Definitions: Postmodernism pt 4

Several people have made the astute observation that we need some more definition of terms to help engage the conversation. With that in mind, I’d like to tackle the idea of postmodernism in a four part post that examines James Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”, where he engages three postmodern philosophers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. This is the fourth and final of the four part series (part onepart two; part three). I have adapted these posts from a paper I wrote in the fall of 2009. This post is particularly desiring your interaction!

In final summary, then, postmodernism contends that there is no truth without interpretation,  has a deep suspicion of systems of power, and is an exploration of alternate paths to what possesses meaning and substance.  This is not to say that in postmodernism modernism has ceased to exist, or that postmodernism is an effort to rid the world of modernism.  Instead, postmodernism allows for the opening of additional angles of discussion on what truth and life are all about. For a brief, simple explanation of the coexistence of postmodernism and modernism, check out this video/blog post.

It’s also worth noting that while generations might have tendencies towards modernist or postmodern mindsets, neither is generationally exclusive. The ideas that form postmodernity have been percolating for decades and are not a discovery of the last decade or two (though it’s in the last decade that they have picked up steam in Evangelical discussions).

With the three ideas proposed about postmodernism at the beginning of this post in mind, what paths might you see it opening up in discussions related to the Gospel? In what ways does it challenge our current approach to sharing the Gospel?

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Definitions: Postmodernism pt 3

Several people have made the astute observation that we need some more definition of terms to help engage the conversation. With that in mind, I’d like to tackle the idea of postmodernism in a four part post that examines James Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”, where he engages three postmodern philosophers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. This is the third of the four part series (part onepart two; part four). I have adapted these posts from a paper I wrote in the fall of 2009. For ease of reading, I’ve bolded key ideas, so that you may either read all the gnarly details or skim for the key concepts. Either way, please leave comments and engage in conversation!

Lastly, Smith moves on to Michel Foucault.  “For Foucault, at the root of our most cherished and central institutions…is a network of power relations.  The same is true of our most celebrated ideals; at their base, Foucault claims knowledge and justice reduce to power.” This is not to indicate that knowledge brings power, that power brings knowledge, or that they are actually the same, but that they can never be exclusive (1).

Smith continues by acknowledging that, because of this, “postmodernism is characterized by a deep hermeneutic of suspicion” (2), indicating that there is an innate sense of distrust by postmoderns of power.  Foucault, though, isn’t intending to show power as an evil, or a good, but instead just as “is”, as unavoidable, and perhaps even amoral in that sense (3).

This combination of knowledge and power that Foucault observes is used to instill discipline, toward the end of furthering both knowledge and power.  Culture has, Foucault suggests, pursued panopticism, or the ability to observe and thus influence without being observed (4). Culture is not a static force that we live in with no consequences, but is a dynamic system that is desiring to align individuals to its goals.

Smith, though, suggests that we can’t, as Christians, be totally averse to being controlled and conformed as part of our calling is conformity to Christ (5). It is too easy for the church to get on board with Foucault because of our idolization of autonomy, while ignoring our need for community and conformity (6).

Smith further contends that discipline is not a single “bad” entity as Foucault would be inclined to depict it, but that “we can distinguish good discipline from bad discipline by its…goal or end,” and that “a disciplinary form is proper when it corresponds with the proper end of humanity, which is to be (renewed) image bearers of God” (7). Christian disciplines, then, have a place and a prominent one at that.

Smith finishes by describing what good discipline can lead to:  a true disciple. “The primary aim of discipleship is to create a certain kind of person who acts in a certain way, not someone who simply thinks in a certain way…knowing truth is only instrumental to ultimately doing the truth” (8).

  1. Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernity? 85.
  2. Ibid., 86.
  3. Ibid., 91.
  4. Ibid., 92.
  5. Ibid., 101.
  6. Ibid., 100.
  7. Ibid., 102.
  8. Ibid., 106.

Definitions: Postmodernism pt 2

Several people have made the astute observation that we need some more definition of terms to help engage the conversation. With that in mind, I’d like to tackle the idea of postmodernism in a four part post that examines James Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”, where he engages three postmodern philosophers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. This is the second of the four part series (part one; part three; part four). I have adapted these posts from a paper I wrote in the fall of 2009. For ease of reading, I’ve bolded key ideas, so that you may either read all the gnarly details or skim for the key concepts. Either way, please leave comments and engage in conversation!

Smith next proceeds to consider Jean-Francois Lyotard’s statement that postmodernism is an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” (1) Many have interpreted this as meaning that Christianity and postmodernism are incompatible because Christians have a grand, overarching story that we believe is the core of how we live our lives.  However, Smith suggests that what Lyotard actually means by this statement is that the scientific obsession with reason is itself a metanarrative and one that does not hold all answers.  In other words, “metanarratives…(are) false appeals to universal, rational, scientific criteria–as though they were divorced from any particular myth or narrative.” (2) Narratives are not the problem; it’s when people claim an objective truth that lies outside of narrative.

With this in mind, Smith contends that postmodernity actually opens the door to Christianity, because it allows us to freely present our ideas in the marketplace of ideas and that, if understood and presented well, that our story is one of unique impact. (3) In other words, this insistence that rational thought alone doesn’t hold the trump card allows a key component of our beliefs to retake its central place:  faith.  

  1. Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? 63.
  2. Ibid., 68.
  3. Ibid., 73.

Definitions: Postmodernism pt 1

Several people have made the astute observation that we need some more definition of terms to help engage the conversation. With that in mind, I’d like to tackle the idea of postmodernism in a four part post that examines James Smith’s book “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”, where he engages three postmodern philosophers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. This is the first of the four part series (part two; part three; part four). I have adapted these posts from a paper I wrote in the fall of 2009. For ease of reading, I’ve bolded key ideas, so that you may either read all the gnarly details or skim for the key concepts. Either way, please leave comments and engage in conversation!

Jacques Derrida, the initiator of the concept of deconstructionism, is best known for his maxim that “there is nothing outside the text.”(1) Smith begins by asserting that Derrida’s quote has been negated by unfair readings that assert that Derrida is a “linguistic idealist”, which suggests that he believes that everything is contained in writing and concrete idea and that nothing transcends, ruling out the possibility of God. (2)  Basically, some have understood this to mean that there is no ultimate Truth, just, perhaps, temporary ideals.   

Upon looking at Derrida’s (in)famous quote in context, though, Smith contends that what is actually meant is that the understanding of anything involves interpretation, meaning we never truly experience a reality void of interpretation.  As he states it, “(Derrida is) a comprehensive hermeneuticist who asserts the ubiquity of interpretation: all our experience is always already an interpretation.” (3) Smith further explicates that parts of evangelicalism still struggle with this concept because they have idealized their version of truth as being “objective” and thus without interpretation. (4) The gospel stories and Scriptures themselves, however, are actually interpretations of events and not solely objective notations.  Smith does believe, though, that there is a such thing as a true or good interpretation, meaning that not all interpretations necessarily have equal footing.

Intrinsic to that understanding, Smith continues, is the processing of it in the context of community. (5) Without community, interpretations become subjective, individualistic totems to a self-centered lifestyle.  Smith insists that a good interpretation of reality involves an engagement with the margins, a global perspective, and a connection to historical practices (ie in church practice, a lectionary). (6)

  1. Smith. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? 34.
  2. Ibid., 35.
  3. Ibid., 39.
  4. Ibid., 43.
  5. Ibid., 52-53.
  6. Ibid., 51; 57.