Still Afraid of Postmodernism: A Response to James K. A. Smith

AP601 – Modern Mind

Dr. Michael Horton

05 / 15 / 09

In this paper I will examine the thesis of James K. A. Smith in his book, Who’s Afraid Of Postmodernism?, that certain trends in Postmodern thought are fundamentally compatible with (and may even be necessary for) a proper understanding of Christian orthodoxy.   My plan is to briefly summarize two primary arguments that Smith makes in support of his case, evaluating and critiquing each in turn.

Smith’s first argument is that Derrida’s statement, “there is nothing outside the text”, has largely been taken out of its context and turned into a bumper-sticker slogan divorced from its original meaning.  According to Smith, Derrida even attempted to clarify his meaning by saying, “there is nothing outside of context.”[1] What he means, according to Smith, is “everything is interpretation.”  In fact, Smith argues that all of postmodern thought can be boiled down to these three words.

Smith thinks this has huge implications for Christians.  When we approach the Bible we often think that we don’t need to interpret it, we simply “read” it.[2] But in fact we do need to interpret it, by considering the genre of a certain book, its original audience, etc.  Further still, the gospels themselves represent four particular interpretations of the events of Jesus’ life.  In other words, no matter how you slice it, it’s interpretation “all the way down.”  There is no “objective” meaning hidden behind the text that we can get to if only we get passed all this genre and context stuff.  Smith then addresses the concern that if the Bible can’t have an objective meaning for us as readers, how can it be true?  Or, more simply, why not adopt a “biblical relativism”?  The first thing he suggests is that it is merely a vestige of bad Enlightenment thought that we even equate “truth” with “objectivity” to begin with.  In other words, the notion that the two have to be the same is a commitment of modernism that we ought to reject.[3] According to Smith, just because everything is an interpretation, that doesn’t mean that some interpretations can’t be better (or truer) than others.

Smith then Distinguishes between two kinds of interpretation.  The first is a natural part of our being created as finite beings.[4] Smith’s example of Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid will work well to illustrate this.  When she finds a fork, her seagull friend Scuttle tells her that it is a “dinglehopper” used for styling hair.  Because of her background (and perhaps presuppositions) she has no reason to doubt Scuttle, and now it becomes part of her interpretive “grid” (my term, not Smith’s) that a fork is a dinglehopper.  This kind of interpretation is simply a part of our being finite and lacking omniscience, and therefore needing to rely on finite experiences and finite presuppositions in order to interpret our world.  The second kind of interpretation has come about due to the fall.[5] This is the interpretation of fundamental truths such as the existence of God, the meaning or purpose of human existence, and so forth.  Presumably, in our pre-fall state, we would all have been in direct communion with God and in that sense would have had the same interpretive grid when it came to questions like, “Does God exist?”, “Is God a Trinity?”, “What is authentic human flourishing?”  Smith’s point here is that we need to see the difference between Christianity and Buddhism as a deep difference of interpretation, rather than “glibly” dismissing everyone else as being a mere interpretation and claiming objectivity for Christianity alone.

Because of these post-fall “deep” interpretive differences we have, the Holy Spirit is required to come in and regenerate us back to a place where we can again have the right interpretation of things.[6] As Smith says, “our confidence rests not on objectivity, but on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective).”[7] He believes that this fits very well with Presuppositional apologetics, which, unlike Evidentialism, comes to the table with the assumption that everyone is bringing their own presuppositions that are, in some way, determining what they believe. He also believes that this will translate into a certain humility on the part of the Christian, who can be very open about his own presuppositions from the start (as opposed to simply asserting that Christianity is objectively true, which Smith thinks tends to translate into “the worst kinds of imperial and colonial agendas”).[8]

All of this leads quite naturally to a single question, “How do we interpret the Bible in the correct way?”  Smith’s answer (following Derrida) is community.[9] Specifically, the consensus of the community is what determines correct interpretation.  To flesh this out a bit, the community comes together and, based on their common goals and purposes, establishes the rules that will govern good interpretation.  For Smith, this translates into the need for the entire Christian community (both “global” and “temporal”) to come together and aid one another in interpretation. We not only need to learn from the churches of Africa and Asia (which, Smith thinks, are marginalized in the West), we also need to learn from the historic Christian community (the early Fathers as well as the Reformers).   Along these lines, he gives a few practical suggestions for church praxis, one of which is to recapture the practice of the “lectionary”, where the church as a community would work through the whole Bible, Genesis to Revelation (by way of assigned readings). In this way, the church is saved from the “pet” passages and doctrines of a particular group or pastor.

Finally, Smith thinks that an appreciation of this line of postmodern thought will call us back to “The” text.  Since there is nothing outside the text, this should remind Christians that all of life must be interpreted through the text of the Bible.[10] Thus, taking up this postmodern understanding of the world will help to call us back to the Word, and force us to try to live every aspect of our lives in and through the Word, rather than imposing worldly presuppositions onto the Word (whether it be individualism, consumerism, materialism, or other cultural products of modernity).[11] In this way, what Smith calls a “deconstruction church” would look very different from the “Emerging” church, which, even though it claims to be Postmodern, is, according to Smith, still driven by strong remnants of modernity.

What can be said by way of response to all of this?  Let us begin with Smith’s own example taken from a famous Disney Classic.  Ariel, we are told, is right to interpret the fork as a “dinglehopper” because within her context and community she can’t possibly know any better.  But when she comes into contact with Prince Eric and his human community, she ought to change her interpretation, not because Eric’s belief about what a fork is and what it should be used for is objectively true, but because it is a better interpretation.  This is the key for Smith.  Christian doctrine is not objectively true, because human beliefs and language could never truly express reality as it is (in the mind of God), and thus are consigned to being, in a qualified sense, subjective.  Even the truths expressed in the Bible are merely the correct interpretation of things, rather than being objective, because they are accommodated to finite human understanding and language.

So far so good, but how does Smith argue that Ariel ought to change her interpretation when she encounters the “true” use of a fork?  Primarily, says Smith, it is because of community.  As humans (and Mermaids) a fork simply does not make for a good hairbrush, especially compared to an actual hairbrush.  On the other hand, its shape and design make it a perfect eating utensil.  But there is a problem here for Smith.  In this example, his suggestions seem perfectly obvious, but only if we assume that Ariel has direct access to the fork, at least in some sense, as it truly is.  Ariel cannot simply have access to a dinglehopper, for if that is all she can be aware of, how could she ever come to see it as something else?  She must be aware of the object itself as a dinglehopper in order for her to change her interpretation to the object as a fork.  One way of putting it would be to say that we can have direct access to something without having exhaustive access (which would be the sort of access that God has).  But what does this do to Smith’s claim about objectivity?

It seems to me that what Smith means by “true interpretation” is just what most people mean when they say “objective truth.”  At least when Christians say “objective truth” they are not likely to mean “exhaustive, God-like knowledge of reality.”  All orthodox Christians are (or should be) in complete agreement with Smith on this point.  Neither “direct” nor “objective” need mean “exhaustive” or “God-like.”  If Smith were to push the point here, however, and insist that “objective” must mean “exhaustive” (for knowing something “as it truly is” may imply knowing it exhaustively), the orthodox Christian might be able to concede the point.  For Smith agrees that one interpretation can be better than all the others, and isn’t this just what Christians mean to say when they contend that Christianity is objectively true?  On this point, or so it seems to me, the debate is more of semantics than actual substance.  Moreover, Smith may be right to suggest that this change in focus, and subsequent abandonment of the term “objective”, could lead to a kind of epistemological humility that would suit Christians well.  Still, there could easily be an opposite danger in abandoning terms like “direct” and “objective”, namely the loss of confidence and certainty in the truth claims of the Bible.

Even if we agree on the point of objectivism, however, what about Smith’s correlating commitment to (what seems to be) anti-realism?[12] This brings us to the question of how we differentiate between various interpretations.  Will Smith’s suggestion of communal consensus be enough?  I think not, for several obvious reasons.  First, if our only access to reality is necessarily mediated through communally determined standards of interpretation, then upon what basis does the community ground the goals and purposes that inform those standards of interpretation to begin with?  Smith leaves us wondering why his particular brand of “communal relativism” isn’t just full-blown, “anything goes” relativism.  To see how much of a problem this is for Smith’s view, we need only look at all the Christian communities that exist (or have existed) in the “global” and “temporal” church.  Roman Catholics are a Christian community with a distinct set of goals and purposes, as are Anglicans, Calvinists, Pentecostals, and so on ad infinitum (well, almost).  These groups also have radically different views not only of specific doctrines, but of how to interpret the Bible (i.e. different communally determined standards of interpretation).  Smith’s claim that the Bible is “only properly opened and active within the believing community”[13] raises the question, “which believing community has opened and used it properly?”  One possible way of interpreting Smith’s talk of listening to the voices of the global and temporal church is that he is suggesting that all Christians today ought to believe only those things that all Christians have believed in common at all times and in all places (the so-called Vincentian Canon).  This might seem remotely plausible (if, perhaps, Christians don’t believe anything dogmatically beyond the Nicene Creed), but we quickly run into more problems.  Are Unitarians Christian?  If so, then is Smith suggesting that Christians ought not to hold dogmatically to the doctrine of the Trinity?  If not, well, how would Smith know?  Remember that Smith described the internal convicting of the Holy Spirit as being purely subjective.  How can he know, without direct access to something outside of his interpretations, whether or not Unitarians truly have the Holy Spirit?  Perhaps the Holy Spirit has told him directly?

But this raises another, more serious problem for Smith.  If no direct access to anything is possible on his account, how is he to know that the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is what he interprets it to be?  Indeed, the seriousness of this cannot be overestimated.  Again recalling Smith’s comments quoted above, he is explicit that our confidence in the truth of the Christian interpretation of things rests on the internal convicting power of the Holy Spirit.    But if we do not have direct access to even that, from whence does our confidence come?  Am I to believe that my interpretation of something is better than the opposing option because my interpretation of something else told me so?  This perspective engenders anything but confidence!  It seems that Smith has left us with an endless regress of interpretations, so that when he says that everything is interpretation “all the way down”, it is a long way down indeed!

Now we move on to Smith’s second argument.  According to Smith, another famous postmodern bumper sticker has been wrenched out of context and taken to mean something that it was not intended to mean.  Lyotard’s famous statement that postmodernism is “incredulity toward metanarratives” is not referring to incredulity toward “big, all-encompassing” stories.  In fact, Postmoderns would actually say that all systems of thought are “myth-based” (in the technical sense of the word); they are stories told by a community within its contexts.  A “metanarrative”, on the other hand, is a myth that claims to be objectively authenticated by an appeal to autonomous reason (i.e. secular modernism).[14] But as we have already considered, Postmoderns deny that humans can have access to any such reason.  Only God can stand outside of all contexts.

By undercutting autonomous reason, Smith thinks that postmodernism returns to an Augustinian epistemology of faith preceding reason (or “trust preceding interpretation”).  He believes it rightly exposes the myth-based presuppositions of secular modernity and “levels the playing field” for an unashamedly myth-based Christianity in the public square.  In this way, postmodernism frees Christians to abandon modern forms of apologetics (classical and evidential), which try to play modernism’s game by appealing to an autonomous reason.[15] Instead Christians can call everyone’s presuppositions to the table and engage in an apologetic of “proclamation” rather than “demonstration.”  Moreover, because Christian faith is primarily narrative in character, evangelism will be more “full-orbed” (in the sense that will touch all aspects of a person, not just their mind).  But this also means that it cannot be “dumbed down” or catered to a group that is outside the narrative.  While Smith thinks our churches must be inviting to the unbeliever, he says that they must be inviting them into our narrative, not changing the narrative to be more inviting to them.[16]

Because of the “narrative character” of Christianity, the postmodern church will be called back to the centrality of the Bible and the “story” of redemption.  Rather than merely memorizing a set of facts about the faith, each believer will be called to find his role within the story.  As before, Smith offers a few practical applications of this.  One is that the church should return to the practice of reading a passage each week from each of the “acts” of the “drama” (one Old Testament passage, one Gospel passage, and one Epistle passage).

Once again, there are a series of problems that arise here for Smith’s view.  For one thing, when Smith contends that postmodern thought frees Christians from the need to “demonstrate” the faith via modernist forms of apologetics, one might wonder how well Smith’s own project fits his paradigm.[17] After all, he seems to be using a very modernist apologetic method in his attempt to demonstrate to his readers that Postmodernism is true.  Indeed, Smith’s books ought to be considered an utterly useless exercise for all those outside of his own language game (or, indeed, those within it as well).  Moreover, Smith is not presenting a “full-orbed” view of the Christian narrative so much as he is simply putting forth arguments that he hopes will logically lead to the truth of Postmodernism.  If Smith were serious about his Postmodern commitments, he would simply proclaim, quite unashamedly, the narrative of Postmodernity and rely on the internal convicting power of the Holy Spirit to illuminate his readers.

Another problem comes from Smith’s view of Augustine’s “faith preceding reason.”  Smith seems to uncritically accept this principle as a kind of fideism.  But any such notion is far from Augustine’s thought.  In his Epistle 120, Augustine is clear that “faith ought to precede reason because this is in itself reasonable.”[18] According to Augustine:

It is, then, a reasonable requirement that faith precede reason, for, if this requirement is not reasonable then it is contrary to reason, which God forbid.  But, if it is reasonable that faith precede a certain great reason, which cannot yet be grasped, there is no doubt that, however slight the reason that which proves this, it does precede faith.[19]

Thus, the concept of reason taking place solely within a “community of faith” is foreign to Augustine’s thinking.  This does not prove Smith wrong, of course, but it certainly means that he cannot claim Augustine as an ally on this point.

Smith’s point that unbelievers ought to be invited into the Christian narrative, and that the narrative itself ought not be “dumbed down” to meet the unbeliever in his own context, are both points that have been held by Christians, especially in Reformed circles, since long before the deliverances of Lyotard’s incredulity.  Thus, while I am in complete agreement with Smith’s conclusion on this point, I do not think his Postmodern premises are needed in order to reach that conclusion.

I would like to note one final problem with Smith’s view raised by Kevin Vanhoozer.  Vanhoozer raises this problem in the form of a question.  He first notes that Christian thinkers have appealed to Scripture to legitimate Christian truth claims since the early Fathers.  He also cites Bruce Marshall, who argues that Christian doctrines should be the primary criteria of truth.  Marshall also argues that the biblical narratives ought to have “epistemic trump” over other narratives or truth claims.  This seems to fit with Smith’s view rather nicely, as Smith has argued that the Christian ought to live every aspect of his life (including his epistemology) in and through the Word.  It is, after all, “The” text by which all else is to be interpreted.  If this is the case, then Vanhoozer asks, “Is a biblical narrative that has the force of epistemic trump a metanarrative or not?”[20] In other words, is an appeal to a narrative that transcends all other narratives, and to which all other narratives must look to in order to be legitimated, really all that different from an appeal to a neutral, autonomous reason?  Here again the question seems to turn on our ability to have access to the Holy Spirit, from whom we receive the faith that the biblical narrative is supposed to be legitimated by.

To sum up, it seems clear that the case for adopting Postmodernism is not as straightforward as Smith makes it out to be.  I would like to suggest, instead, that all of Smith’s insights can be accepted simply by appealing to the traditional Reformed distinction between Archtypal and Ectypal knowledge.   While it is true that all human knowledge is Ectypal, and therefore not in any way identical to the “God’s eye view”, this is almost an uninteresting claim with little relevance to the topic at hand.  The question, it seems to me, is not whether we humans can have a God’s eye view, but rather whether we can come into direct contact with the world and arrive at objective conclusions about it from a universally human perspective.  In other words, to say that our awareness of and interpretation of a fork as a fork is not the same as God’s, has no bearing on the question of whether or not it is universally true for all humans (from a non-divine, Ectypal perspective) that a fork is a fork, rather than a dinglehopper.  Thus, if it is must be true for all human beings that a specific human child was born of a virgin in a specific historical time and place, died on a cross and was raised on the third day, then from an Ectypal perspective such historical claims are objectively true.  Again, I agree with Smith that it is important to recapture the narrative character of the Christian faith, and to return to “The” text as the lens through which we view reality.  But adopting Postmodern categories and language to the complete exclusion of all that is “Modern” seems to cause as many problems as it purports to solve. 

Bibliography

Penner, Myron B. (Ed.).  Christianity And The Postmodern Turn. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006.

Smith, James K. A.  Who’s Afraid Of Postmodernism? Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.

Sproul, R. C., Gerstner, John, & Lindsley, Arthur.  Classical Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.


[1] Who’s Afraid Of Postmodernism?, p. 52.

[2] Ibid, p. 37.

[3] Ibid, p. 48.

[4] Ibid, p. 50.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. 48.

[7] Ibid, p. 51.

[8] Ibid, pp. 54-55.

[9] Ibid, p. 53.

[10] Ibid, p. 55.

[11] Ibid, p. 58.

[12] I must point out here that Smith may not actually be dogmatically committed to anti-realism.  He may in fact be a sort of critical realist, but if so, it is very hard to tell.

[13] Ibid, p. 56.

[14] Ibid, p. 65.

[15] Ibid, p. 73.

[16] Ibid, pp. 77-78.

[17] Thanks to my friend Michael Garten for suggesting this response to me.

[18] Classical Apologetics, p. 192.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Christianity and the Postmodern Turn, p. 191-192.

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Filed under Apologetics, Epistemology, Philosophy, Postmodern Thought

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