Secular South LA
What an interesting couple of books to start the spring semester with. The mammoth and overwhelming almost 1,000-page classic A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, and thankfully the much smaller How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James Smith that helped us actually read and digest Taylor. I appreciated Smith’s description of Taylor’s work right off the bat. He says…“Indeed, there is something fundamentally literary, even poetic, in Taylor’s prosaic account of our “secular age” — this pluralized, pressurized moment in which we find ourselves, where believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief. It is Taylor’s complexity, nuance, and refusal of simplistic reductionisms that make him a reliable cartographer who provides genuine orientation in our secular age.” In researching more about Taylor and his take on the secular age, it was definitely confirmed that he is often referenced on the subject and considered an authority. I, on the other hand, have never heard of him or his book, and I have never read much on the subject of secularism. Growing up in south Los Angeles made me feel like I was living in “the secular age” as it continued to develop, I definitely did not feel sheltered.
Not that sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll define secularism, but it felt like I grew up in an environment that was very far from God. My high school was surrounded by barbed-wire fencing with armed guards at every gate (this was before metal detectors were more prevalent or we would have had those as well). Drug busts were almost a daily occurrence, and it seemed like most of the kids I sat next to in class were on some kind of substance. I stopped asking what my classmates did over the weekend because I got tired of hearing about all of their sexual escapades and drinking parties. Teachers seemed to teach to the lowest common denominator, which meant getting good grades for us normal kids were a breeze. I also remember a shocking experience while sitting at one of the lab desks in biology class one day while the teacher was lecturing. My deskmate happened to be a member of one of the Asian gangs in town and he decided that day was a good day to show me his new handgun under the desk while the teacher lectured up front. I was surprised that I wasn’t more freaked out, but it almost felt like a normal “show and tell” moment at the time. Oh, and do you think I said a word about it to any adult?…the fact that I am writing this tells you I didn’t even think of telling anyone. This same kid would tell me frightening stories of what they did to people and animals over the weekend that seemed right out of a movie. In fact, one of my best friends at the time, who happened to be African-American, was shot and killed in a Jack-in-the-Box drive-thru by members of one of these gangs a block from my house.
North Torrance High School was a dark place, with not much evidence of Judeo-Christian values present. I’m sure other high schools around the country were similar, but for me, living a Christian life in this environment was difficult and lonely. I could never venture to eat anything that was brought to an in-class party because inevitably kids would add Ex-Lax to the brownies or throw left-over french fries in the vanilla cake mix. There was an overarching hedonistic attitude and a seeming disregard for other humans. Another traumatic memory of high school was coming to school one morning and seeing yellow police tape blocking off the entire football and track stadium complex. Later in the day we found out that a woman was jogging on the track the night before and got attacked and stabbed over 50 times. Amazingly, she somehow managed to crawl to a nearby house for help and survived. Needless to say, this kept the evening joggers away for a while. On a lighter note, I thought I would throw in a piece of fun trivia, Chuck Norris and I happened to graduate from the same high school…I just wished I had his martial arts skills while attending.
Taylor speaks to this disturbing hedonistic egoism when he says, “The shift is often understood, particularly by those most disturbed by it, as an outbreak of mere egoism, or a turn to hedonism. In other words, two things which were identified clearly as vices in a traditional ethic of community service and self-discipline are targeted as the motors of change. But I think this misses an important point. Egoism and the mere search for pleasure (whatever exactly these amount to) may play a larger or smaller role in the motivation of different individuals, but a large-scale shift in general understandings of the good requires some new understanding of the good.” Understanding a world without God or people who are not driven by the same purpose or moral compass as myself has been a challenge over the years. Many people feel there is nothing wrong with being driven by their hedonistic desires and believe it is their right to run over whoever or whatever to get it. This is the water I had to swim in growing up in south LA.
Shifting gears, I needed to include and comment on my favorite quote from Smith’s guide to Taylor. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it”, Barnes observes. It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel — which is pretty close to Tolkien’s claim that the gospel is true because it is the most fantastic fantasy, the greatest fairy story ever told. And Barnes, a great lover of both music and painting, knows that much of what he enjoys owes its existence to Christianity. Without the madness of the gospel, Mozart would never have composed a requiem, Giotto would never have left us the treasures in the chapel of Padua.” This grabbed me because it resonates with what I have always said about the amazing stories in the Bible. All of the fairytales, movies and stories of good triumphing over evil all originate from the greatest story ever told…the author of creation loving His created ones by conquering death and evil in order to give us eternal life with Him.
 James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Kindle Edition, 3.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Kindle Edition, 474.
 James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Kindle Edition, 9.
12 responses to “Secular South LA”
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Happy new year! Love hearing your high school story and I appreciate your openness. With an environment so far from God, I wondered how God was reaching your heart and drawing you unto himself? I am looking forward to hearing if you came to Christ at a young age, during high school, or after…
Your closing sentence was filled with hope and I thank you for ending with that!
Thanks Jay for your kind words. Gratefully I was raised in a Christian home and came to the Lord at a young age. I was also very involved in my church youth group and had good friends at church which made my high school years a little easier.
Welcome back from the break! If you ever want to talk about your High School reflections, please let me know. Good job sharing your lived experiences in a hedonistic driven culture and context. Wow, what would Chuck Norris say?
So, besides sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll defining secularism, what did you think about the books? LOL…..I could not help myself. I am thankful you had your share of guardian angels with you at Hedon High, praise the Lord for sure!
I did not get a lot of faith building takeaways from the book, but kept a skeptical and critical perspective and used the global assessment to reinforce my position in following Paul’s directive to put on the full armor of God.
Thanks Mike for your comments. I have many more stories I could share. I got inspired to share my high school experience after reading about secularism and the progression of moving away from God towards hedonism. Yes, I was thankful for God’s protection and provision during those years….God is good! I actually did like the books and learned lots of things about secularism that were new to me. Thanks again for your thoughts.
It’s great to learn more of your background, Jake. I think that experienced enabled you to develop the social skills you currently have. I have lots of family in the North Torrance area (also Bellflower). I was actually one of those kids you talked about, though I lived further south. I was the only white dude in a Filipino blood gang based in Carson. They called me Casper. 🙂 I was jumped in and ran with them for a while and also got myself killed. Got hooked on meth and missed out on a driveby that put my homies behind bars for 34 years to life. I can say that underneath all the hedonism and narcissistic criminality lives some of the most horrendous trauma and pain and misfortune. Add to that systemic racism, migration identity issues, and poverty, that it’s amazing that any of them make it at all in life. My friend Chris Hunt (mixed race filipino guy) got out of the gang when I did, and his only option was to join the military. He fought for the Navy and the Marines in Afganistan and elsewhere, receiving even more trauma. He now works as a janitor in San Francisco and struggles to carry out conversation because of his massive stutter and PTSD. And he just donated a kidney to his abusive mother. I’m not sure what this has to do with Taylor! Just wanted to share. Pretty amazing you didn’t get sucked into anything destructive like that, but your experience in that environment formed you in ways that serve your ministry today. Peace and thank you for sharing brother!
Wow Chris, thanks so much for your comments and for sharing your amazing story. I am grateful you survived that experience and turned into the amazing man of God you are today. I am also grateful God spared me from getting sucked into the darkness and kept me safe as well. These experiences I’m sure have shaped us into the men we are today, and by God’s grace we are able to pass along that grace to those living with that trauma, loss and pain. Blessings bro!
Thanks for your post. I grew up in a different ‘hood’ and though we lacked the barbed wire it was a school that certainly lacked a good reputation. I walked daily through streets that were considered unsafe but this was my home and I never felt any real fear. (Possibly because I was too naive to understand.)
Situations like that do demonstrate our hedonistic age. For many it seems that there is nothing to live for but the pleasure of the moment as life is cheap and yours may be snuffed out at any moment. However, I am not certain that many of those who are not just scraping by are any less hedonistic. The pursuit of material goods for their own sake is also an attempt to make sense of the world in the absence of transcendent meaning. Unfortunately it seems that this aspect of the secular age is the one that has most completely infiltrated the Western church.
Thanks Dan for your thoughtful comments. Fascinating about your neighborhood as well (where was it by the way?). You brought up an interesting point, I too walked around without any fear most likely naive but also probably numb to the dangerous environment I had always lived in. You are so right about the way most American’s live just for the pleasure of it and the fact that the materialistic pursuit is definitely alive and well in the church. Blessings my friend.
We lived in Coatesville PA, an old Steel town that really struggled after the mill shut down. It was a mile walk to and from my high school. It hasn’t changed much and I would feel very uncertain about letting my 16 year old walk there alone. As they say; “Ignorance is bliss.”
Very interesting. I feel the same way about not feeling comfortable with my kids walking to school as well. So weird that my parents did not appear concerned at all…ignorance was definitely bliss 🙂
It was great to hear more about your life experiences…I knew your school was rough but didn’t know how rough. How would you propose to approach the darkness of your community from a missional perspective (per Taylor’s thoughts on secularism)? I think that’s my take away from this book, that hearts need to be the change because clearly policy/law/system changes don’t produce the intended heart change.
Thanks Jean for your thoughts. I would definitely agree that the best way to make an impact in that community would be to connect with the hearts of people and be the “change” to them and seek to walk with them in their pain. One thing I have learned from being a therapist is that hurting people almost always hurt other people. I feel the same way about the best method to make a significant impact on the gender-balanced leadership issue. Blessings to you as you be Jesus to those you come in contact with.