Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 2

Smith_review_02032015James K. A. Smith.  2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic. (Go to part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Smith offers detailed comments on three, key postmodern authors—Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault—and argues that each is fundamental misunderstood in their usual interpretation.


Smith sees hope in the Derrida’s critique, “there is nothing outside the text.” (36), because the modern understanding of the Christian message is itself a distortion of traditional church teaching.  In attempting to frame the Christian message in ahistorical truth statements (God is love), the narrative tradition (God showed his love by sovereignly granting the exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt) has been lost.  Because the Christian message is contextual in biblical accounts and is interpreted by the church, it meets Derrida’s primary concerns.  Consequently, according to Smith, the church must, however, abandon modern stance and language in order to thrive in the postmodern environment (54-58).


Smith also sees Lyotard’s idea of a metanarrative as misunderstood in its bumper-sticker characterization. Postmodern critics have trouble with the metanarrative or big story of scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and eschatology (62-64).  Smith disputes, however, that the scope of metanarratives is Lyotard’s main concern.  Rather, Smith sees Lyotard’s main concern being the truth claims of modern use of metanarratives—science is itself a metanarrative but falsely and deceptively claims to be universal, objective, and demonstrable through reason alone (64-65). Smith writes:  “For the postmodern, every scientist is a believer.” (68). Lyotard is perfectly okay with the idea of faith preceding reason, following Augustine  (65, 72).  Accordingly, Smith says that the postmodern church needs to abandon modernistic claims to truth (e.g., give up the “scientific” approach to apologetics) and, instead, to value story (narrative), aesthetic experiences, and symbols, such as the sacraments (77).  In this way, Smith takes Lyotard to church.


Foucault’s concern about institutional power structures is hard to reduce to a bumper-sticker characterization, in part, because he resists reductionism in his writing style and focuses on tediously pure description (96).  Smith sees Foucault preoccupied with disciplinary structures, but wonders what his real intentions are.  He talks about two readings of Foucault:  Foucault as Nietzschean and Foucault as a closet enlightenment liberal (96-99).  Smith writes:

What is wrong with all these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process (102).

Smith sees Foucault offering 3 lessons to the church:

  1. To see “how pervasive disciplinary formation is within our culture”;
  2. To identify which of these disciplines are “fundamentally inconsistent with…the message of the church”; and
  3. To “enact countermeasures, counterdisciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be” (105-106).

It is worth asking in this context:  when exactly did the church relinquish its internal discipline and why?  Smith sees communion, confession, foot washing, and economic redistribution (107) as the kind of disciplines that need to be maintained.  A more normal reading of discipline might ask why the teaching of the church—church doctrine—is ignored and no dire consequences follow for those most engaged in the ignoring.


Smith gets it.  Smith is unique in seriously reflecting on how to apply the lessons he sees in Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault.  He asks:  “…is it possible to be faithful to tradition in the contemporary world?” (109)  He opines:

A more persistent postmodern [church]… will issue not in a thinned-out, sanctified version of religious skepticism (a “religion without religion”) offered in the name of humility and compassion but rather should be the ground for the proclamation and adoption of “thick” confessional identities. (116-117)

Smith sees radical orthodoxy as admitting that we do not know the truth, but confessing a mysterious and sometimes ambiguous faith (116-118).  He writes:

A more persistent postmodernism embraces the incarnational scandal of determinant confession and its institutions:  dogmatic theology and a confessionally governed church (122).

This radical orthodoxy involves “affirmation of liturgy and the arts and a commitment to place and local communities.” (127).


Having just published a devotional book which reviews the traditional teaching of the church [1], I find much to like in Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism! Perhaps the only real caveat that I would offer up is that the pluriform and variegated phenomena of postmodernism (26) will likely involve a range of responses, not just radical orthodoxy [2].   Some will work; many will fail.  Re-imaged, will the old wine poured into new wine-skins yield  a church able to experience both the immanent and transcendent attributes of God?  Likewise, will the exclusivity of Christ be lost in a church claiming only the right of private beliefs?  It seems likely that for now radical orthodoxy is likely to pose an interesting postmodern experiment, one of many.


[1] A Christian Guide to Spirituality (

[2] .  Elements of postmodern, modern, and traditional cultures appear to coexist in tension with one another even in small organizations and most certainly in society more generally.  See a serious of articles online:  Can Bad Culture Kill a Firm?  For example: (

Smith: Speak Postmodern, Part 2

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