Not a bad way to begin reading for the semester. An erudite distillation of the challenging tome and seminal work of Charles Taylor. James K.A. Smith expertly provides both explanation and points of application relevant to all seeking to comprehend Taylor’s text and the wider culture. Smith provides an invaluable summation of the bulk of Taylor’s work making it available to those needing it but lacking the time or wherewithal to discern its nuances.
It is simply inexcusable in the 21stcentury for the Church to keep its proverbial head in the sand and continue to convey the message of the Gospel disconnected from the culture at large. While the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and to a lesser extent the Baby Busters (1964-1983) are generally conversant in and comfortable with Church culture and language, at least in the United States, that is simply not the case for emerging generations. While many will point to movements like ‘Passion’ and Christian ‘rock stars’ like Louie Giglio, Francis Chan, Christine Kane, David Crowder etc. as remaining attractive to young people, these student movements represent a small minority of the generation and are potentially nothing more than a coalescing of young people from various backgrounds and denominations into a semi-unified Christian young adult event.
The church’s efforts in evangelism (for those that haven’t completely given up) would make sense if there was a universally applicable world view and everyone sought meaning in the same manner. But, this is neither realistic nor accurate. Even before Smith begins to unpack Taylor’s work he lays the groundwork for understanding the perspective shift that has occurred in the secular culture. He states, “…your ‘secular’ neighbors aren’t looking for answers – for some bit of information that is missing from their mental maps. To the contrary, they have completely different maps.” Further, “…they have constructed webs of meaning that provide almost all the significance they need in their lives.” And finally, “…it seems that many have managed to construct a world of significance that isn’t at all bothered by questions of the divine.” While these secular constructs may be the antithesis of what constitutes Christian orthodoxy it must be acknowledged that they function adequately enough to eliminate almost all lingering doubts or longing for something more transcendent.
In the early 1990s I was driving Tony Campolo (at the time one of the bigger personalities on the evangelical speaking circuit) around parts of New Zealand on a speaking tour. He was there at the invitation of Youth for Christ to present the Gospel at large town hall meetings and an outdoor
Christian music festival. He questioned me relentlessly about New Zealand culture and the transcendent desires of young people of that nation. After several long discussions he pointedly asked me, “Why would a New Zealand young person want to know Jesus?” Realizing that he was not asking for patented ‘Sunday School’ answers, I reflected for some minutes before I got up the nerve to respond, “They wouldn’t.” In living and working in Christian ministry with New Zealand young people for several years I realized that the vast majority had constructed completely different purposes for existence and felt no great need or desire to fill their ‘God shaped hole’. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to New Zealand or the post-Christian era. That mentality has unequivocally penetrated the culture of the United States, and if Taylor/Smith are to be believed its impact is felt both within as much as outside Christian culture.
What has changed? Certainly, skeptics and naysayers are not a new threat to Christianity. These have existed from the inception of the faith. What has changed is the freedom people sense in being able to express these doubts and “the default assumptions about what is believable.” What Taylor calls a ‘self-sufficient humanism’ has become a strong default position and has enough satisfactory intellectual integrity to be sustainable in the secular age.
However, this ‘self-sufficient humanism’ is no monolithic construct either, as much as secular humanists would like it to be so. Where once meaning was found in a limited array of options, largely centered around transcendence and divinity, there are now myriad options for meaning. Taylor designates this the ‘Nova Affect’. Meaning is now determined by the individual for themselves and not dictated by some external institution. The options are almost limitless.
It is also erroneous to suggest that this shift in thought toward secular humanism has left the Christian faith unscathed. “Taylor’s account of the secular is often an illuminating lens through which to see changes within religious communities, not just the expansion of the areligious.” Whether it be the consumer age that envelops us, the search for authenticity or the ardent individualism in Western culture, the Church is fully immersed in secularism and it continues to transform faith and practice. (Case in point – my ‘Roomie’, Jay Forseth is studying the impact of Dave Ramsey’s teaching on the Church and giving. Someone producing ‘Christian’ teaching from this economic perspective could not have existed in the era prior to the establishment of secular thought or the acceptance of consumerism by the wider church. Ramsey is part of the ‘Nova Effect’ evident in Christian thinking.)
While this may leave many either running for the exits or building up an arsenal in preparation for the war to come, a reminder is in order. “The secular age is a level playing field. We’re all trying to make sense of where we are, even why we are, and it’s not easy for any of us.” There is no need to be defensive or to remain entrenched in modernist and oft antiquated modes of apologetics. The Christian faith is not a hill that needs to be defended against an evil onslaught. As Rob Bell points out in ‘Velvet Elvis’, The Christian faith should be more like a trampoline than a wall. Walls require defense and protection but, “you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you…..You rarely defend the things you love. You enjoy them and tell others about them and invite others to enjoy them with you.” Charles Taylor, (thankfully explained and clarified by James K.A. Smith) provides an understanding of the processes that have led to this point and gives opportunity to acknowledge their ramifications, opening up opportunities for civil discourse and inviting others to join us on the ‘trampoline’.
Perhaps we would do well to relearn the communication style of Jesus who, “was short on sermons, long on conversations; short on answers, long on questions; short on abstractions and propositions, long on stories and parables; short on telling others what to think, long on challenging people to think for themselves; short on condemning the irreligious, long on confronting the religious.” That is as good a place to begin evangelism and this semester as any.
Smith, James K. A. How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. P. VII
“Conversations with Tony Campolo.” Interview by author. February 1991.
Smith, James K. A. How (not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. P. 19
Ibid. P. 23
Ibid. P. 62
Ibid. P. 88 – emphasis in the original
Ibid. P. 120
Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. P. 027
McLaren, Brian D. More Ready than You Realize: Evangelism as Dance in the Postmodern Matrix. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. P. 15