August 24, 2008

So few have adequately and intelligently addressed the foundational issues of the postmodern philosophers

Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church - James K.A. Smith

So why are these postmodern thinkers important?

They are important simply because they ask questions of Christianity, and it is our duty as being motivated by both love and truth to work at an answer. These questions are difficult, Smith says these problems should send us back (or is it forward?) to an orthodox understanding of Christianity, especially because Christianity today is so damaged by adopting basic modernist values (seen in classical apologetics or a rationalist approach to church services that abandons liturgy).

  • Derrida's emphasis on interpretation directs us not only to our present community of believers, but to the countless Christians who have interpreted the story of Scripture throughout the history of the church.
  • Lyotard points out how everyone has a story, and we can see how we are not to present a diced-up version of the Gospel in rational terms, but we are to proclaim the whole story of God's redemption.
  • Foucault shows us that when left to ourselves, even desiring our own freedom, we end up repressing each other and effacing ourselves.

It is surprising, then, that so few Christians have adequately and intelligently addressed some of the foundational issues of the postmodern philosophers. Already people are asking "What is next after postmodernism," and if we pay attention to Smith and other Christians addressing these issues, we will be able to answer this question.

Smith has done a great service in treating the complicated subject of postmodernism in such a way that neither waters down the meaning of these thinkers, nor requires an advanced degree to understand. Although it will be helpful to have some background in Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard, if you are willing to labor with the book I think it will serve as a great introduction and primer on postmodernism as well as an appropriate Christian response. Daniel P. Posted by Daniel P. at 10:55 AM in Books

John, I'm not sure I understand your statement about how structuralism and postmodernism have significantly increased our understanding of linguistics - I might need a little more info on that one, and it sounds like a curiously modernist statement to me. When I read St. Augustine or St. Gregory of Nyssa (or any church father or classical philosopher, really), I find them saying the kinds of things that our postmodern philosophers are saying right now (not to mention in a more succinct and compelling manner).

For example, compare Plato's and Augustine's concern about images with Jean Baudrillard's. They are virtually the same. While we should really engage these thinkers (which for a Christian operating as such is really unavoidable), we need to know our own toolbox. I think this is the real strength of Smith's work as he levels an orthodox critique of postmodernism using some very old (and yet not rusty at all) tools.
Let me know if I'm missing your main point though - I might be.
- Daniel Posted by: Daniel June 26, 2008 at 11:44 PM

Some of the individuals behind the idea of social construction are invariably modernists, though, so it's unfair to equate it with postmodernism. James K.A. Smith includes Foucault out of necessity, not because the man belongs in a line-up of postmodernists. Foucault himself rejected the label and believed that some kind of reality existed, but did not believe that we had gotten at it (his sentiments do not sound that far of from N.T. Wright's on this subject). This is why the distinction between weak and strong social construction, in my opinion, seems like a charming but ultimately fruitless concept. It doesn't matter if we can get at reality or not if we can't understand it. Weak social construction seems just as dangerous as the strong, with the only element to be gained from the weak being a mind-relaxing idea of reality being out there.

I'm interested in this statement of yours, "I have no reason to believe..." to which a proponent of social construction would say "it's a construction that reality is predicated upon the operations of logic." Of course, you can respond as you did - both of the arguments are circular and ultimately self-defeating. You may argue that such an argument is all construction, while a constructionist could ask that you demonstrate the rationality or necessity of a commitment to a form of rationality or logic. In doing so you'd be begging the question, assuming the very thing you'd be trying to prove.

But I think this really strays too far from the subject at hand, which is that postmodernism does not really challenge the church to the extent that most people think it does, which was my point in reviewing James K.A. Smith's book. In fact, it might end up that the Bible could speak to postmodernists. Posted by: Daniel June 30, 2008 at 11:36 PM

Jill, it was more a sarcastic and rhetorical comment than anything. But I do think you've emphasized a very profound point about the subject that I didn't mention enough much in the original post - too many people talk about different groups of people, and in my experience it's the "postmodernists" that get this treatment more than most, as if they have to convert to something else before converting to Christianity. We are quick to look at people who believe very different things and we instinctively think they might need to embrace something else (perhaps a pro-life position) before they can embrace Jesus. But you've rightly pointed out that Jesus has to be embraced first before anything else falls into place. The Bible does speak to the concerns of the postmodern thinker, and I think we'd do best just to get out of its way. Posted by: Daniel July 02, 2008 at 12:04 PM

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