With the publication of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, James K. A. Smith has provided just the kind of monograph that is needed in our contemporary context. Smith takes a highly complex subject matter—the philosophical contributions of postmodern theorists—and mediates it to lay Christians in an accessible and engaging manner. Smith’s book grew out of a series of lectures that he gave in 2003 at L’Abri Fellowship, and this background context shines forth on every page, as Smith maintains throughout a conversational tone that is lacking in many standard treatments of this topic. For instance, Smith begins each chapter by utilizing a recent film production as a kind of hook for drawing readers into the broader argument. At no point, however, does Smith “dumb down” the material for the sake of accessibility. Smith’s skill in communicating the main ideas of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault precisely stems from his deep familiarity with their work, and one of the impressive achievements of the book is his adeptness at providing readings that are accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing nuance.
Smith kicks off the book with a helpful discussion on “What is postmodernism?”—a notoriously difficult term to define. Within this introductory discussion, Smith imbeds the central thesis that will propel his overall argument: “In particular, I suggest that th[e] unholy trinity of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault might in fact push us to recapture some truths about the nature of the church that have been overshadowed by modernity and especially by Christian appropriations of modernism. One of the reasons postmodernism has been the bogeyman for the Christian church is that we have become so thoroughly modern” (23). In each successive chapter, Smith takes a particular insight from one of the above thinkers, and shows that what many Christians have perceived as a threat to the faith may actually represent an antidote to a specific ill spawned by an unreflective appropriation of Enlightenment rationalism. For example, in chapter 2 Smith argues that Jacques Derrida’s notion that “there is nothing outside the text,” rather than undermining Christian truth claims, actually offers the potential for properly reorienting the way in which we approach epistemology. As Smith summarizes the matter, “If all the world is a text to be interpreted, then for the church the narrative of the Scriptures is what should govern our very perception of the world… [T]o say that there is nothing outside the Text, then, is to emphasize that there is not a single square inch of our experience of the world that should not be governed by the revelation of God in the Scriptures” (55).
While the book as a whole can speak to Christians across the spectrum of traditions, the final chapter (“Applied Radical Orthodoxy: A Proposal for the Emerging Church”) will likely prove more relevant to Protestants than it will to Eastern Orthodox Christians or Roman Catholics. For one thing, the “emerging church” is a specifically Protestant phenomenon, and I’m guessing that many Catholic readers will be unfamiliar with the movement. Moreover, much of Smith’s prescriptive work in this chapter, such as his call for Christians to foster a sacramental imagination, will seem redundant to Catholics. Finally, from a Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) perspective, catholicity is not properly speaking a reality towards which the Church is moving—as Smith seems to present it—rather, it is a subsistent characteristic of the community founded by Jesus Christ, the significance of which is constantly unfolding in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit within and through the Body of Christ. In other words, catholicity is not something that Christians “achieve,” but, instead, is a gift from God that we are continually receiving through the sacramental mediation of the one Apostolic Church.
Admittedly, in this brief treatment of Smith’s monograph, I have been unable to do justice to the core of his argument. If, as the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding, those who take the time to dig into Smith’s treatment will not be disappointed. Despite my minor quibbles above, I can heartily recommend this title. In fact, readers looking for an introduction to the broad outlines of postmodern theory could hardly do better than to start with Who’s Afraid of Postmodernity?. Perhaps most impressively, Smith here weds praxis with theory, setting forth for his audience an irreducibly incarnational vision of the Christian faith. In sum, Smith’s work promises not only to expand our understanding of postmodernity, but also, and more importantly, to inspire modes of discipleship that are resolutely faithful to the demands of the Gospel.