Pinning down the essence of postmodernism as a philosophical movement can be an intimidating task. Engaging with it fruitfully from the standpoint of Christian thought can be even harder to pull off. James K.A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, admits an awareness of these difficulties in the opening pages of his 2003 book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, which grew out of a set of lectures he gave at the L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland.
Smith differentiates “philosophical postmodernism” from “postmodernity” as a cultural condition, arguing that in order to creatively engage with the latter, Christians must first acquire a good understanding of the former. Why? As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “Ideas have legs.” Smith expands on this phrase, telling readers that, “Schaeffer offers what we might call a trickle-down theory of philosophical influence: cultural phenomena tend to eventually reflect philosophical movements” (p.20).
Of course, Christians have responded to postmodern philosophy with varying levels of hostility and enthusiasm. As Smith puts it, “To some, postmodernity is the bane of the Christian faith, the new enemy taking over the role of secular humanism… Others see postmodernism as a fresh wind of the Spirit sent to revitalize the dry bones of the church” (p.18).
It would be naive to assume that postmodernism is a tidy, well-defined concept. To the contrary, Smith acknowledges that it’s an “admittedly pluriform and variegated phenomenon” that contains both many continuities and discontinuities with modernity (p.26).
Smith embarks on his task of introducing readers to this philosophical movement that “has come slouching out of Paris” by engaging with three of its more influential thinkers and the main slogans associated (for better or worse) with each of them: Jacques Derrida (“There is nothing outside the text”), Jean-François Lyotard (“Postmodernity is ‘incredulity toward metanarratives'”), and Michel Foucault (“Power is knowledge”) (p.21).
He explains that many Christian thinkers have seen postmodernism as being hostile to their faith:
How could someone who takes the sweeping narrative of the Scriptures as the Word of God reject metanarratives? How could someone who believes in the existence of a transcendent God and his creation deny that there is reality outside texts? How could someone who worships the God who is Love participate in a Nietzschean celebration of the will to power as the basis of reality? (p.22)
Smith (ambitiously) will argue that the opposition to these claims by many Christian thinkers is rooted in a misunderstanding of the assertions that these postmodernists are making. He explains:
Once we appreciate the content of these claims, however, we can see two things: First, they mean something different than what the “bumper-sticker” reading suggests. The bumper-sticker readings that turn these claims into slogans tend to perpetuate a number of myths about postmodernism. My goal is to demythologize postmodernism by showing that what we commonly think so-called postmodernists are saying is usually not the case. Second, and perhaps more provocatively, I will demonstrate that, in fact, all these claims have a deep affinity with central Christian claims. (p.22)
We will limit ourselves to his discussion of Derrida, though of course Smith’s discussions of Lyotard and Foucault are also thought-provoking.
The phrase that Smith organizes his lecture around,”There is nothing outside the text,” comes from Of Grammatology, one of Derrida’s earlier works, and at first glance it’s puzzling. Smith explains that many have understood Derrida to mean that “the whole world is a kind of book—that there are no cups or tables or spouses… As such, many have understood Derrida as a linguistic idealist who thinks that there is only language, not things” (pp. 34-35).
Why does this understanding of Derrida’s claim strike so many Christians as problematic? Smith points out at least two reasons. First, linguistic idealism appears to rule out the possibility of believing in a “transcendent Creator who is distinct from and prior to the world” (p.35). Also, “if there is nothing outside the text, then it would seem that what the Bible (admittedly a text) talks about—what it refers to—is not real” (p.35). Thus, many conclude that Derrida’s claim is opposed to the orthodox Christian faith. Smith critiques this conclusion by arguing that it is based on “a serious misunderstanding of what Derrida means when he claims that “there is nothing outside the text” (p.35).
The phrase itself appears in the midst of an analysis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s essay, “On the Origin of Language.” Basically, Rousseau sees language as a distorting lens that stands between us and the world “as it is.” Smith writes, “We can buff this lens for days or grind it as thin as possible, but this lens is a mediation, and as soon as there is mediation, for Rousseau, there is distortion” (p.36). Rousseau pines for a lost “state of Nature,” which (among other things) is a state of immediacy where we don’t have to “interpret” things, we just “know” what they are. In Smith’s words, “That’s a cup. That’s my wife. This is a computer. It’s clear and simple” (p.36). Derrida questions if there ever was a time where interpretation was unnecessary:
For Derrida, this is a naive assumption because it fails to recognize that we never really get “behind” or “past” texts… Interpretation is not a series of hoops we jump through to eventually each a realm of unmediated experience where we don’t have to interpret anymore. Rather, interpretation is an inescapable part of being human and experiencing the world. (p.38)
Thus, what Derrida really means is that”there is no reality that is not always already interpreted through the mediating lens of language” (p.39). For many Christians, this doesn’t seem like much of an improvement.
According to Smith, they are concerned that “if the claim that there is nothing outside the text means that everything is interpretation, then the gospel would only be an interpretation” (p.43). If the gospel is just an interpretation among others, how can it really be true? Smith sees D.A. Carson’s criticisms of the “emerging church” as echoing these concerns. However, Smith thinks Carson errs by conflating truth and objectivity:
I would agree that the gospel is an interpretation and that we can’t know the gospel is true, if by knowledge we mean unmediated objectivity or pure access to “the way things are” (a Rousseauean dream). On the other hand, it is wrong to conclude that this is antithetical to orthodox Christian faith. This third kind of criticism is loaded with unjustified assumptions about the nature of interpretation and the question of truth because it assumes that if something is an interpretation, it can’t be true… But the fact that something is a matter of interpretation does not mean that an interpretation cannot be true or a good interpretation. (p. 44)
Smith uses the crucifixion of Jesus to center this discussion on a more scriptural footing. Clearly, not everyone who witnessed the crucifixion interpreted it in the same way. The chief priests likely understood it as the final removal of a sociopolitical threat and false messiah. The Roman authorities seem to have interpreted it (among other ways) as an event that would hopefully appease the local Jewish leaders and restore a measure of peace to a rebellious backwater of the empire. Smith explains:
Thus the very fact that both the centurion [who declared “Truly this was the Son of God!” in Matt. 27:54] and the chief priests are confronted by the same phenomena and yet see something very different seems to demonstrate Derrida’s point: the very experience of the things themselves is a matter of interpretation. Even if we are confronted with the physical and historical evidence of the resurrection—even if we witnessed the resurrection firsthand—what exactly this meant would require interpretation. Only by interpreting the resurrection of Jesus does one see that it confirms that he is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4). (p.49)
Recognizing the “interpreted status of the gospel” should indeed help Christians remain humble when doing theology in public settings, but it shouldn’t lead to doubt about the gospel’s truth. Smith explains that, “If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty” (p.51).
We earlier noted that part of Smith’s overall purpose was to show how, once properly understood, the claims of these postmodern philosophers actually have close resonances with the Christian faith. Smith writes that:
If one of the crucial insights of postmodernism is that everyone comes to his or her experience of the world with a set of ultimate presuppositions, then Christians should not be afraid to lay their specifically Christian presuppositions on the table and allow their account to be tested in the marketplace of ideas. (p. 55)
He also suggests that Derrida’s words should cause Christians to once again ask themselves if the Scriptures truly govern how they perceive the world around them, commenting that, “One of the challenges of Christian discipleship is to make the text of Scripture the Text outside which nothing stands” (p.55).
Lastly, he brings up the importance of community in helping readers interpret the biblical texts:
I cannot shut myself off from the community that is the church; rather, I need to be formed and informed by the breadth of this community, both geographically (the global church) and temporally (history of the church’s witness)… The same Spirit is both author of the text and illuminator of the reading community. (pp. 56-57)
There is surely much more that could be said about Smith’s interaction with the work of Derrida. However, since I’m only somewhat familiar with postmodern thought, I’m going to be cautious in evaluating Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?
This was a very stimulating book that makes ambitious and slightly provocative claims about the possibilities of engagement between the Christian faith and philosophical postmodernism. While I don’t know if the picture is quite so rosy as Smith paints it, I do think that there is much to be learned by interacting with postmodern thought sympathetically and without the hostile tone that one sometimes sees. I’ll end with one last quote from Smith for us to ponder:
I suggest that this unholy trinity of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault might in fact push us to recapture some truths about the nature of the church that have been overshadowed by modernity and especially by Christian appropriations of modernism. One of the reasons postmodernism has been the bogeyman for the Christian church is that we have become so thoroughly modern. But while postmodernism may be the enemy of our modernity, it can be an ally of our ancient heritage. In short, it might just be these Parisians who can help us be the church (p. 23).