Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 1

Smith, Whose Afraid of Postmodernism?

James K.A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is hard to underestimate the importance of philosophical changes in our lifetime. The movement from modernism to postmodernism has been abrupt and has eroded the foundations of most modern institutions [1].  Yet, the indirect way that philosophical influences affect daily life masks their impact to those unaccustomed to taking philosophy into account[2].  Most of us take note of the culture wars, but have trouble understanding why the heated debate. “Why can’t we all just get along?[3]


In his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James Smith Describes post modernism as a kind of pluriform and variegated phenomena (26), an historical period after (post) modernism (19), heavily influenced by French philosophers, especially Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michael Foucault (21).  Adding to the confusion, Smith observes that postmodernism does not make a clean break with modernism, but tends to intensify certain aspects of modernism, particularly notions of freedom (26).

Smith starts with the intriguing premise that the basic ideas of these 3 postmodern philosophers have misunderstood. When properly understood, postmodern philosophy and the traditional teaching of the church remain compatible (22-23).  The collapse of the church in our lifetime can accordingly be seen to lay the groundwork for a revitalization of the church around traditional teaching—once purged of its modernistic thought patterns (epistemology; 29).  This re-imaged traditional teaching he refers to as radical orthodoxy and has an incarnational focus which takes time, place, and space seriously and which affirms both the liturgy and the arts (127).  Are you intrigued yet?


Smith writes in 5 chapters.  Basically, an introduction and conclusion wrapped around 3 chapters focused on Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  The 5 chapters are:

  1. Is the Devil from Paris? Postmodernism and the Church,
  2. Nothing outside the Text? Derrida, Deconstructionism, and Scripture,
  3. Where Have All the Metanarratives Gone? Lyotard, Postmodernism, and the Christian Story,
  4. Power/Knowledge/Discipline: Foucault and the Possibilities of the Postmodern Church,
  5. Applied Radical Orthodoxy: A Proposal for the Emerging Church (7).

Two prefaces precede these 5 chapters and an Annotated Bibliography follows them.

Philosophy Explained through Film

In explaining the details of these philosophers and other points that he makes, Smith starts 4 of his chapters with a lengthy description of a recent movie.  For Derrida, the movie is Memento (31) which features a man with a really poor memory who wanders through his day taking notes about what he needs to remember.  In the case of Lyotard, the movie is:  O Brother, Where Art Thou which is a redo of Homer’s Odyssey (59).  For Foucault, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (81) exemplifies his philosophy in the story of a small-time con man who pleads insanity to his crime and ends up in a psyche ward.  His final chapter begins with a telling of the movie:  Whale Rider (109).

Philosophers have been Misunderstood

Smith’s premise that these philosophers have been misunderstood because of weak bumper-sticker summaries of them. For example, Derrida’s misunderstood statement is: “there is nothing outside the text.” (36)  The idea that one can simply read a text, particularly an ancient text written in another language, and understand its meaning is to misunderstand the role of language, context, and interpretation[4]. While often said to mean that the Bible cannot be read and understood by just anyone[5], Smith says that this is not what Derrida is saying. Derrida’s point is simply that all understanding of texts requires interpretation—the context and the interpretative community (38-40)—which implies that there is no such thing as objective truth.  Interpretation is always required (43).

Objective Truth

Smith’s point about objective truth poses a problem for professionals, including pastors, schooled in modern methods of interpretation. The search for objective truth is the goal of modern research, a fundamental principle in democracy, and a principal of management. If one, objective truth exists, then we can all work together and with enough time and effort figure it out or at least come closer to it.  If truth is fundamentally contextual, then there is your truth and my truth, inasmuch as our histories differ, making collective action intrinsically more difficult.  For this reason, many professions view Derrida with suspicion.


Smith’s writing is provocative and timely. It is also accessible. In part 2, I will examine in more depth his treatment of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism is well worth the time to understand and ponder.


[1] A precondition for modern institutions is the idea that collective action enhances the search for objective truth.  If no objective truth exists, the benefit from discovering it disappears.  If only my truth and your truth exist, then we do not both benefit from working together.  Collective action is simply a power game.  This perspective motivates, for example, deconstructionists to focus almost exclusively on winning power games.  If this is the dominate philosophy, democratic institutions fare poorly because losers in a democratic vote have no reason to support the outcome of the vote.  Rather, they simply continue to argue their position and attempt to undermine decisions rendered.  This makes collective action more costly, slows down decision making, and leads to general unhappiness.

[2] My introduction to the term, postmodern, dates back to the late 1990s. A staff member in my office offended a senior manager who then all-day training as a team-building exercise. After several hours of this pointless training, a colleague from New York City, who moonlighted as a stand-up comedian, reached his limit and began a long rant that included both the words postmodern and deconstruction.  The trainer later filed abuse charges against him.  Curious why she had taken offense, I looked up both words in a dictionary…my colleague aptly described our re-education experience.  Our punitive training was much like the training (re-education) offered by the communists of Vietnam to prisoners in their concentration camps after the war.

[3] Quote attributed to Rodney King (

[4] In statistics, we are taught that correlation cannot be interpreted as causality.  The analyst must have a theory to infer causality.  For example, sunspots may correlate with crop failures, but it does not imply that crops failed because of sunspots.  A theory must be introduced to show the linkage or causality.  The data by themselves cannot “speak”.  Derrida is making basically the same observation, but only with texts.

[5] This idea is called perspicuity of scripture (

Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 1

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