Book Review: Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?

James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida,Lyotard , and Foucault to Church is the opening book in the “Church and Postmodern Culture” series Smith is editing. Smith’s goal in this volume is to introduce the idea of the three thinkers named in the title and demonstrate how their thoughts can in fact be a boon to Christianity. Smith does this well, ultimately showing that the tearing down of Enlightenment belief in universal reason creates room for those in the Christian narrative to thrive.

The biggest failing of this book, however, is that Smith stops short of applying the tools of postmodernism to Christianity itself, instead making a case for Radical Orthodoxy. Smith continually views Christianity as a single narrative (seemingly that of Creation, Fall, Redemption and End), never making room for the other narratives that can be and are born of the same Scriptures and traditions. It would seem that his reliance on tradition as a place in which Spirit manifests in time and place would make room for the evolution of tradition, but he repeatedly places non-creedal Christianity outside of the realm of tradition, generally equating it with modern evangelical Christianity. (As a slight aside, when I do attend worship services, the church I attend is both liturgical and non-creedal, something Smith is apparently completely unfamiliar with.) To Smith it seems that though tradition speaks to the importance of particularity or time and place, some deviations from tradition are simply too far outside it to still be part of the tradition.

Despite the lack to giving Christianity itself a postmodern treatment, and despite the ultimate case made for Radical Orthodoxy, the book is worth a read to those interested in the place of the Christian faith in an increasingly postmodern culture. The first four chapters do an excellent job of introducing the ideas of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault and a possible relationship between them and Christianity. Just know that if you’re looking for the place of postmodernism in Christianity, then you’ll have to look elsewhere or use the groundwork done by Smith in all but the last chapter and find that place yourself.

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