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

smithJames K.A. Smith is a Christian philosopher who came to Christ through the ministry of the Plymouth Brethrens before having a long “sojourn in the Assemblies of God.”  He is now a Professor of Philosophy and Congregational/Ministry Studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Smith was influenced by the writings of Francis Schaeffer – to the point that he considers this book a “sequel to Shaeffer’s own engagements with humanism and existentialism” (:21). It is also worth noting that the core of the book was formed out of a series of lectures given at Schaeffer’s study center, L’Abri Fellowship, in Switzerland (:12). In regards to the emerging church movement, Smith has been both a critic and a friend, arguing that the emerging church is not postmodern enough.    At his core, Smith is a proponent of Radical Orthodoxy, a “sensibility that seeks to articulate a robust confessional theology in postmodernity” (117).

The thesis of Smith’s book is that the French postmodern philosophy promoted by Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault has a deep affinity with central Christian claims” (:22) that can help Christians “recapture some truths about the nature of the church that have been overshadowed by modernity and especially by Christian appropriations of modernism” (:23).

Smith starts the book off with an introduction of both himself and the three French philosophers listed above (1). From there, Smith separates each of the philosophers into their own chapter (2-4), allowing him to “demythologize” (:22) their claims before showing how the claims can used to further the Kingdom of God. Chapter five wraps up the discussion with practical examples of how postmodern philosophy can bring new life to the local church body.

On a personal level, I really enjoyed how Smith used popular movies, history and well-written prose to describe the philosophy of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. These tools helped me to understand the otherwise confusing slogans of the postmodern culture: “There is nothing outside the text” [Derrida]; “Postmodernity is ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’” [Lyotard]; “Power is knowledge” [Foucault] (:21-22).

While all three philosophers have influenced the changing culture, I think Lyotard’s works concerning metanarratives holds the greatest potential for followers of Jesus. The implications of removing science and reason’s claim of being a neutral observer of the world are huge. Christians no longer have to duck their heads in shame when discussing the origins of the planet or the spiritual world in which we all live. Instead, we can once again enter the marketplace of ideas as equals – inviting people to join the story of a loving, caring God who seeks to redeem all of creation to Himself for His glory.

As I write this paper, I am reminded of what happened a few hours ago at church. We where celebrating the Eucharist, as is our custom on the first Sunday of the month, when a mother asked me to explain the symbolic nature of the meal to her twelve-year-old son. As we walked over to a quiet location to talk, my mind raced through the myriad of theological proofs, logic and Bible verses discussing the Eucharist, trying to find a way to explain this sacred Sacrament. Sitting down, I soon found myself dismissing those concepts and, instead, I told the child the story of Jesus and how the Eucharist is a physical act, reminding us of what happened that day on the Cross. No logic or theological proofs – just a story of an ancient Faith and a personal God.