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Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church
By James K. A. Smith
Baker AcademicCopyright © 2006 James K. A. Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIs the Devil from Paris?
Postmodernism and the Church
Postmodernism tends to be something of a chameleon, portrayed as either monster or savior-either the new form of the enemy or the next best thing to come along. This chapter introduces the questions that the phenomenon of postmodernism poses for the church and suggests a strategy for engagement that avoids simple dichotomies of either demonizing or baptizing postmodernism,
Raising the Curtain: The Matrix
"Welcome to the real world." With these words, Neo is welcomed by Morpheus after emerging from his imprisonment in the matrix, a "neural-active simulation complex" designed by machines to control human beings. Although Neo escapes from the trappings of a postapocalyptic world, the scene in fact replays one of the most ancient of philosophical images: emerging from Plato's cave. In Plato's Republic, Socrates recounts theway in which the masses are enslaved to a world of images and shadows, as though chained in the depths of a cave, their heads locked in position. Because of these restraints, all they have ever seen are the shadows dancing on the cave wall, cast by a small fire that sends light across the puppets and artifacts carried along a wall behind them. Never knowing anything different, each of the cave's prisoners considers the shadows real, until one of them is released. Turning from the wall of shadows, this liberated prisoner begins to make his way out of the cave, steadily proceeding toward the world above. Immediately upon turning around, he realizes that the shadows are only images cast by the puppets and cutouts behind him. Moving past these and past the cave's interior fire, the prisoner slowly emerges from his subterranean confinement into the light of day and the world above.
At first the experience is bewildering and bedazzling; the sun's light blinds eyes accustomed only to darkness. Indeed, the light of the real world is painful to eyes that have not seen it. Unable to look up at first, the liberated prisoner must navigate his way around the world by looking at shadows on the ground and images in the water. But these images are cast not by copies and cutouts but by the things themselves. Indeed, the experience of emerging from the cave has slowly revealed that what the prisoner had thought was real was in fact but a shadow of reality, a copy of a copy. In the world above he could behold not just the shadow of a tree, nor even the cutout image of a tree, but the tree itself. What would have seemed ludicrous to him before his liberation-that the world of his birth, his entire environment was not real-was now clear. Clearer still is what the prisoner must now do: return to the cave, liberate his companions, and proclaim the truth of what is real.
The figure of Neo in the Wachowski brothers' Matrix is a postmodern Platonic prisoner. He has spent his entire life in a prison of sorts, a pod of quasi-uterine liquid where he is nourished by hoses, and dancing before his consciousness is not a dim, darkened world of shadows but a Technicolor reality of high-rises and coffee shops, computers and nightclubs. The "wall" on which all of this is played out is within Neo's own mind, where a "neural-active simulation" program feeds a world of images directly into his consciousness. Thus, though these human prisoners are actually trapped in pods where they are "harvested" for energy to run AI, they believe themselves to be someone and somewhere else. While Neo's body is hooked up to a system of cords and hoses, he thinks that he is one Thomas Anderson, a mediocre employee of a growing technology firm.
Morpheus comes to Neo as a liberator, someone who knows the truth and can thus descend into the depths of the cave's darkness in order to liberate others. Although Morpheus meets Neo in the matrix, he and his crew are able to effect the release of his body-his real self-from the pod. When his questioning mind no longer receives the neural-active simulation that is the matrix (something like a body rejecting a transplanted organ), the system flushes him out of the pod as waste. Morpheus and his crew seize Neo, lifting him from the dark dungeon toward the luminous light of reality, dramatized by his body being hoisted from the dark caverns up toward the tunnel of light shining from the ship Nebuchadnezzar. When Neo awakes, Morpheus greets him: "Welcome to the real world." Slipping in and out of consciousness, Neo asks: "Why do my eyes hurt?" "Because you've never used them before" is the reply. This lack of use requires a rigorous regimen of rehabilitation. Spitting out a stream of questions and receiving a barrage of dizzying answers, Neo experiences a kind of vertigo and vomits out of disorientation. It's not easy getting used to the real world.
Our contemporary culture, including the church, has experienced a similar dis- and reorientation. This book focuses on a transition not unlike that experienced by Neo: an emerging from one place to another, from one construction of reality to another, from modernity to postmodernity. While we might not name it as such, our experience of cultural shifts and changes can be traced to the advent of postmodernity and the trickle-down effect of postmodernism on our popular culture. The transition calls into question almost all our previously held sureties and rattles a faith that has been too easily equated with such Cartesian "certainties," sometimes issuing in a kind of vertigo. Like Neo's experience, our emergence into this new situation engenders a host of questions and a confused sense of being lost. As Morpheus puts it to Neo, whose mind is swirling in this new reality: "I imagine right now you must feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole." Or as W. H. Auden once described this kind of cultural upheaval, "It's as if we had left our house for five minutes to mail a letter, and during that time the living room had changed places with the room behind the mirror over the fireplace." If the shadows we thought were real have been unveiled as mere shadows, doesn't it sometimes feel as if the whole world were dissolving? Even if we have a sense that this is "the real world," as Morpheus announces, we're not sure how to make our way in it.
While I don't want to claim the mantle of Morpheus, my hope is to offer a kind of therapy and rehabilitation, an orientation to the world of postmodernism, which is simply to say, the world in which we now find ourselves.
What Is Postmodernism?
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 of 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. This is particularly true of the "emerging church" movement (associated with Brian McLaren, Leonard Sweet, Robert Webber, and others), which castigates the modernity of pragmatic evangelicalism and seeks to retool the church's witness for a postmodern world. In both cases, however, postmodernism remains a nebulous concept-a slippery beast eluding our understanding. Or perhaps better, postmodernism tends to be a chameleon taking on whatever characteristics we want it to: if it is seen as enemy, postmodernism will be defined as monstrous; if it is seen as savior, postmodernism will be defined as redemptive. This ambiguity tends to make us-Christian scholars, pastors and ministers, laypersons engaged in ministry-skeptical about just what we're talking about. What is postmodernism?
The answer to this question is sometimes offered as a historical thesis: postmodernism has been variously described as a kind of post- (after-) modern condition and is sometimes even linked to particular historical events such as student riots in 1968, the abandonment of the gold standard, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or, to be specific, 3:32 p.m. on July 15, 1972! Each candidate for the advent of postmodernism relies on an account of the supposed collapse of modernity. Trying to pinpoint the advent of the postmodern condition by linking it to a historical epoch, particular event, or even a particular cultural sphere (architecture, literature, music, visual arts) seems counterproductive, given the widespread disagreement about such historical claims. Further, it seems naive to think that a Zeitgeist like postmodernism could be spawned by a single event.
Instead of trying to pinpoint its historical origin or essence, I want to unpack an assumption that most commentators on postmodernism seem to share in common: postmodernism, whether monster or savior, is something that has come slouching out of Paris. In particular, postmodernism owes its impetus to French philosophical influences. While most commentators from various disciplines (architecture, art, literature, theology) concede this point, few have facility with philosophy or French philosophy in particular. In other words, we tend to give French philosophy a nod as crucial for understanding postmodernism but then do not engage the philosophical underpinnings. Brian McLaren, for instance, regularly tips his hat to the philosophical but then pushes it aside as "too far removed from everyday life" or not necessary for understanding "postmodernity" as distinguished from "philosophical postmodernism." But I want to follow Francis Schaeffer's footsteps by taking philosophy very seriously precisely because it does impact everyday life. "Ideas have legs," and even in a culture of amusement, there is thought that shapes it.
As Schaeffer remarks in the foreword to Escape from Reason, "If we are to understand present-day trends in thought, we must see how the situation has come about historically and also look in some detail at the development of philosophic thought-forms." In The God Who Is There, Schaeffer analyzes the shifts of modernity as beginning with philosophy (the "first step" in the "line of despair"); thus cultural phenomena, for Schaeffer, are symptoms of philosophical shifts, not vice versa. In his critical cultural analyses as found in The God Who Is There or Escape from Reason, Schaeffer offers what we might call a trickle-down theory of philosophical influence: cultural phenomena tend to eventually reflect philosophical movements. Perhaps my analyses of philosophical postmodernism can be understood as a necessary supplement (or better, prerequisite) to McLaren's analyses of postmodernity.
Thus in this book I want to employ a Schaefferian strategy in considering postmodernism. As such, I consider it a sequel to Schaeffer's own engagements with humanism and existentialism; postmodernism (a term rarely used in France, by the way) is, in some sense, the heir to existentialism. By a Schaefferian strategy, I mean at least two things: first, we need to return to the philosophy itself to understand postmodernity. While postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon is often distinguished from postmodernism as a philosophical movement, I agree with Schaeffer that cultural phenomena tend to be a product of philosophical movements. We take culture seriously by taking ideas seriously. Second, my strategy is "Schaefferian" in the sense that my primary audience is not just philosophers but practitioners-more specifically, Christians engaged in ministry in a postmodern world, as well as searching inhabitants of this postmodern world. As such, these essays are not an academic project per se. Instead, their purpose is to introduce philosophical currents to people who don't usually travel that stream. Thus I avoid philosophical jargon as much as possible. Where special terminology is necessary, it is couched in a context of explanation and clarification. I see this as an incarnational strategy, attempting to accommodate thought to language that is accessible to an audience, just as Calvin so often emphasized that God in Christ accommodates his thought to our language, appearing as a Word that we can understand.
With the humble goal of trying to unpack the primary philosophical impulses behind postmodernism, my strategy is to engage something of an unholy trinity of postmodern thinkers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. While their names might not be familiar to everyone, key aspects of their thought have now become commonplace not just in the academy but in the media as well. In particular, I carefully consider three slogans of postmodernism associated with these philosophers:
"There is nothing outside the text" (Derrida). Postmodernity is "incredulity toward metanarratives" (Lyotard). "Power is knowledge" (Foucault).
Generally, these three slogans are invoked as being mutually exclusive to confessional Christian faith. How could someone who takes the sweeping narrative of the Scriptures as the Word of God reject metanarratives? How could someone who believes in the existence of a transcendent God and his creation deny that there is reality outside texts? How could someone who worships the God who is Love participate in a Nietzschean celebration of the will to power as the basis of reality?
The problem is that all these questions are rooted in a misunderstanding of the claims being made. In other words, these slogans (which were never intended as slogans by their authors) are treated like bumper stickers: claims made without a context. Once we appreciate the context of these claims, however, we see two things: First, they mean something different than what the "bumper-sticker" reading suggests. The bumper-sticker readings that turn these claims into slogans tend to perpetuate a number of myths about postmodernism. My goal is to demythologize postmodernism by showing that what we commonly think so-called postmodernists are saying is usually not the case. Second, and perhaps more provocatively, I will demonstrate that, in fact, all these claims have a deep affinity with central Christian claims.
As such, the studies that make up chapters 2-4 are intended to function as a two-edged sword. On the one hand, I critically introduce Christians to currents in contemporary thought, often described as postmodernism. This requires subjecting these ideas to criticism from an integrally Christian worldview. But they are also meant to cut the other way as well; that is, I also critique common Christian misunderstandings of postmodernism and suggest ways in which postmodernity is a condition that Christians should, in some sense, welcome. Something good can come out of Paris. In this way, I'm simply replaying a Hebrew strategy, later adopted by Augustine and utilized by the likes of John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper: making off with Egyptian loot. As Augustine put it in his Teaching Christianity (De doctrina christiana), just as the Hebrews left Egypt with Egyptian gold to be put to use in the worship of Yahweh (even if they misdirected its use at times), so Christians can find resources in non-Christian thought-whether that of Plato or of Derrida-that can be put to work for the glory of God and the furtherance of the kingdom. This book is an attempt to make off with postmodern loot for the sake of the kingdom.
In particular, I suggest that this 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. But while postmodernism may be the enemy of our modernity, it can be an ally of our ancient heritage. In short, it might just be these Parisians who can help us be the church. Specifically, each of the analyses made by these postmodern theorists entails a twofold effect for the church:
Derrida. Deconstruction's claim that there is "nothing outside the text" [il n'y a pas de hors-texte] can be considered a radical translation of the Reformation principle sola scriptura. In particular, Derrida's insight should push us to recover two key emphases of the church: (a) the centrality of Scripture for mediating our understanding of the world as a whole and (b) the role of community in the interpretation of Scripture. Lyotard. The assertion that postmodernity is "incredulity toward metanarratives" is ultimately a claim to be affirmed by the church, pushing us to recover (a) the narrative character of Christian faith, rather than understanding it as a collection of ideas, and (b) the confessional nature of our narrative and the way in which we find ourselves in a world of competing narratives. Foucault. The seemingly disturbing, even Nietzschean claim that "power is knowledge" should push us to realize what MTV learned long ago: (a) the cultural power of formation and discipline, and hence (b) the necessity of the church to enact counterformation by counterdisciplines. In other words, we need to think about discipline as a creational structure that needs proper direction. Foucault has something to tell us about what it means to be a disciple.
Excerpted from Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? by James K. A. Smith Copyright © 2006 by James K. A. Smith. Excerpted by permission.
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