Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Smith, Derrida, and the Church

Despite the dire effects of procrastinating, I am forgoing some of my reading for school to post a few comments on James Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism. For a more exhaustive dialogue you can visit The Church and Postmodern Culture: Conversation and find a chapter-by-chapter discussion of the book beginning in July archives.

Smith’s book is the first in a book series that will draw on the “culture of postmodernity as an opportunity for rethinking the shape of our churches” (9). “Opportunity” indicates that the realm of postmodern culture and theory can be utilized by the Church to help it recover a better ecclesiology, which Smith suggests is both ancient and liturgical. To utilize postmodern culture and theory is to neither shun it nor baptize it, an important point to be kept in mind! For the Church Smith is encouraging a “creative recovery of ancient themes and figures” (25), as opposed suggesting a paleo-orthodox route.

As this is not meant to be a blog post exhaustive of Smith’s book, there are a few highlights I would like to make.

On Presuppositional Apologetics: Presuppostional apologetics means exactly that, a person’s worldview has inherent presuppositions that give is shape. There is no neutral rational playing field where everything means the same thing. One’s experience has and is determining what is true and false. For the Church this means that we have to recognize and embrace people will different worldviews. We cannot expect people to understand what we mean when we say, the “Word became flesh”, or “Christ’s blood is the blood of the new covenant.” Smith suggests that the primary responsibility of the Church is proclamation (kerygma). The church is not a system of truth dictate by neutral reason but a story that requires eyes to see and ears to hear (28). Revelation is the key to this kerygmatic proclamation.

On Derrida’s claim, “there is nothing outside the text”: Essentially, there is nothing outside of context (52). There is no neutral rational playing field. Interpretation is always context sensitive. Simply put, we cannot escape our own skin. Everything must be interpreted in order to be experienced (38). To experience something is to interpret it. However, Derrida goes on to say that an interpretation is good or bad based on the guidelines of one’s context, or community.

There is a lot that can be said further, especially as one gets into some of the finer nuances of “deconstruction”. For now I just want to highlight what Smith has to say about a deconstructive church.

On a deconstructive church: A deconstructive church embraces the entire biblical text in the form of the lectionary, converses with ancient voices in the form of creeds and preaching, and listens through prayer to global voices of today’s Church, especially those marginalized voices for the gospel, which is largely “foolishness” is to be spoken from the sidelines (58). A deconstructive Church is a prophetic Church because it does not count on people simply seeing that Christianity is true it proclaims the truth of the gospel and trusts the Spirit to illuminate that truth. Worship in a deconstructive church shapes our worldview to be able to call out the false realities of the world that claim they are the truth. In worship we give ourselves to be formed after the image of God so that we can interpret the world according to the gospel.

Now, why the short summary of a few chapters of a book?

I guess when I read something like this I find many of faith gaps of my life being filled with a certain level of assurance of my being a follower of Christ. Proclamation makes more sense, if you will, than demonstration (according to Smith). How can I ever prove the gospel according to a neutral rational playing field? Now, I am not suggesting that the church proclaim a certain level of ignorance. Proclamation assumes language and practice. That said, the Church is to prove the gospel through its communal witness as it exists in space and time. This kind of “prove” is a demonstration not according to common sense but faithful witness. We will prove the things of God by our lives and always by the Holy Spirit.

I guess I’ll end my comments for now.



Nicholas said...

I would just like to state that the conclusion that "interpretation is good or bad based on the guidelines of one’s context, or community." leaves out the work of the Holy Spirit. This is a major flaw that I see in the emergent movement. Can you address that?



Scott Savage said...


Thanks for posting. By the way, my family roots go back deep into the Church of the Nazarene as well.

Regarding your post. First, I believe it is safe to say that Smith is less "emergent" and more Radical Orthodox, although they are not unrelated.

That said, while not promoting Smith as infallible, I believe that his reading of Derrida helps the Church to, in fact, not leave out the Holy Spirit. Instead of trying to appeal to some neutral rational playing field where the idea of a "Holy Spirit" is absurd, the Church, rather, the story of God, is a context where the Holy Spirit, and therefore the Trinity, is central. A few quotes from Smith…

“Revelation informs our horizon. However, ever the (objective) provision of a revelatory interpretation does not guarantee that everyone will read the even in this way. One must (subjectively) accept this revelatory interpretation, which requires faith – and such faith requires the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit” (48).

“To say that there is nothing outside the Text also entails that there is no proper understanding of the Text – and hence the world – apart from the Spirit-governed community of the church. The same Spirit is both author of the text and illuminator of the reading community” (57).

Not wanting to proof text let me close with this. The Spirit that gives witness that is was, indeed, God who was in Christ is the context of the Church. Such a statement is ever contextual because we believe that it comes by faith. I hope that makes a little sense.


Brannon Hancock said...

I really enjoyed Smith's book until the last 2-3 pages when he describes his schlocky emergent worship service, which is supposed to be somehow based on these pomo principles from Lyotard, Derrida and Foucault but which sounds to me just like every other cliche emergent vibe-fest.

That criticism aside, I think it's a great introduction to the theoretical and philosophical themes underlying much of postmodern thought and culture. Smith is well-schooled in this stuff, having done his doctoral work w/ John Caputo, and I think, based on my own pretty in-depth study of postmodern theory (not to Smith's level of expertise, but it is one of my own main areas of interest), his is a solid take on things. I really appreciate confessional Christians who take postmodernism seriously and are, criticisms aside, interested in "redeeming" the postmodern for the contemporary church which, in the Western first-world at least, simply is, like it or not, a deeply postmodern phenomenon.

Scott Savage said...

Sadly, I have not finished the book. It remains an partially read mystery for me.

I agree that it stands as a must read for beginners. I think it could function as a usefuly read for small groups, especially if you watch the movies.