I first read The Fall of Interpretation (FoI) in the Fall of 2002. I had learned shortly before the semester had begun that the Philosophy of Language class I had signed up for was going to be taught by a new prof, some young guy who looked like he belonged in an Old Navy catalogue rather than in the Ivory Tower (when all you’ve got to go by is a headshot on the department homepage, you make these kind of characterizations, fair or otherwise). As it turned out, he was a pretty smart guy who assigned us some pretty interesting stuff to read, and that class started me on the path toward a career in Continental philosophy. So, I guess that prof, and that class, shaped my life way more than I could have known when I was passing judgment on his picture (and way more than any course that forced me to listen to The Police ever should).[1]

When I was asked to review the second edition of FoI for this blog, I was happy to revisit a book I hadn’t read in almost 10 years. In looking back, I found that my initial understanding of the book was not so far off the mark (which gives evidence of Jamie’s skills, either as a teacher or a writer).  The main point of the first edition of FOI was to show that human life is necessarily caught up in the ubiquity of interpretation. Since then, Jamie has been arguing that there are three different ways Christians can react to this situation: first, we can bemoan the necessity of interpretation, and try to get beyond it to the Truth of the “pure” Gospel (this would be the fundamentalist route he argues against repeatedly in the first edition of FoI); second, we can bemoan—but accept—the necessity of interpretation, abandon any and all notion of truth, and live always dissatisfied with the life and church we have now, since they can (necessarily) never live up to the lofty expectations we have for them (this, according to Jamie, is the “emergent” route); and, finally, we can happily accept the necessity of interpretation and embrace the church as the community whose task it is to interpret God’s revelation (the “catholic” route).

Being Reformed, I was sure that the “catholic” influence in Jamie’s thought could be blamed on those Anglo-Catholics in the Radical Orthodoxy movement that he had started hanging around with. But the more I read of Derrida and Levinas, the more that route made sense to me: since we all need to interpret, we all stand in need of conditions for interpretation. Further, since we are constituted by our relations with other people, those relations—our community—would obviously play a significant role in how we made sense of the world. And as a Christian aware of the radical antithesis between that which is for God and that which isn’t, the notion of being shaped by a distinctly Christian community was appealing. Jamie’s call to embrace the church ‘catholic’ was therefore intriguing to me, but something held me back: was it a distrust of Catholicism (the product, no doubt, of my 18 years of Calvinist schooling)? Was it a fear of “orthodoxy,” inspired by my many tours through postmodern thought? It wasn’t until reading this second edition of FoI that I was able to fully understand what my problem was: I don’t know what the church is, what people mean when they talk about the church catholic (this shouldn’t be that surprising, once you remember that I’m Calvinist).

Or rather, I know lots of things that people mean by it. Two of the most popular definitions of the church that I hear are: 1) those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died to save us from our sins; and 2) those who have the Holy Spirit inside them. Jamie uses versions (albeit more complex and nuanced, I grant you) of both of these definitions in the book: throughout the early parts of the book, the church is “Nicene orthodoxy” (6, 10, 32n.41), though by the last part of the last chapter it is “the community of the faithful … [who] are indwelt and led by the Spirit of the Author” (221). While both “definitions” are plausible to me on their own, I can’t figure out how they relate to each other. Are they equivalent: does Jamie want to say that “Nicene orthodoxy” is in some way the same thing as being “indwelt by the Spirit”? Or are they somehow correlated, as if agreeing with Nicene orthodoxy is a fruit of the Spirit, necessary evidence of being indwelt by the Spirit, or as if the Spirit will only indwell those who agree with the council of Nicea? And what does any of this have to do with the issue of the “institutional” church that seems to separate the ‘emergent’ from the ‘catholic’ view (see 215n.37): what makes something “institutional,” and why is it essential that the church be that? How does its “institutionality” relate to Nicene Orthodoxy and/or being indwelt by the Spirit? In short, what I’m asking here is: what is the church, according to Jamie Smith?

Perhaps the “indwelling of the Spirit” is meant to qualify “Nicene orthodoxy” in The Fall of Interpretation, so that Nicene orthodoxy is not merely a question of rational assent to certain theological propositions, but rather—as one would expect from the author of Desiring the Kingdom—a set of liturgical practices that are somehow rooted in the creeds and confessions.[2] If we can think of revelation primarily as a context rather than a meaning, then we could think of Scripture as not primarily a text to be understood or deciphered, but first and foremost a context, a story, to be lived out of and taken up.  Interpretation, in turn, would not be primarily an attempt to decipher the Truth that is hidden, like a code, in a text but would be productive or engaged knowledge (praxis?) that responds to something arising within our culture via the tools received from that culture. The creeds and confessions could then be understood as some of those tools that we have received to help us live up to and live out of the tradition that we inhabit.[3]

Such an understanding of the church as tradition seems wholly consistent with Jamie’s overall project—but is somewhat at odds with the picture of revelation sketched out in chapter 7.[4] It also seems at odds with the continued use of the terminology of Nicene orthodoxy throughout the text. If the church is centered on liturgical practices, rather than on doctrine, then perhaps the use of “orthopraxy” rather than “orthodoxy” would help avoid charges of latent modernism or premodernism. Further, if Jamie wants to say that “Nicene normativity continues to make room for difference” (32n.41), then that “difference” should be reflected also in the terms used to describe the church. If the “ortho” part is meant merely to indicate a certain normativity, why not let “Nicene” indicate that normativity (as it does in the quote above), and let the term that follows it reflect the difference: instead of “Nicene orthodoxy” would we be better off to speak of “Nicene heteropraxy”? This doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, since the “Nicene” remains in place to qualify the hetero-praxy, preventing an anything-goes relativism;[5] it does, however, better highlight the different expressions of that normativity in various communities. This might help show how the ‘catholic’ approach to postmodern Christianity is not “simply an authoritarian assertion of communal ‘policing’[6] of interpretation” (10), but is an elaboration of the guidelines that Christianity, like any community, requires in order to make sense of the world and its role in it.

The notion of the Spirit as a “fundamental guide” in our attempts to interpret the world is an intriguing notion that is mentioned only a few brief times in the text (197, 218, 221). However, if we are to pursue further the notion of the church as a liturgical tradition rooted in a revelation that can be traced back, via the creeds and confessions, to the Scriptures and, ultimately, to creation itself, I think that the Spirit will have to play a much larger role than it does in the “creational-pneumatic hermeneutical model” (191) Jamie provides in FoI (and, yes, I am aware of the irony of me, as a Reformed guy, claiming that Jamie, the Pentecostal, has an insufficient role for the Spirit). In this sense, it is not only the full divinity of Christ that is at stake in an ecclesial hermeneutics, but a robust Trinitarian theology that accounts for the full divinity also of the Spirit. Maybe it is not enough for the church to be Nicene—perhaps it should be Niceno-Constantinopolitan. But already with this distinction we stand at the doorstep of fundamental debates and differences that ultimately return us to the larger question, one that has been haunting Christianity since at least 325 AD: what, exactly, is the church?


Neal DeRoo is an assistant professor of philosophy at Dordt College (Sioux Center, IA), where he also teaches in the Christianity and Popular Culture program. He is the author of Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas and Derrida, and has co-edited several books on postmodernism and philosophy of religion, including The Logic of  Incarnation: James K.A. Smith’s Critique of Postmodern Religion, and Cross and Khora: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo. He will be helping host the Christian Evasion of Popular Culture conference, featuring Peter Rollins, Tony Jones and others, at Dordt College in November.


[1] As you may have guessed, that prof was Jamie—and he made us listen to “De doo doo doo, De daa daa daa” in class. I believe it was supposed to illustrate Derrida’s understanding of language as inherently violent, but I can’t remember.

[2] A quote from p. 10 would seem to support this, where he says that the position he is endorsing “sees catholic (Nicene) orthodoxy as the community of practice that nourishes and governs interpretation” (emphasis added). A clear account of precisely how our liturgical practices are to be rooted in the creeds and confessions in a non-rationalistic way would be helpful, if something like this account of the church is to be pursued.

[3] The notion of living up to and out of one’s tradition is a key part of Derrida’s thought, as I argue in Futurity in Phenomenology: Promise and Method in Husserl, Levinas and Derrida (Fordham UP): http://www.us.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Philosophy/?view=usa&ci=9780823244645.

[4] In that chapter, revelation is equated with communication (205, 220), which is then “roughly” defined as the “transfer [of] meaning across a web of relations” (211). This seems to equate revelation with the transference of meaning, thereby rendering the Scripture, as a privileged mode of revelation, a text whose primary purpose is to be deciphered or understood—but is that not an overly rationalistic (dare I say “modern”) account of revelation?

[5] I’d also like to mention something else from this revised book: you know how, sometimes, when you go to watch a movie, you see a trailer beforehand for another movie that just looks awesome and has you really excited to watch it, but once you start watching the movie you came to see, you get caught up in that, and almost forget all about the trailer until something reminds you about it days or weeks later? That’s how I felt about seeing a footnote in FoI for James K.A. Smith, Whose Afraid of Relativism? Taking Wittgenstien, Rorty and Brandom to Church. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to reading that book.

[6] De doo doo doo, de daa daa daa is all I want to say to you.