There is Nothing Outside the Text: James K.A. Smith’s treatment of Derrida in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”

whos afraid of postmodernismPinning 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). Continue reading

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