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8.21.2006 

who's afraid of postmodernism? (pt ii)

Click here for my first post on this book.

James Smith opens the introduction to Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? by attempting to place himself (as many writers do on various topics) in the middle of what he sees as two opposing evangelical perspectives on post-modernism: critique (Smith names Carson, Colson and Erickson as proponents of this view) and unquestioning acceptance (here he names McLaren and Webber). Rather, Smith asserts that he intends to employ a "Schaefferian strategy," meaning that he plans to consider postmodernism as a philosophical system rather than cultural reality, and to argue his case in popular terms as much as possible. It also means, it appears, that Smith intends to offer an appreiciative critique of postmodern philosophy--to weigh it carefully and consider whether parts of it at least might be of use to the church instead of dismissing it all out of hand or accepting it all without question.

I haven't read enough of Carson or McLaren on the topic of PM to evaluate whether Smith's analysis of their approachs to PM is on target. I imagine he's painting with a fairly broad brush here (probably intentionally so, his book hardly has the scope to go into the nuances of Carson or McLaren's positions) but in general I appreciate his sentiment. This Kuyperian approach (i.e. believing that all truth is God's truth and test PM to see carries any value before dismissing it) seems to me to be right on target. Of course it remains to be seen if Smith will indeed carry it out.

In order to consider the value of PM thought, Smith tells us here that he has structured his book around three statements by three of the most prominent PM philosophers.

Derrida - "There is nothing outside the text (il n'y a pas hors-texte)"

Lyotard - PM is "incredulity toward metanarratives"

Foucault - "Power is knowledge"

So far, so good. It seems best to interact with the words of PM guys themselves. I'll take his word that these three statements are representative of PM thought. At first glance these statements seem opposed to traditional Christian thought--challenging the authority of scripture, the nature of truth, etc. But Smith suggests that these statements, and the larger thoughts that stand behind them, may actually illuminate and encourage the church in its worship, theology and practice. Interesting. We'll have to see where this goes.

Smith then goes on to begin to link PM thought and "radical orthodoxy" - one of the new theological movements coming out of Britain, which has John Milbank at its center, advancing a compelling vision for the church that is worth quoting at length. Smith writes:

I want to advocate a shift from modern Christianity to a postmodern church, one akin to the paradigm shift experienced by Neo [in the Matrix]. My point here is confessional: as attested in the Apostles' Creed, I believe in the holy catholic church, and I believe that the very notion of the holy catholic church undoes the modern individualism that plagues contemporary evangelicalism. Indeed, we would do well to recover a much-maligned formula: "There is no salvation outside the church." This doesn't mean that a particular ecclesial body is the dispenser of grace or the arbiter of salvation; rather, there simply is no Christianity apart from the body of Christ, which is the church. The body is the New Testament's organic model of community that counters the modern emphasis on the individual. The church does not exist for me; my salvation is not primarily a matter of intellectual mastery or emotional satisfaction. The church is the site where God renews and transforms us--a place where the practices of being the body of Christ forms us into the image of the Son.


Thus far, I'm comfortable with where Smith seems to be headed. I'm not sure if postmodernism really has a lot to offer the church, but I trust him enough to hear him out. The best aspect of the book so far is Smith's tone (which is positive and hopeful without being naive) as well as his vision for the church, which resonates a great deal with my own ideas of what the church should be. Next up: Smith's chapter on Derrida's statement that "there is nothing outside the text." Any comments are welcome.

"The church is the site where God renews and transforms us--a place where the practices of being the body of Christ forms us into the image of the Son."

Hey Josh, i'm jumping into the middle of this thing, but 2 questions:

1 - by "church" and its "practices" does Smith mean the gathering of God's people for formal worship? or does it manifest itself beyond that?

2 - do you think its fair to say he's trying to describe the church as a culture, so to speak, in reaction to treatment of the church as a dispenser of goods? Maybe like joining a fraternity versus going to the grocery store? I'm wondering... is it a matter of changing the way we think about / teach about what "coming to church" means - or do we actually need to adjust the cultural aura of church life? but this may be unrelated.

i'm breaking my own rule about getting into blog discussions - but i figure'd i'd jump in once.
-ben

1-I think that probably means primarily gathered worship, but the practices of the church certainly go beyond that.

2-Yes, I think that he is speaking of the church as a culture, like a fraternity or even a country. And you're right, I think this certainly has implication for how we think about what it means to come to church or invite others to come along with us.

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