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Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture) Paperback – April 1, 2006

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Christians who think that "Lyotard" is something worn by gymnasts ought to investigate this unusual book, which aims to make accessible the philosophical and religious contributions of three postmodern thinkers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College, does this cleverly by employing illustrations and examples from such films as The Matrix; Memento; One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; and, surprisingly but successfully, The Little Mermaid. Along the way, Smith also dissects the popular teachings of postmodern writers like Brian McLaren (reviewed and interviewed in this issue), Leonard Sweet and Robert Webber. At times, the language is decidedly academic ("heuristic," "metanarrative" and "epistemology" make routine appearances), and the book tends to assume a basic familiarity with philosophical debates. Still, it's one of the most accessible introductions to postmodern thought to date, and its concluding chapter—in which Smith brilliantly employs the movie Whale Rider to explore how Christianity might be simultaneously faithful to tradition and open to change—is alone worth the price of admission. Ironically but persuasively, Smith argues that postmodern Christianity's most powerful contribution could be a return to ancient, premodern church traditions and liturgy. (Apr.)
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About the Author

James K. A. Smith (Ph.D., Villanova University) is the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition, he is editor of Comment magazine and a senior fellow of the Colossian Forum. He is the author of Introducing Radical Orthodoxy, coeditor of Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, and editor of the Church and Postmodern Culture series (

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic; 2nd edition (April 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 080102918X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801029189
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #286,200 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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45 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Douglas R. Davis on September 25, 2006
Format: Paperback
I am not a theologian but rather a scholar in philosophy of education. Like much of the Christian church, institutional education is deeply connected to modern epistemology. A few educational scholars have attempted to challenge the modern educational hegemony and have received some attention in the academy; nonetheless, outside of some influence on curriculum, postmodern thinking has yet to have much influence on educational practice (the systemic provision of pre-determined knowledge). In most cases, postmodern educational scholarship is simply dismissed through some version of what I call the "negative social consequences argument." That is, critics of postmodernism claim it should be resisted because the concurrent nihilism and relativism will result in social harm. James K. A. Smith's book clearly and effectively turns this argument on its head. In other words, Smith in a way that is lucid and concise, effectively argues and illustrates how modernism leads to negative social consequences. Smith builds this argument on one of the easiest to understand explanations of postmodernism I have read. Smith uses film as a medium to illustrate the meaning of postmodern thinking. More importantly, however, Smith articulates the empowering elements of postmodernism. Above all other aspects, the truly remarkable gift of postmodernism is that it is regenerative and re-creative. Freed from the chains of any false appeal to objective knowledge, human societies are liberated to become creative and more truly human. Thank you James Smith for this work--I could not put it down!
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By John A. Van Devender on December 12, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
At least that is the sense I get from Smith's tone in this book. "Settle down, it's not the end of the world, we can work with this post-modern stuff".

I am not a Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault scholar and I cannot comment on how accurately Smith represents their writings. He does footnote his quotes and he is pretty liberal with them, so I tend to trust his understanding.

Smith essentially says this: What Derrida and company actually say is not how they are usually represented. That's a phenomenon with which I am acquainted in others and so I am open to the idea. He then goes on to say that Derrida and Lyotard essentially reduce down, in a Christian form, to that which pre-suppositionalists like Van Til and Schaeffer have said for years. In other words, their critique of "modernism" is in fact just a more abstract and foundational form of these earlier theologians. I am open to that also.

Smith then turns to Foucault and finds in him a valuable ally in understanding how the Christian community can resist the power structures which pervasive modernism has "disciplined" the general population. By exposing and rejecting these structures, Smith turns Foucault on his head by saying that Christians should not reject the idea of power structures but rather the end or telos toward which modernism's structures are pointed. Christians should, with understanding, institute their own community, with its own power structures, to the end of realigning itself with the general intent of the early/post-Apostolic Christian Church.

In short, Smith advocates a Radical Orthodoxy that appropriates the post-Modern critique but does not fall into the cynical despair that is underneath much of the Emerging Church movement. It is an interesting proposition.
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41 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Alwyn Lau on February 18, 2007
Format: Paperback
"There is nothing outside the text."

Derrida the prophet whose view of language and meaning as an endless vortex of interpretation brings hope that the Church can challenge existing interpretations which pretend to be absolutes. I confess some surprise that Derrida's thoughts here could be encapsulated in, "There is no meaning outside context" and whilst I think James KA Smith's chapter is still a must-read for Christians who think Derrida is the Devil Incarnate, I'm somewhat wary about whether Smith has done justice to Derrida's thoughts. If indeed "everything is just interpretation" is the key that unlocks Derrida then how come it wasn't used by writers like Thiselton, Grenz, Veith Jr., Megill, etc.

"Postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarratives."

Lyotard's grenade thrown into the heart of autonomous universal reason as some God's-Eye view, counsels us to spend less time seeking to produce apologetical evidence and maybe devote more time to simply sharing the story of Christ and showing how this story trumps the Enlightenment one (or any other). Once again, I was surprised at Smith's contention that Christianity is not a metanarrative - I always thought it was, but given its nature of suffering and self-giving (as per the replication of Calvary I believe Jesus demands of us all), I always felt that this sets the faith apart from other metanarratives.

But I calmed down after reading his/Lyotard's definition of metanarrative as any grand story that legitimizes itself by an appeal to universal reason i.e. a worldview beyond a community, beyond an internal narrative.
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