Initial Thoughts on ‘Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?’ @BakerAcademic

This isn’t going to be a actual book review, but rather will be my thoughts and observations as I read through the book.

I don’t know too much about postmodernism as a philosophy, so I picked up this book to hopefully learn a little more about the postmodermism.

The philosophies of French thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault form the basis for postmodern thought and are seemingly at odds with the Christian faith. However, James K. A. Smith contends that their ideas have been misinterpreted. In an introduction and four fulsome chapters, Smith unpacks the primary philosophical impulses behind postmodernism, demythologizes its myths, and demonstrates its affinity with core Christian claims. Each of his accessible chapters includes an opening discussion of a recent representative film and a closing “tour” of a postmodern church in case study form–with particular application to the growing “emerging church” conversation.

Why is it that I want to learn more about postmodernism? In my time as a blogger, it has become apparent that most people talking about postmodernism have no idea what they are talking about.

The notion of postmodernism is invoked as both poison and cure within the contemporary church. To some, postmodernity is the bane of Christian faith, the new enemy taking over the role of secular humanism as object and fear and primary target of demonization. Others see postmodernism as a fresh wind of the Spirit sent to revitalize the dry bones of the church. (Location 168-171)

The extreme positions that people take concerning postmodernism amazes me. This is especially true in Lutheranism. On one hand, the ELCA appears to embrace postmodernism, while all other Lutheran denominations demonize it. But I wonder how many people in the church misunderstand postmodernism. Hopefully this book will shed some light on the subject for me. Looking forward to reading it.

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13 Replies to “Initial Thoughts on ‘Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?’ @BakerAcademic”

  1. One thing that’s become clear to me is that the “postmodernism” that conservatives always warn us about is virtually non-existent. Sure, you might find a few old continental philosophy professors who subscribe to something a bit like it, but, at the end of the day, most people are still firmly within the confines of modernism. I’ve spent close to a decade studying and conducting research at a large European university. I’m a linguist, but we’re in the same department as English and Modern Literature types. In these 10 years, I’ve met exactly ONE student (and zero academics) who was anything like the “post-modern” people that I keep hearing bad things about. And she was not even a good example, since she seemed to believe in all sorts of things being “right” and “wrong”.

    My best explanation so far is that some people were told “yeah, I guess religion works for you but not for me”, and thought that this was a deep reflection on the nature of truth, when in fact it just meant “alright, we all know you believe nonsense but I’m gonna be nice and polite about it”. Then people spent a lot of time telling everyone how Christianity was like medication and not ice-cream and was objectively true, when in fact most people wanted nothing to do with it because they were convinced that it had been proven false by science or offered bad moral values (slavery, male domination, genocide, etc.).

  2. Since post-modernism is evolving, its precise definition has not congealed. That said, I would suggest some aspect of the post-modern delineation involves critical examination of that which preceded it. After all, for at least the past century, humankind has been swamped with a tsunami of technological and philosophical innovation that the species has not had time to sort out.
    Put another way, post-modernism may serve the same purpose as an academic sabbatical as a time for analysis, contemplation, and reflection at one of those myriad crossroads that dot human history. Although oversimplified, a possible working definition of post-modernism may simply be: Where do we go from here?

      1. It is usually much easier to understand the past than it is to foresee the future. That’s why history tends to be more accurate than prophesy.

  3. All I will say is that I found this little book a helpful introduction into three different strands of Post Modernist thought. The thesis of the book is that the gospel can be explained in terms that make it easier for people who are influenced by post modernism to understand and that Christians should not shy away from post modernism as if it were some kind of intellectual version of smallpox but try to understand it so as to better communicate the gospel.

  4. Although purely speculative at this point, it is within the realm of possibility that post-modernism represents a shift from deontological (universal) to consequential (situational) ethics. Put another way, post-modernism may introduce more shades of gray, although not necessarily 50 shades thereof, at the expense of black and whites into the decision-making process. If true, this would profoundly affect both the established legal framework and traditional religious precepts. It would also drive conservatives up the proverbial wall.

      1. While I can see why you would reach your conclusion, there is too much information to the contrary for me to accept it.
        Although conservatism is admittedly fraying around the edges in the current political climate, research (Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2013) suggests that conservatives front load the decision-making process and ignore consequences. For example, even:
        * If impregnation results from incest or rape, conservatives are more inclined to believe abortion is always wrong.
        * Before the Supreme Court announced its impending (as I write) decision on gay marriage, conservatives were broadcasting their intent to defy any ruling running counter to their definition of marriage.
        Research (Current Biology, 2011) further suggests that the cognitive typography of conservatives is fundamentally different from that of liberals. Whereas conservatives tend to have a more pronounced amygdalae, liberals tend to have a better developed anterior cingulate cortex. As a result, conservatives are inclined to be more emotional and less able to handle change.
        Conservatives also tend to have a more pronounced startle reflex (Motivation and Emotion, 2011). In other words, conservatives spook more easily than liberals.
        Thus, while some conservatives may be engaging in political expediency in their struggle to further their agenda, there are also profound constraints on their ability to go with the flow.

  5. In contrast to the others leaving comments here, I find postmodernism to be incompatible with Christian theology.

    In fact, I wrote a response to this book, available as a PDF at .

    I should explain why I published this response in the *Westminster Theological Journal* rather than in a more mainstream journal. I am *not* a fundamentalist, or even an evangelical, but, in my previous attempts to publish something in the area of theology, I had been treated very unprofessionally by the editors of theological journals (as opposed to biblical studies journals). When these editors didn’t like my stance, tried to kill my work by taking more than a year (!) to make a decision on whether to publish it. (After a year or more, of course, they declined.) The worst offender on this score was the editor of *Zygon*, who took *more than two years* to make a decision, and then turned me down on the pretext of something he found disagreeable *in a single sentence* (!!). After that type of abuse, I decided, after writing my critique of Smith, that I would rather send it somewhere likely to accept it (even if it’s WTJ) than to take my chances with a more mainstream theological journal.

    1. I tend to agree. Questioning is often seen as incompatible with faith. Agnostics and skeptics are frequently viewed with suspicion by true believers in any field. Even beyond the realm of religion, especially in the arenas of academics and politics, contrary precepts are seldom welcomed with open arms.

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