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“Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” by James K. A. Smith – A Review-Interview

Jamie Smith has written a superb book entitled “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” In the book, Jamie makes three of the seminal authors of postmodernity, Lyotard, Derrida, and Foucault, accessible to the uninitiated in continental philosophy. He then makes an excellent case for a reinvigorated ecclesiological practice as a response. Jamie’s book is the beginning of a new series that Baker is doing with the aim to make many of these thinkers accessible to the broader Christian public. I heartily recommend this first one and use it in my classes at Northern as one of the introductions to postmodern thought.

I’ve been interviewed on the new blog website for the book series. There’s some good comments in response to the interview. If you have time, check it out here. If not, here’s the interview part of the post on the church and postmodernism.

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An exchange over “Who’s Afraid?” with David E. Fitch, planting pastor of Life on the Vine, the Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary, and author of The Great Give Away.

churchandpomo: In the introduction of the Church and Postmodern Culture Series, Smith writes that “the series will provide accessible introductions to postmodern thought with the specific aim of exploring its impact on ecclesial practice.” There is a constant criticism made against those who dabble and/or dive into postmodernity, that you have substituted postmodernity for the gospel. We see this criticism from two different Wilson’s: (Douglas) Wilson on James K.A. Smith, and (Jonathan R.) Wilson on David E. Fitch. How do you respond to this critique of your work and Smith’s?

David E. Fitch: When it comes to engaging culture, evangelicals are captivated/horrified by “contextualization.” Whether it is the enduring influence of H. Richard Niebuhr over us, or our endemic modernism which inevitably privatizes our faith and makes it into an idea to be “translated” into a given culture, we evangelicals are obsessed with contextualizing the gospel as a “message” into a particular culture. To think that the person and work of Jesus Christ demands that we ourselves embody a politic in the form of the church with given social practices that engage society as an embodied presence, is completely alien to the evangelical mind. Therefore, whenever Jamie or I use the postmodern critique to expose the weaknesses of current church practice as it has been captivated by modernity, evangelical authors automatically assume that we are trying to contextualize the gospel to this new cultural phenomenon – postmodernity. In both our cases, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Although I have nothing against contextualization per se, Jamie nor I have this in mind as we present our various takes on postmodernity as a critique of current American church practice. We are both simply trying to unveil what the critique of postmodernity reveals about both our current culture and our current church practice. We are using the postmodern authors to unveil the huge shortcomings of current church practices all because of our indebtedness to modernism and all its manifestations. The response we both offer, however, is not to contextualize a church to postmodernity, but rather to reinvigorate an ecclesiology for our times. As Jamie states “it might just be these Parisians who can help us be the church.” (p.23).

c&p: Smith notes that many practitioners (say within the Emerging Church) give an approving nod to postmodern philosophers, but rarely move beyond slogans or trite summaries. After tipping a hat to philosophy, many claim that everyday life needs attention. Why is engaging with postmodern philosophy important to you, and how do you see it hitting the roads of ‘real’ life?

DF: It is ironic that the church which turns out to be most modern, the church which turns out to carry out protestant liberal strategies in terms of ecclesiology, is the evangelical church, the version of American Christianity from which both Jamie and myself come and remain aligned with. The fact that many evangelicals when they read this may be dumbfounded by that statement is simply the evidence of how little we evangelicals understand about our own indebtedness to modern assumptions, politics and way of life. To me, this confusion extends even to many in the emerging church. As I have said elsewhere, protestant liberalism and evangelical fundamentalism are two sides of the same coin. And so it is odd that many of our emerging church pastors, as well as many of our most modernist mega church pastors, all seek to engage social justice on terms that only make sense in a society where a modernist politics still make sense. Many of these pastors put forth ideas about kingdom theology, social justice, and engagement with culture that are as old as Tillich, Niebuhr, Raushenbush etc. They somehow present these ideas as new? Yet these are all failed theologies both in terms of practice and in terms of the postmodern philosophers and post foundational theologians we all seem to be reading (and in the case of Jamie, myself, and the emergent writers seem to find benefit from).

This is why it is so important to understand these postmodern philosophers, thinkers and critiques at such a time as this. It is into these situations that I believe the insights of postmodern authors on the issues of subjectivity, the Other, democracy and capitalism, and the nature language and reality are so powerful for understanding the very issues we must engage as a social presence in the world where the modern consensus is heading into an implosion called “late capitalism.” For this reason I believe the emergent authors, the mega church pastors, the Christian church that still exists, has so much to learn and understand from the postmodern critique. This is why what Jamie has done in his own book “Who’s Afraid of PostModernism?” and what he has done in creating this series of books is so important.

c&p: At the end of chapter one, Smith, laying out the contours of his appropriation of postmodernism, notes that we must shift from an apologetics of demonstration (reason) to one of proclamation (through ecclesial witness). Why do people get so upset with Smith and others for saying that “the church doesn’t have an apologetic; it is an apologetic”?

DF: Many of the “younger evangelicals” are afraid of anything that smacks of withdrawal from culture. They were raised in a brand of fundamentalism that preached “separation” from culture, withdrawal. All culture is bad! They don’t want to go back to anything close to that and I don’t blame them. To say “let the church be the church” as Stanley Hauerwas has made famous and Jamie reiterates here with a new twist in “Who’s Afraid?” scares these ex-evangelicals. They suspect this theological turn could be used as an excuse to withdraw from the culture.

Let me allay any fears. Jamie is not suggesting anything of the sort. Rather he is suggesting, along with myself, and certainly spearheaded by Hauerwas (although Jamie is more Reformed than either Hauerwas or myself) that the church as an embodied presence is the social strategy in the new fragmented worlds of declining modernity. The church becomes the means of a living breathing display of justice from which we engage the world with an all the more compelling justice that comes out of God’s work in the church. From such a social display, our ability to support justice efforts and even know which justice efforts to join hands with is made more possible because we have such an embodied justice to live and discern out of. But by possessing a justice that is a politic of the cross (Yoder), by making justice more than something we do, but indeed something we are, we are able to remove justice from being a mere idea or concept and instead allow justice of God to become part of our way of life in the ways we live and engage the world. In fragmented modernity, this is only possible if we take the church seriously as a politic with integrity of its own.

c&p: Lastly, do you have any final comments on your reaction to Jamie’s book?

DF: “Postmodern” is easily the most misunderstood word in American church. In addition, postmodern philosophy is largely inaccessible to average pastor or M.Div educated reader. Many authors have written primers for postmodernism that have failed to do anything to alleviate this situation. It is simply hard to find anyone who has intimate familiarity with the primary sources yet will take the time to write in terms that all of us practitioners can understand. Before Jamie’s book I thought this was impossible.

But I say congratulations to Jamie because he has done a marvelous job at introducing Foucault, Lyotard and, yes, Derrida in an accessible way. Since its release, I have used this book in all my classes on church in the postmodern context at Northern Seminary. But Jamie does not stop at helping us understand these three seminal authors of Continental postmodern philosophy. He gives us a wonderful engaging response which helps us see the compelling case postmodernity makes way for, the case for the church to return being the church, a social strategy, an embodied presence in the world, all of which is sadly lacking in the evangelical world from whence both Jamie and I come.

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