of this – I’m still learning and discovering what I think, so bear that in mind!

    Your first question is a great one: I don’t get the point of separating truth from objectivity.
    Here’s a really long reply.

    Christian scriptures and creeds are the sort of truth proclamations which invite “belief.” They are not something whose truth can be demonstrated in objectively verifiable ways. One cannot prove or disprove the existence of God or the reality of Christ’s miracles, etc. Newbigin says that Christians believe that through this kind of truth, “All human experience can be rightly understood. It is the light by which things are seen as they really are, and without which they are not truly seen. It rests on no authority beyond itself.” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society p. 6) This truth is rooted in the narrative of Scripture and the church. This sort of truth claim can be accepted or rejected based on “belief.” So, religious truth is generally said to be about “believing.”

    Science makes truth proclamations which are based in reason…they are about “facts.” Bertrand Russell said that scientific knowing has three stages: 1) observing significant facts, 2) arriving at a hypothesis which, if it were true, would account for the facts, 3) deducing from the hypothesis consequences which could be tested by observation. (The Scientific Outlook, p. 58) This sort of truth finding is based on the idea that these facts are objective, which is to say, they do not invite anything like belief – they are just true because they are verifiable within a certain system. We see things, we try to explain the way they are and then we test each hypothesis for truthfulness. In the end what we are said to produce is “fact.”

    I believe that the two kinds of truth claims, those of Christianity, and science are actually both subjective. What follows here is pretty standard stuff, not my original thought. Newbigin writes, “The world of philosophers and historians of science in the present century have shown very clearly that the whole work of modern science rests on faith-commitments which cannot themselves be demonstrated.” That’s pretty much what I’ll try to demonstrate.

    Take Russell’s three points, for instance. What is a “significant fact” and how does one decide? There are billions of observable facts available to any scientist. How does one know what constitutes a “significant” fact? If they are observed in a random fashion, science would never get anywhere. It must be a matter of personal judgment as to which facts are significant. Thus the very first step is a subjective one. The knower decides to appreciate certain facts and to ignore others.

    Take Russell’s second point. There are no rules for framing a hypothesis. It is a matter of intuition or imagination. Einstein said “The mechanics of discovery are neither logical nor intellectual. It’s a sudden illumination, almost a rapture. Later, to be sure, intelligence and analysis and experiment confirm (or invalidate) the intuition. But initially there is a great leap of the imagination.” (reported by Crossan, The Dark Interval, 1975, p. 31). So the formation of hypothesis is actually not a reasonable enterprise, but one guided by imagination or intuition…even faith.

    Take Russell’s third point. Once hypothesis are confirmed scientists write theories which hold sway for years. These theories are not rejected until a new theory comes along and unseats a theory which was previously held as objective truth. If we study the history of science, we know this to be a repeatable phenomenon. Much of what we hold as objective scientific truth today will be shown to be in error at some later point in time. That’s just how it works. Einstein’s theories weren’t universally embraced for a long time. Nor were those of Galileo or Copernicus. Thus scientific truth is relative in terms of time or the context in which one lives.

    Even mathematics (which you cited… 2 + 2 = 4), is not always objective. (Einstein’s special relativity shows us that 2 + 2 = 4 only from a certain point of view…in other words 4 years at the speed of light does not equal 4 years on earth – they are relative. I know this is confusing, but it’s physics!) Mathematics is certainly objective in a closed system but even Einstein agreed that mathematics is not about objective truth. He said “As far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” (Ideas and Opinions, 1973, p. 233). In regards to physics (which is really mathematics at heart), Einstein himself proved that the so-called “Laws of Physics” only hold true in the broad mid-range of phenomenon. But when you are moving at the speed of light, things are different, or when you are dealing with quantum Physics, they no longer hold true in the same way. It depends on one’s point of view. Even Mathematics is subjective. Even something as static as time and space has been shown to be a relative phenomenon.

    The point is this: Science likes to portray its “knowing” or the “truth” which it generates as “fact” without acknowledging that it is fact from a particular point of view. But all knowing has a point of view. Science actually functions in a way that is much more creative, and intuitive and there is a lot of “faith” at work in the process. But science seeks to deny this reality by professing objectivity. This objectivity is an illusion. Lesslie Newbigin says “There is no knowing without believing, and believing is the way to knowing.” (ibid. p. 33) Scientific knowledge can never be an objective picture of reality because we are always part of the picture.

    What Lyotard and the other French Linguists & Philosophers have helped us to see is that scientific knowledge happens within a particular framework or narrative called the scientific method. They make the rules of their game and within that framework, they can reproduce phenomena and call consistent results fact. But there is also a kind of knowing which is called “narrative knowledge.” This is the sort of truth statement we find in scripture – the bible is a narrative. Christian truth is rooted in a narrative of the people of God. Science has rejected narrative knowledge calling is subjective. But science has refused to acknowledge its own subjectivity. This is problematic. Christianity must never fall into the same trap as science and begin to attempt to prove the truth of God in terms of the criteria of science.

    To explain it another way, Lyotard said that science continually appealed to “reason” as the universal criteria for truth statements. Science “appeals to criteria of legitimation that are understood as standing outside any particular language game and thus guarantee universal truth…[but] scientific knowledge, which considered itself to be a triumph over narrative knowledge, covertly grounds itself in a narrative.” (JKA Smith, p. 67).

    Getting back to your original question, I would say it’s not so much a matter of separating truth from objectivity as it is acknowledging the subjectivity of all truth statements. Science requires all other disciplines to submit to its rules without acknowledging that those rules are themselves subjective. I think science should be required to acknowledge that it has a subjective element and that, over time, almost all of its truth statement either have been or will be adjusted. Thus what is held as objective truth at any given time, will one day be seen to be subjective.

    Here is why I think it is important. I think that in the narrative of scripture and in the tradition and history of the church, we find testimony to the fact that knowledge of God is a personal, experiential and subjective thing. God became a person which means that truth is ultimately personal or subjective. Just think about the logic of it. God is Truth. God became a person (a subject). Thus truth because subjective in Jesus & lived and moved and breathed. Jesus bore witness to this proclaiming himself to be the Way, Truth, and Life. What is happening is not a rejection of rational truth, or a relativizing of all truth statements, but an unveiling of the fact that all knowledge is rooted in some narrative or myth. Therefore to believe the truth statement of science is actually done in “faith” to a certain narrative.

    Your next question was: Why would someone desire to arrive at this conclusion – doesn’t it just lead to relativistic positions about everything? I think my answer to that is that everything is relativized by God who is the Truth. Truth is not an abstraction, God is truth which we must relate to in personal ways. So truth is relative or it is a relating phenomenon. The scandal isn’t that truth is relative, God forces everything to be relative to God’s self by sheer weight of God’s omnipresence and omnipotence; the scandal is that some people have actually had the audacity to claim any truth as objective. The very idea of objectifying truth smacks of idolatry. The truth that God is relativizes all truth statements.

    Your last question was: If truth is not truth in an objectively verifiable way that can be observed and confirmed what good is it? For this, I’d argue along the lines I did in the first question. There is no such thing as objectively verifiable truth, all truth has a subjective knower and all knowing is rooted in a narrative. Newbigin is helpful here. In talking about how all knowing is a result of long and arduous training he writes,

    “Facts are only grasped by an activity of the knower which is impossible without long training. This training begins in infancy when the newborn child begins to make some sort of sense of the buzzing noises and the ever changing patterns of light and shade which surround her, and continues through the long business of being educated into the use of words, concepts, and patterns of thought which are part of the inheritance of human culture. Facts do not imprint themselves on the brain like images on a photographic plate. They have to be grasped and understood. All so-called facts are interpreted facts. What we see depends on the way our minds have been trained. At one time people looking into the night sky saw chinks in the celestial sphere through which the light shone from beyond. Later they saw heavenly bodies moving around the earth; today they see the minute fraction of a universe vaster than human mind can grasp, and know that they are only seeing a few of our nearest neighbors. As (Michael) Polanyi says, in discussing some of the great scientific controversies, ‘The two sides do not accept the same facts as facts, and still less the same evidence as evidence…Within two different conceptual frameworks the same range of experience takes the shape of different facts and different evidence.” (Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 167) What we see as facts depends on the theory we bring to the table.” (ibid. p. 21)

    Your last question is essentially What good is truth if it is relative? That’s a really good question. I think that the goodness of the truth of God is rooted in God’s being or in the goodness of God – not in any human ability to prove, confirm or describe it. Truth is encountered in God and apprehended in a particular narrative, not deduced out of thin air or imprinted on the mind like a printing press. I believe this reality opens up space for Christian proclamation. We can narrate the story of what it means to be human on level ground with science without having to acquiesce to its criteria. Smith writes:

    “By calling into question the very ideal of a universal, autonomous reason (which was, in the Enlightenment, the basis for rejecting religious thought) and further demonstrating that all knowledge is grounded in narrative or myth, Lyotard relativizes (secular) philosophy’s claim to autonomy and so grants the legitimacy of a philosophy that grounds itself in Christian faith. Previously such a distinctly Christian philosophy would habe been exiled from the ‘pure’ arena of philosophy because of its ‘infection’ with bias and prejudice. Lyotard’s critique, however, demonstrates that no philosophy – indeed, no knowledge – is untainted by prejudice or faith commitments. In this way the playing field is leveled, and new opportunities to voice a Christian philosophy are created.” (Smith p. 72).

    This is unbelievably verbose & disorganized…sorry. Hope this helps clarify where my thinking is right now.



  • Well said.

  • nane

    well, you have no idea about physics or math but that’s fine, sophistry at its finest isn’t a bad thing- that would be too objective