Are You Afraid of Postmodernism?

What is real? That is the question that is most asked and the one most pondered by philosophers throughout the centuries. It challenges or questions what our human senses detect and what our minds interpret as the reality of what we believe about our culture and the world we live in. In the late twentieth century, postmodernism took shape, and postmodernists seek to alter or dismiss the reality or truth of the past to give credibility to modern beliefs of what is accurate and true. This philosophy has since made its way into the church through the doors of select denominations that now permit actions that are incongruent with biblical teachings. Some Christians welcome these reality shifts with open arms while others recoil, and very few find themselves standing on middle ground. In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, James Smith (2006) examines postmodernism with the intent to show readers that people often misunderstand the claims made by postmodernists and that such allegations do have a rooted kinship of sorts with Christianity.

In his opening chapter, James Smith (2006) explains the supporting philosophy of postmodernism and its strengths and weaknesses. He opens with a brilliant example that draws from the movie The Matrix and the recount of Plato’s cave by the great philosopher Socrates. Smith asserts that reality may not be as it always seems; only by the illumination of the truth does our perception of reality conform to the newly accepted norm. He writes, “While we might not name it as such, our cultural shifts and changes can be traced to the advent of postmodernity and the trickle-down effect of postmodernism on our popular culture” (p. 17). Smith sets his sights on what he calls an “unholy trinity of postmodern thinkers,” whom he names Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michael Foucault (p. 21). He focuses on three slogans of postmodernism that stem from the philosophies of these three men, which sets the framework for chapters two, three, and four.

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Nothing Outside the Text?

The thrust of chapter two focuses on Jacques Derrida’s theory that purports people interpret reality, the world around them, based on language; hence, the slogan “There is nothing outside the text.” James Smith (2006) states that many people view Derrida as a “linguistic idealist” and misunderstand his point to mean there is no reality beyond the text. Smith quickly corrects this by making the following point. He writes, “If there is nothing outside the text, then a transcendent Creator who is distinct from and prior to the world could not exist” (p.35). As a caveat to that line of reason, if there is nothing outside the text, it would be impossible for the Word to become flesh, i.e., Jesus or God incarnate. Smith points out that Derrida’s phrase, “there is nothing outside of the text,” infers that, in his words, “there is no reality that is not already interpreted through the mediating lens of language” (p. 39). That conclusion lends itself to another interesting point of fact in that the reality of creation came about through language when God said, “Let there be light” (New American Standard Bible, Gen. 1:3). 

Smith also speaks to and agrees with Derrida’s perspective that context within a text is necessary to interpret the reality of what it conveys. He uses the Bible as an example; he cites that many people interpret the Bible differently throughout the world. He underscores this by writing, “This play of interpretation does not mean that all interpretations are good and true” (p. 53). Smith elaborates on this further by addressing Derrida’s claim that “all the world is a text, thereby making it subject to interpretation” and “then for the church the narrative of the Scriptures is what should govern our very perception of the world” (pp. 54-55). Smith presents a valid point in that Scripture provides us with the blueprint of how we perceive our culture, i.e., how we are to relate to God and one another, which, in turn, forms the world around us — our reality.

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Where Have All the Meta-narratives Gone?

In chapter three, James Smith (2006) looks at Lyotard’s claim that postmodernism emanates suspicion and critique on meta-narratives or stories. Smith quickly focuses on the fact that the Holy Scriptures in and of themselves present a story. They give a historical account, one might add, which places postmodernism and Christianity at hostile odds with one another. Smith coalesces this into a basic understanding that Lyotard’s conflict is between science and narratives; that which one can prove against that which one can only claim (pp. 64-65). Smith arrives at the understanding that Lyotard’s view creates two consequences for the Christian faith and the church: “the relationship between faith and reason” and “pious Christianity” (pp. 71; 74). He further elaborates that faith and reason cannot cohabitate. That is because reason, or science, often finds itself grounded to prior beliefs yet to be legitimized. Another way to view postmodernism through the lens of science or vice versa is this: Science is a reoccurring effort of continued research that either builds upon or reaffirms past research. When a conclusive answer to legitimize a hypothesis is not found, science will revert to its first opposed narrative.


One of the failings of modern-day Christianity is the bold proclamation of the gospel. James Smith (2006) makes an interesting comment that suggests postmodernism is calling out the church to practice what it preaches in so many words. He writes, “The postmodern critique demands not that modern thought relinquishes its faith, but that it own up to it—openly confess its credo” (p. 72). He further shares that the church should embrace Lyotard’s critique of meta-narratives not as a means to understand the Christian faith but as a means to understand its commitments (p. 73). In an era when the church’s voice in America has fallen to be but a faint whisper against the wind, Smith makes what seems to be a valid point. He weaves this into the idea that there are too many pious Christians who “have bought into the modernist valorization of scientific facts and end up reducing Christianity to just another collection of propositions” (p. 74). Smith eloquently points out that God’s word is not a compilation of propositions, but instead, it is a narrative. He stresses the point that a narrative imbues life in the spirit of the Christian through the illumination of what God has revealed to humanity, and he concludes the chapter with profound advice. He writes, “The Scriptures must remain central for the postmodern church, for it is precisely the story of the canon of Scripture that narrates our faith” (p. 75).

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Power/Knowledge/Discipline

The phrase “knowledge is power” is commonplace in American society. It infers that possession of one element (knowledge) results in attaining the other (power). This phrase or belief forms the premise for Michael Foucault’s postmodernism philosophy. James Smith (2006) shares Foucault’s comment that clarifies his view about the relationship between knowledge and power. He writes, “He does not mean that knowledge and power are identical; instead, he means to emphasize the inextricable relationship between knowledge and power” (p. 85). The balance between knowledge and power or that which brings control over the power derived by knowledge is the art of discipline. The role of self-discipline in American society is a lost strength. So much so that we now live in a culture where anything goes. Sadly, it is slowly but surely seeping into the church as well. This lost strength is mainly the result of the mismanaged power of communication by the media. To strengthen the skill of discipline, Smith suggests that Christians need to recognize the disciplinary formation that occurs in culture or the lack thereof. He further suggests that Christians need to know the difference between what society or culture calls us to do and what God calls us to do (p. 106). He concludes with a pervasive point and writes, “Conceiving of the church as a disciplinary society aimed at forming human being to reflect the image of Christ, we will offer an alternative society to the hollow formations of late-modern culture” (p. 107).

Summary

Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism offers a refreshing, though, at times, complex look at living in a postmodern culture. As Smith points out, television shows like MTV and networks such as Disney are covert operators that slowly transform society’s perspective over time and weakens discipline (p. 106). Communication is a powerful medium and can be a strong influence on impressionable or unsuspecting people. For example, the slow emergence of same-sex relationships on television is slowly working on desensitizing how Americans view such behaviors that God deems an abomination. Smith takes a deep dive into the subject from a cultural and biblical point of view and debunks several myths. This text can help postmodern churches, ministries, and the like take the gospel message into the 21st century and beyond.


References:
Smith, J. (2006). Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.


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