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. 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,” 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.” 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. Second, it renders the bible a work of fiction because it cannot refer to real things. Third, if everything is interpretation, then the gospel is as well and thus it is not objectively true. 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. 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. 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? 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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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.
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.
 James K.A. Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to the Church, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006. p. 22.
 Ibid. p. 33.
 Ibid. p. 38.
 Ibid. p. 35.
 Ibid. p. 42.
 Ibid. p. 48.
 Ibid. p. 55.
 Ibid. p. 64.
 Ibid. p. 65.
 Ibid. p. 69.
 Ibid. p. 75.
 Ibid. p. 99.
 Ibid. p. 102.
 Ibid. p. 116.
 Ibid. p. 119.
 Ibid. p. 127-133.
 Ibid. p. 136-142.