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Thursday, September 13, 2007

We know that the Spirit is most active in your corner of the world

Preface to the Chinese Edition of "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?"
James K.A. Smith
A Chinese edition of Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church has just been published by Logos (Hong Kong). I was asked to write a new preface for this edition that would address how evangelicals in China might interact with these issues. This was an occasion to think a bit about the "globalization" of postmodernism. Here's the English edition of the Preface: Evangelicalism, Postmodernism, and Globalization
It is a great honor for me to see Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? translated into a language that will make it accessible to Christians in China and elsewhere in southeast Asia—clearly a place where the Spirit is at work in ways we (in the West) would not have dreamed even a generation ago.
The book was written in and for a North American and European context. However, globalization means that the challenges and changes in Western contexts quickly make their way around the globe and emerge on the streets of Beijing or churches in Hong Kong—in the same way that Big Macs and Nike shoes make their way into the four corners of the world. So perhaps a book written for a North American context can speak to an Asian context because North American culture is increasingly—for good or ill—a “world” culture. The rapid expansion of Western modernity and its institutions (factories and hospitals, democracy and the free market) also means that post-modernism—as a critique of modernity—follows in its path around the globe.
However, one could suggest that what we now refer to as globalization (the globalization of capitalism and Western consumerism) was preceded by a different globalization, namely the missionary expansion of Christianity in the 19th-century. In fact, this was often more specifically a globalization of distinctly evangelical Christianity emerging from Britain and the United States. This legacy of a globalized evangelicalism continues to impact the church in regions such as Asia—and can partially explain why a book like this might find readers in China and elsewhere. But we should be attentive to the ways that the “evangelicalism” that was shipped around the globe in the 19th-century was a distinctly modern phenomenon (just as we need to consider the ways in which the Protestant Reformation was both a sign and catalyst of modernity). Evangelicalism has tended to exhibit some of the features of modernity that flowed from Descartes—in particular, an emphasis on the individual, on “certainty,” on objectivity, and so forth.
Because evangelicalism has tended to be wrapped up with modernity, the postmodern critique of modernity has also applied, in some ways, to evangelicalism. The postmodern critique of individualism, Cartesian quests for certainty, and the illusions of “objective” knowledge also apply to many versions of evangelical theology. This is why evangelicals have often been such ferocious critics of postmodernism.
But this alliance between evangelicalism and modernity deserves to be questioned. Must evangelicals be modern? Is the Gospel served, or harmed, by an alliance with modernity? Could Christians be postmodern? And might that be a good thing? In other words, could it turn out that postmodernism is a catalyst for the church to recover a more faithful understanding of the Gospel and its mission? The project of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? is to answers these sorts of questions, and to invite evangelical Christians to see that, in fact, postmodernism is a better ally than modernism. More specifically, I try to sketch a vision of what it would look like to be evangelical without being modern.
I suggest that this will require a kind of spirituality and practice that looks back to the early, ancient, and medieval church for models of how to be faithful—in the same way that Calvin, Luther, and the Reformers looked back to Augustine and other church fathers for wisdom and models of faithful witness. Authentic “postmodern” spirituality will be what Robert Webber calls “ancient-future” spirituality. Evangelicals, I argue, will be better witnesses to God’s coming kingdom if they think more critically about their assimilation to modernity. And the postmodern critique of modernity can be a help for just such self-examination.
Perhaps here I should say something that is not quite explicit in the English edition of the book. To affirm a postmodern critique of modernity is not to be anti-modern. So if we ask: “Is the Gospel served, or harmed, by an alliance with modernity?,” we need an answer that is carefully nuanced. On the one hand, obviously the Gospel has been served by the ability for Christians around the world to communicate the Gospel via media technologies, or fly on planes to spread the Good News. The Gospel has clearly been served by certain advances in technology, and the development of medicines, vaccines, and medical technology have made it possible for Christians to bring about examples of God’s redemption of the world’s brokenness. In many cases, it is technological advancement that makes it possible to create “foretastes” of the justice (shalom) of the coming Kingdom and thus witness to the risen Lord. Christian engineers who develop inexpensive water treatment technologies in Africa are bringing the Good News of Christ’s triumph over the curse. So in some ways, advances made by modernity are things to affirm.
On the other hand, because Christians have accepted the individualism and consumerism of a capitalist vision of modernity (with the attendant disparities between rich and poor), or because they have come to identify themselves with and pledge their allegiance militaristic nation-states that are also the fruit of modernity, witness to the Gospel has often been compromised and tainted. Even the way we “do church” has been transformed into something that is more modern than Christian. So modernity is both a gift and a poison. Overall, I’m worried that the poison undoes the gift, but I do want to make clear that the postmodern critique of modernity does not constitute a rejection of modernity.
Nor am I advocating an uncritical acceptance of postmodernism. That is why I never advocate a “postmodern” church. The goal is not for Christians to become “postmodern.” Rather, my point is to show that postmodernism can be a catalyst or occasion for the church to critically consider the ways in which it has confused the Gospel with modernity. In this way, postmodernism becomes an occasion for evangelicalism to perhaps recover a more faithful understanding of the Gospel, learning from pre-modern saints what it means to be faithful in the 21st century.
And we in North America know that Christianity—and evangelical Christianity in particular—is no longer “ours.” Certainly one of the most significant features of the postmodern era is the shifting of the church’s center of gravity to the global south and east. We know that the Spirit is most active in your corner of the world. So while I am happy to offer to you what wisdom I can in this book (and I am grateful to the hard work of the translator in making this possible), we Christians in North America are looking to you to show us what it means to be faithful witnesses to the Gospel in this postmodern era. Grand Rapids, Michigan Pentecost 2007 Posted by James K.A. Smith in Books September 12, 2007

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