Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?


I actually read this one while watching a sick Micah before we left for Indiana, so I’m working mainly from memory here.  This is my second Smith book, and once again I enjoyed it immensely.  I get the sense reading Smith that he’s been taught the way I have, namely to take disputed texts on their own terms and to evaluate from inside rather than based on catch phrases and reputation Such respect is especially important when one takes on dense philosophical and theological texts, and Smith’s care is evident.  

Each of the book’s chapters takes on one significant figure in postwar 20th-century French philosophy, those figures that some folks call postmodernists.  With each of the chapters Smith starts out with common reactions to the “bumper-sticker” phrase with which critics of postmodernism saddle the writer, and he proceeds to examine what the phrase means in its proper context, to trace some of the major ideas from the writer, and to suggest ways that the philosophical insight can inform Christian community for the sake of faithfulness.  Those three chapters deal with Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text,” with Lyotard’s “Incredulity towards metanarratives,” and Foucault’s “Power is knowledge.”  The book finishes with a chapter of proposals for Christian theology and common life that points intellectually towards the Cambridge school’s Radical Orthodoxy and communally towards some of the practices of the Emergent Churches.

I hesitate to write so much about such a brief book as this, but each chapter also engages the philosopher in question by means of discussing a recent movie, and his final chapter introduced me to a movie that I only knew from shelving it at the public library.  Smith is clearly writing for folks who do not have a great deal of exposure to these thinkers, but even so, I did not find myself, as so often I do when I read Christian books about postmodernism, taking the books off of my shelf to see the context that the authors leave out to make their point.  Smith is even-handed throughout, seeing Christian theology not as an act of rejection but as a series of appropriations, something that would have been simple common sense to thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas but which has fallen on hard times since the Church lost the university and since segments of Christianity have decided to battle against rather than redeem what philosophy has been doing of late.

I did not have too many problems with the book.  Smith certainly reads Foucault as being more optimistic than I do, and Smith himself is more optimistic about the possibilities of intellectual and practical freedom inside of historical episcopal hierarchies, but even for those he offers good reasons, and overall, I’d recommend this book without reservation to any Christian interested in reading recent philosophy as Augustine read Plotinus and Aquinas Aristotle.


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