James K.A Smith,  Jaques Derrida,  Jean-Francois Lyotard,  Michel Foucault,  Postmodernism

Debunking Bumper Stickers

In a book that has done the rounds, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James K Smith critiques evangelicals for their unfair dismissal of postmodern thought. He takes the three most common “bumper sticker” lines from three of postmodernism’s most influential thinkers, tells us what they really mean and why their contributions are helpful for an “emerging postmodern form of church.”

I remember the postmodernism/postevangelical debates we all had (far too late) in the early 90’s. And, as I have mentioned before (here and here), the whole thing left me rather non-plussed. However, I thought Smith’s summary of radical orthodoxy in his book of that title was so good that I would flick through his contribution to the said debate on postmodernism.

Smith, taking a narrow view of postmodernism, concentrates on the French – Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault. For Smith,  the three Frenchmen in question have been mishandled and records need to be set straight, if straight is even possible.  What Smith questions is our interpretation and application of three famous “bumper-sticker” quotations.

The first, “there is nothing outside the text,” has been understood to mean quite literally that nothing exists outside the text. Derrida has no such idea in mind, claims Smith. Rather, he intends to demonstrate that there is no interpretation of reality possible without language, without text. It is quite impossible, says Derrida, to get beyond interpretation and to the thing itself (can you hear Kant’s voice here?). Smith suggests that this idea can be taken positively for that is exactly our claim of scripture. The Bible is God’s interpretation of reality. And because it is God’s interpretation it is the true interpretation of reality. Our failure to always interpret the Bible as God intends it to be interpreted is accounted for by human fallenness (an idea found… in the Bible). Whilst I might quibble with Smith’s overt lean towards some of the Yale school of theology’s ideas on interpretive communities holding sway on Biblical interpretation,  I think Smith’s swing at Derrida is helpful. Of course Derrida’s work expands beyond his catchphrase and there is more to suggest an incoherence in other parts of his philosophy.

Second is Lyotard’s line that “postmodernism is an incredulity towards meta-narratives.” At first glance an incredulity towards meta-narratives appears to translate as a suspicion of narratives such as the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption.  However, according to Smith, this is not what Lyotard means. Apparently a better way to understand the statement is to consider the rationalist/empiricist worldview of modernity. Such a worldview insists that there is a neutral universally accessible set of axioms/common notions/facts that all human beings can test truth claims against. Modernism suggested that a worldview must be examined in light of these neutral universal truths and only held if the worldview lined up. If this is the case then Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism is possibly on the side of the Christian – for one of those narratives is the Biblical narrative. In other words, the Bible is not the meta-narrative in question, but a narrative that modernism asked to be cross-checked with another, transcendent meta-narrative provided by rationalism and science.

Finally, in Foucault, we find the sentiment that “power is knowledge,” a usurpation of Francis Bacon’s maxim, “knowledge is power.” Apparently we have taken Foucault’s quote out of context if we stereotype his view as being reduced to an analysis of power structures in society. However, Foucault’s message is more difficult to grasp, but ultimately boils down to the attempt recognize societal conditioning. A society conditions behavior unbeknownst to the members of society. Such conditioning, parsed out in Western culture, amounts to consumerism and neoliberal attitudes to free-markets. Smith suggests that this should help churches develop their own counter-cultural disciplines that are focused on the spiritual formation of their members.

Smith does a good job of reinterpreting our Frenchmen in such a way as they might now be seen in a more positive light. For example, I think his interpretation of Lyotard is better than the bumper sticker version. I also think that the idea that interpretation is a necessary component of fact is something Van Til agreed with.

However, perhaps something should be said about what Smith does not say. First, while the Bible might well serve as lens through which we see all reality, it is not clear that we necessarily need to regard the narrative as an actual description of history. In order to see this point more clearly, ask yourself if, in order to have an interpretation of reality, that interpretation necessarily has to be an accurate description of history. According to Derrida, did Jesus actually have to be a real historical person to render the New Testement useful as a narrative or as an interpretation of the world? It appears not. This is not to dismiss the first point, only to avoid making it the only thing one says about scripture.  Consequently, it is not clear if Smith would be okay with the view that the Bible could be taken as myth – a narrative that conveys truth even if its description of events is not empirically accurate.

Second, one might conclude that scripture is not a meta-narrative and therefore escapes Lyotard’s criticism. But is that quite right? What Lyotard is suggesting in his statement appears to be a little stronger than Smith makes out and Smith’s claim of scripture a little weaker than we might want. For if the Bible is God’s given interpretation of all reality, then surely it is the interpretation against which all interpretations are measured. Although it is not universally given (it is, after all, called “special revelation”), it is universally binding. This seems to leak into the category of a meta-narrative.

Third, the Bible itself claims to be God’s given view, the view, or interpretation, he intends human beings to have of the world. And the view he intends us to have is grounded in his view, his interpretation of all reality. God knows and determines meaning in all that is. If this is the case, then what makes it possible for human beings to accord their worldview with that of God’s? Smith’s appraisal includes an assumption about human ability to interpret – that this is an activity of community. It is not clear whether Smith implies that there is in fact a correct interpretation of scripture possible for human beings who are granted the illumination of the Spirit. An orthodox view of scripture includes the idea that scripture is clear and can be understood correctly (in accord with the authorial intent). In much postmodern thought this is out of the question and, again, it is not clear as to what Smith thinks on this matter.

Finally, the conditioning of cultures upon their citizens might assume a two spheres approach to God’s sovereignty. It is surely the role of the church, as Smith recognizes  to condition its members through its practices (most importantly its preaching of the word and administration of sacrament), but this leaves out the all-conditioning power that God wields in the universe. God conditions all, through his plan, according to his purpose. It is his plan at work in all creation not merely in part.

The mark of a good book in a postmodern vein is that the first half, the part critiquing modernism, is so often compelling. I too am not fond of much of modernity. The trouble is either that the second half of the book–usually the constructive half–is entirely unclear or unsatisfying to Christian thought. Yet, if one objects to postmodernism, it is highly likely that one will be taken to be a rabid modernist. This, I think, points to the weakness of postmodern thought – postmodernism is built on modernism even while it rejects it and finds it inconceivable that it is possible to return to a pre-modern, Biblical, Christian worldview without becoming medieval,  authoritarian or ill-educated. My tentative suggestion is that the bumper stickers that need to be explained are ours, the one’s assumed to belong to the “conservative evangelical.” 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.


  • John Moore

    Let's see if I understand. Modernism says we can really understand real reality, but postmodernism thinks we only have our narratives, which all fall short in some way from being real reality.

    A meta-narrative is a narrative about a narrative. Real reality is not a narrative. The Bible is a narrative about reality, so the Bible is just a narrative and not a meta-narrative. A biblical meta-narrative would be an interpretation of the Bible.

    You say, "Ask yourself if, in order to have an interpretation of reality, that interpretation necessarily has to be an accurate description of history." To ask such a question denies postmodernism altogether. In postmodernism, there's no such thing as an accurate description.

    Later you also refer to a "correct interpretation of scripture." According to postmodernism, a correct interpretation is not one that really reflects real reality, since that's impossible, but it's simply an interpretation that gives good results for the person having that interpretation.

    Have I understood correctly?

  • Ben Holloway

    John, I think, according to Smith, that modernism springs from the idea that there is some universally accessible system of thought (science, logic) against which all truth claims are measurable. And, yes, postmodernism is generally suspicious of this idea. My point about the leakage of the Biblical narrative into a meta-narrative is that although it is not universally accessible (like science or logic are supposed to be) it is the given worldview from God and consequently the narrative against which all others should be tested. This is not an extra-biblical premise, but one found in scripture itself. So, if one believes scripture to be the word of God, then one is encouraged to believe that the Biblical interpretation of reality is accurate and authoritative. Yes, this denies any kind of anti-realism. My general aim is to agree with much of Smith's critique of modernism, but to put some brakes on his favor towards postmodernism. Hope that helps.

  • Slimjim

    Mr. Holloway,
    "The mark of a good book in a postmodern vein is that the first half, the part critiquing modernism, is so often compelling."
    I couldn't say it better! That's how I feel with Postmodernism too, that the best part is it's critique of the naiveness of Modernity. But then the actual positive construction by Postmodernism is not that promising.