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Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?

Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

series: Church and Postmodern Culture, The

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Christianity Today 2007 Book Award Winner 
2006 Book of the Year Award, ForeWord Magazine 
Word Guild 2007 Writing Award

"[A] provocative little book. . . . A clear and accessible introduction to postmodern thought that no doubt de-mythologizes many of the common criticisms leveled against [it], causing us to engage the issues from a new perspective."--Cynthia R. Nielsen, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly

The philosophies of French thinkers Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault form the basis for postmodern thought and are seemingly at odds with the Christian faith. However, James K. A. Smith contends that their ideas have been misinterpreted. In an introduction and four fulsome chapters, Smith unpacks the primary philosophical impulses behind postmodernism, demythologizes its myths, and demonstrates its affinity with core Christian claims. Each of his accessible chapters includes an opening discussion of a recent representative film and a closing "tour" of a postmodern church in case study form--with particular application to the growing "emerging church" conversation.

The award-winning Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? is the first book in the Church and Postmodern Culture series. The Church and Postmodern Culture series features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church. Contracted authors include John D. Caputo, Bruce Ellis Benson, Graham Ward, Carl Raschke, and Merold Westphal.


"Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? will help many of us. By pointing out dangers and highlighting possibilities, it will help those who are already grappling constructively with postmodernity. And perhaps it will prompt some who seem to be afraid of postmodernism to relax a little more, critique others a little less, and 'redeem the time' a little more fruitfully."--Brian McLaren, author, lecturer, activist

"Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? will be a boon for those working in and for the churches, especially in the world of evangelicalism. It will wean them from unexamined commitments to modernity and introduce them to a world of new ideas that are perhaps more useful to Christianity than they would have ever thought possible."--Kevin Hart, University of Virginia

"This delightful book is a twofer. Smith first shows, through a careful reading of the texts, that central themes of three major postmodern philosophers are a threat not to biblical Christianity but only to an all too modern, all too complacent church. He then argues strongly for a church that learns from postmodernism how to revitalize its premodern heritage. The movie analyses that open each chapter render the argument at once more concrete and more powerful."--Merold Westphal, distinguished professor of philosophy, Fordham University

"I find Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? to be stunningly clear. Smith's writing is not an argument whose logic you must follow but a narrative that opens windows. I continually found myself saying 'Well, of course, why didn't I see that before? It's so obvious.' Smith helps us understand why postmodernism sets the stage for the restoration of the ancient faith."--Robert Webber, author of Ancient-Future Faith

"Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? by James K. A. Smith is a powerful and persuasive rejoinder to those in the evangelical academy who persist in pushing the now discredited canard that postmodernism is incompatible with both historical Christianity and the history of orthodoxy. Smith weaves an incredibly insightful exposition of three key postmodern philosophers--Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault--with illustrations from both popular media and culture. He concludes with a proposal for recovering liturgy and 'redeeming dogma' while rethinking the mission of 'confessing' Christianity in a global setting. Postmodernism, according to Smith, is something you not only don't need to be afraid of any longer but you can even take it to church!"-Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies and chair of the department, University of Denver; author of The Next Reformation

Praise for the series:
"The proposed series is not just a good idea; it is actually essential. If mission, liturgy, and pastoral care are to be effective today, then churches need a better understanding of so-called postmodern culture as something to be reckoned with and sometimes resisted. Increasingly, there is an educated interest in religion, but there is also a need to be well-informed about postmodern thought and its very complex relation both to postmodern culture (to which it is often actually hostile) and to religion. Again the need is for a critical appreciation--not dismissal and not empty adulation. This new series aims to provide this in an accessible manner. I am convinced that the main ideas of postmodernism are actually not as 'difficult' as people suppose and that a clear and simple presentation of them actually assists wider cultural discussion. An additional purpose of the series is to introduce to a wider audience theologies that are already trying critically to assimilate the postmodern turn. Since some of these, for example Radical Orthodoxy, are intensely focused on the importance of 'church,' it is crucial that this occur. Although it is already happening, it needs to crystallize. This new series may be just the thing to bring it about."--John Milbank, University of Nottingham

The Author

  1. James K. A. Smith
    Seth Thompson, © 2017 Green Frog Photo

    James K. A. Smith

    James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is a popular speaker and the award-winning author of a number of influential books, including Desiring the Kingdom, How (Not) to Be Secular, You Are What You Love, On the Road with...

    Continue reading about James K. A. Smith


Christianity Today 2007 Book Award Winner
2006 Book of the Year Award, ForeWord Magazine
Word Guild 2007 Writing Award

"[This book] aims to make accessible the philosophical and religious contributions of three postmodern thinkers: Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, and Michel Foucault. Smith . . . does this cleverly by employing illustrations and examples from such films as The Matrix; Memento; One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; and, surprisingly but successfully, The Little Mermaid. Along the way, Smith also dissects the popular teachings of postmodern writers like Brian McLaren . . . Leonard Sweet and Robert Webber. . . . It's one of the most accessible introductions to postmodern thought to date, and its concluding chapter--in which Smith brilliantly employs the movie Whale Rider to explore how Christianity might be simultaneously faithful to tradition and open to change--is alone worth the price of admission. Ironically but persuasively, Smith argues that postmodern Christianity's most powerful contribution could be a return to ancient, premodern church traditions and liturgy."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"If you're already developing a familiarity with the broad trends in the hisotry of thought that have led to postmodernism and are now looking for someone to guide you through some of the major 20th-century figures in postmodernism, then Smith's book should be your next read. . . . Smith is good at answering questions in a way that provokes people to think. If you've ever tried to read Derrida or Foucault, you know that they can be simply mystifying to the uninitiated. Consider Smith's book your initiation. Each chapter begins with the discussion of a popular movie that will show you what you've already begun to experience and to grasp the Derridean and Foucaultian concepts Smith then smoothly and cogently introduces."--David L. O'Hara, Prism

"Smith takes a sharp, insightful look at some of the tenets of postmodern philosophy and various Christian responses to it. In particular, I appreciate that he articulates some of the flaws in certain factions of the emergent church movement, as they adhere to postmodern thought in an attempt to be 'culturally relevant.' What's impressive is that he does all that in a very accessible, reader-friendly way."--Kris Rasmussen,

"Giving a readable summary of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault is no small task. For this Smith should be commended."--Michael J. Vlach, Master's Seminary Journal

"[A] provocative little book. . . . Though himself a philosopher, Smith has written this book not primarily for philosophers, but rather for students, spiritual seekers, and laypersons desiring to familiarize themselves with the issues of postmodernity in order to better engage the culture in which they live. For those interested in more philosophical and scholarly discussions of the issues, Smith includes numerous resources in his footnotes and an annotated bibliography for additional reading. . . . [A] valuable aspect of the book . . . is the way in which [Smith] closes each chapter by considering how postmodern thought might shape the practice of the church in terms of cultural engagement. . . . Smith has presented a clear and accessible introduction to postmodern thought that no doubt de-mythologizes many of the common criticisms leveled against postmodern thought, causing us to engage the issues from a new perspective."--Cynthia R. Nielsen, American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly

"Leavened by references to contemporary movies and by church case studies, this accessible introduction to postmodernism points out the problems of modernity for the church's life and health and invites Christians into the space that postmodernism opens for nurturing strong confessional identities."--Amy Plantinga Pauw, Christian Century

"Making postmodernism less intimidating and recognizing its potential as an ally to Christian faith is the aim of Smith's latest book. [It is] well written and brief. . . . The book makes helpful connections with pop culture; each chapter begins with a synopsis of a contemporary film that articulates certain postmodern features launching the discussions that follow."--Chris Emerick, Religious Studies Review

"Are we to resist [postmodernism] as a demonic attack on the foundations of the faith, or are we to bow and adore as the messianic secret itself has found new form? Well, probably neither, as Smith shows with good practical examples and relevant applications. This is a well written, sensible short book defining 'postmodernism' as a school of interpretation of life and showing how it can be helpful and not hostile, how it can even chime in with what lots of Christians think about life."--Regent's Reviews

"[Smith] reveal[s] a passion for the Church and the historic Christian faith. . . . In his approach, Smith is an Evangelist, bridging the gap between those outside the Church and those who hold to the historic faith. . . . His chapters can be read as stand-alone assignments on each individual. [He] provide[s] ample footnotes for citation and offer[s] helpful explanatory text. As a result, readers who are not as familiar with the subject matter can gain additional background, and those interested in further research will find valuable leads. An added benefit of Smith's text is the review of an appropriate movie at the beginning of each chapter. . . . Smith provides readers with a greater understanding of the potential for ministry, if the foundational themes of postmodernism are correctly interpreted. . . . As it relates to use within the classroom, particularly by professors of youth ministry, Smith's book seems to have an edge. His use of film . . . provides a contemporary link to the content, and a pedagogical example our students need to see."--Doug Barcalow, Journal of Youth Ministry

"Very readable, and has an impressive grasp of details and interconnections. . . . It represents some of the best writing that postmodernists have produced. . . . [It] is a useful introduction to postmodernist thinking and how it relates to theological issues."--John C. Poirier, Westminster Theological Journal

"In this short, engaging book, [Smith] takes on the three major thinkers of postmodernity, the Frenchmen Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, and argues, surprisingly, that their claims about truth can have deep affinities with central Christian convictions. . . . The book is valuable in introducing contemporary French philosophy, which often baffles the neophyte with its complex, in-house language."--Mark C. Mattes, Logia

"Smith desires to engage a considerably broad audience including academicians in contemporary theology and continental philosophy as well as leading thinkers involved in the current emergent movement and church laity who are concerned about the present ethos of western culture. Such a text obviously would require a writer who is conversant with the philosophical complexities of postmodernity and able to explicate them in an accessible and lucid fashion. Smith, fortunately, has proven to be such a competent source. . . . The book flows with a winsome charm as Smith keeps technical jargon to a minimum and cleverly opens each chapter with brief sketches of popular movies . . . in order to illustrate the overall points that he believes Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault were trying to assert. This strategy is so well done that most readers will be captivated by Smith's analysis and judicious flare even if they disagree with his conclusions. Also, this work is helpful because it contains a concise annotated bibliography of sources for further reading and even a short list of online resources. . . . This book is an engaging read for scholars, pastors, students, and laity alike."--Everett Berry, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology

"Supporters and critics of postmodern theology should pay attention to this little book by James K. A. Smith. . . . Smith embodies the attitude, and likely the influence, of Francis Schaeffer. Willing to tackle nuanced philosophic issues head on while remaining intelligible to the nonspecialist, Smith will introduce postmodernism to many Christians. . . . Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? is a primer. . . . It is one of the better popular introductions to the significance of postmodernism for the church."--R. J. Snell, Calvin Theological Journal

"Smith does a remarkable job in his book to offer a basic understanding of postmodernism. . . . Smith's analysis of these philosophers [Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault] and their respective ideas from a Christian perspective is eye-opening, particularly for anyone who has difficulty nailing-down the concepts of postmodernism."--Aaron Vriesman, Reformed Review

"The core chapters on Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault are the most helpful, for Smith interprets their arguments according to the principle of charity. In accessible prose, he presents the best, most persuasive aspects of their critiques without turning the three into anonymous theologians or infallible sources of truth. . . . The core chapters of Smith's book are useful to introduce philosophers associated with postmodernism to high school and college students, seminarians, religious educators, campus ministers, and preachers."--Robert A. Cathey, Interpretation

"Brilliant. . . . I very highly recommend [it]."--Byron Borger,

"This is a stimulating read. The presentation is lively and engaging, often built around films--from Memento to The Little Mermaid. I recommend it for anyone trying to rethink mission today--especially if you fear postmodernity!"--Tim Chester, Themelios

"Smith writes in a very readable style. . . . The strength of Smith's work is his ambitious interpretation of postmodern philosophy and how it can be used to correct modernistic tendencies at work in both the modern and emergent church ethos without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. . . . I highly recommend this volume to seminary students, teachers, those with interest in postmodernism, the church, and postmodernity. . . . At its core it deals with academic elements and therefore is better suited to those with academic backgrounds. However, to relegate this volume to the ivory tower libraries of the strictly academic would be a great disservice to the church and the struggling minister who could glean much from these pages that would help them along this transitional ecclesiological sojourn from what has been to what will be."--David Paddick, Stone-Campbell Journal

"Smith's book is balanced, patient, and gracious. What's more, it is one of the few books to speak eloquently and incisively of the giants of continental philosophy. Still, its greatest virtue is its relatively modest aim. . . . Smith simply puts three postmodern slogans under the microscope, describes them to us in a bit of detail, and suggests how they might serve the Church. . . . Helpfully and (rare in many attempts) sensitively, Smith introduces each of the five chapters with a movie. . . . He looks in turn at Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, taking up a threatening slogan from each and showing how the claims being made in context can actually be appropriated by churches for their own good and that of the world."--Matt Jenson, Cultural Encounters

"Pastors and Christian leaders need good tools to teach the things we need to know to be able to speak intelligibly to our postmodern listeners and give us a comprehensive view of the often unfamiliar context in which we live and work. Here is a book, which provides this knowledge as well as informs our practice. . . . Smith persuasively suggests that postmodernism presents the church with an opportunity to confidently move forward with change. . . . Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? asks a bold and intriguing question. Smith's book is a welcome challenge to the church, encouraging, and perhaps, imploring us to engage the postmodern world in which we find ourselves, and which we cannot escape. His use of popular movies to begin each chapter provides a touchstone for the lay reader to begin to grasp some of the more sophisticated and nuanced points found in postmodern philosophy. They also show how immediately visible the ideas which drive postmodernism are in the world around us. For the scholar, Smith's work provides an accurate context for Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, allowing for further understanding of how their influence is so pervasive across academic disciplines. This reader gladly recommends Smith's work to both the interested layperson and scholar alike."--Chad Lakies, Missio Apostolica

"Smith is a philosopher who works hard at staying accessible, effectively mining such films as Memento, The Little Mermaid and Whale Rider to expound ideas. . . . Smith has done a tremendous job of getting the ideas of postmodernism on the table for a wide audience to interact with. Even if one might disagree with some of Smith's applications, his expositions of Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault are very helpful for understanding the relationship between postmodern thought and Christianity."--Rob Haskell, Evangelical Review of Theology

"Thankfully, Christian thinkers, writers, and philosophers are deciphering postmodernism in ways that reject its errors and embrace its insights. [A] helpful [book is] Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? . . . [It] approach[es] postmodernism with intellectual and theological honesty, sorting through its claims and thinking about its interaction with Christianity. . . . Reading books such as Smith's . . . alongside the work of postmodern theorists helps us to gain skill in evaluating the claims of postmodernism while not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, especially when postmodernists criticize the church."--Alissa Wilkinson, Comment

"The true strength of the [Church and Postmodern Culture] series [is that it] has something to say and it demands response. It preaches and it stirs me to preach. . . . [It] both draws Christians into the postmodern conversation and provides space for readers to think about their own vocations. . . . [Smith's] work can embolden preachers in their proclamation and encourage pastors in their discipleship, thereby facilitating the call of more preachers, pastors, and professional thinkers."--Aaron Perry, Asbury Journal

"Smith has provided just the kind of monograph that is needed in our contemporary context. Smith takes a highly complex subject matter--the philosophical contributions of postmodern theorists--and mediates it to lay Christians in an accessible and engaging manner. . . . At no point, however, does Smith 'dumb down' the material for the sake of accessibility. Smith's skill in communicating the main ideas of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault precisely stems from his deep familiarity with their work, and one of the impressive achievements of the book is his adeptness at providing readings that are accessible to a broad audience without sacrificing nuance. . . . I can heartily recommend this title. In fact, readers looking for an introduction to the broad outlines of postmodern theory could hardly do better than to start with Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Perhaps most impressively, Smith here weds praxis with theory, setting forth for his audience an irreducibly incarnational vision of the Christian faith. . . . Smith's work promises not only to expand our understanding of postmodernity, but also, and more importantly, to inspire modes of discipleship that are resolutely faithful to the demands of the Gospel."--Ryan Marr, Catholic Books Review