Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?


James KA Smith asks “Who’s afraid of Postmodernism?” because the answer is, ‘Basically everyone in the (white?) Evangelical church.’

If you go to church in that subset, it’s rather likely you’ve heard messages about why postmodernism is bad, even if the word “postmodernism” wasn’t actually used. The church’s (largely legit) decrying of today’s moral relativism — ie. What’s true for you is not necessarily true for me. — is a good example.

But relativity is firstly Einstein’s problem, not Foucault’s. It’s modernism’s problem, not postmodernism.

These kinds of misunderstandings about postmodernism is one reason why The Church and Postmodern Culture series from Baker Academic starts with James KA Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Leotard, and Foucault to Church.

In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, Smith engages his reader with humor and wonderful accessibility. The first half of Who’s Afraid aims to clearly differentiate between the popular, or what Smith calls “bumper sticker,” understanding of postmodernism and the scholarly understanding and narrowing the gap between the two.

Smith helps his reader get a handle on the gist of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault’s commentaries on postmodernism, and provides his thoughts on both the benefits of each philosopher’s criticism of modernism as well as Smith’s own criticism of what he perceives to be the errors of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault’s proposals.

If all this were not excitingly useful enough, the best part of the book comes as Smith proceeds to do exactly as he says he will do in his catchy subtitle: he takes Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, a Gospel mission most Christians are afraid to go on.

Smith grabs hold of the positive criticisms each philosopher gives and applies them to the Modern Church in hopes of holding out a vision for the church wherein she might break free of the glittery trappings of modernism and bravely step forward into a truly post-modern existence.

Protestants in particular have a history of throwing the proverbial icon out with the icon worship. As fellow TTC writer Scott Schiffer says in his post “Can Christians be Post-Modernists?“:

Christianity does not fit into modernity or post-modernity wholesale. But it has a place in both worldviews. Christians should be about the business of redeeming all that is in this world. With a proper understanding of the post-modern worldview… [as] Christians work and breathe and live in post-modern society, we can present the Gospel in new innovative ways.

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, I recommend Smith’s incredibly readable Who’s Afraid as a starting point.