Review: How (Not) to be Secular

Review: How (Not) to be Secular

How (Not) to Be Secular
Published: 2014-04-23
Page Count: 160
How (Not) to Be Secular is what Jamie Smith calls "your hitchhiker's guide to the present" -- it is both a reading guide to Charles Taylor's monumental work A Secular Age and philosophical guidance on how we might learn to live in our times. Taylor's landmark book A Secular Age (2007) provides a monumental, incisive analysis of what it means to live in the post-Christian present -- a pluralist world of competing beliefs and growing…

There are few books I’ve read more than once. I’ve got more than enough I want to read a first time, I don’t often feel the need to go back to something a second time. This one, however, made the cut. In fact, I made my whole staff team read (or, in some of their minds, painfully endure) this brilliant exploration of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. (They should be glad I didn’t make them read that instead!)

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is something of a modern classic. It’s a deeply thoughtful philosophical and (somewhat) theological exploration of how our present views on being a secular society came to be. At around 900 pages, it is not so accessible.

Smith, recognising the importance of Taylor’s work, has attempted to provide an easier way into some very important thinking. I’ve not read Taylor’s book. At times, I’ve often felt like every second book I read was using Taylor to give weight to their argument (such is the influence of his book). And I’ve read enough, I think, about his book that I have a reasonable sense of it. Add in two readings of Smith’s book, and I feel content enough that I’m on the right path in understanding his thinking.

This book is, then, essentially a summary of Taylor’s work. Smith often quotes him at length, or through multiple short snippets in a single sentence. He also draws on some of Taylor’s other work when it offers a helpful contribution. And, as an avid reader of most of Smith’s work, I’ve read many a Taylor reference across his books. Smith also loves his modern cultural references, some of which fly way over my head. But the ones I know always feel special. Plus, I think it was a footnote in one of Smith’s book (maybe this one?) that led me to watch Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt. (It has been praised as the greatest music video of all time, and, while that’s a disputable claim, I can see why).

Where Smith’s path veers from Taylor is where it gets particularly interesting. Smith has an obvious adoration for Taylor’s work. But Taylor is a Catholic while Smith is a reformed evangelical. Taylor, at times, offers critiques on what he sees as some of the flaws of the Protestant Reformation. In sum, Taylor would see that the Reformation is uniquely and centrally responsible for much of how Western people view the world today. Smith is willing to ‘take the hit’, so to speak, but also is not shy in offering a counter narrative when he feels Taylor has misread the room.

The basic premise of the book(s) is that there are three ways to think of being ‘secular’:

  1. The classical/medieval divide of sacred (priests) and secular (butcher, baker, candlestick maker).
  2. The Enlightenment move, where ‘secular’ is ‘having no religious affiliation’. Think of how one might view a public school.
  3. Taylor’s suggestion of our modern context, that ‘secular’ is a time in which religious belief is ‘contestable’. That is, you could be religious, but you could also be, for example, a secular humanist (where there is no deity, no transcendence, and nothing outside the immanent world).

This shift in our time to this third form of secularism, Taylor/Smith argue, is one that many have not necessarily become awake to, and therefore haven’t been able to respond to. This perspective should bring significant change to, for example, the way church leaders consider engaging with the community in evangelism, or in teaching and applying the Bible to a modern context.

Who wrote it

James K A Smith is an author (one of my favourites!) and philosopher.

Why I read it

I first read this when it came out almost 10 years ago. I remember then being deeply struck by the many insights and had in my mind to read again at some point in future. Our staff team regularly read through and discuss a book together, and I decided now was a good time for us to work through this once more.

What I liked

I loved so much of this book. It is incisive, eye-opening, and provides new categories for thinking and understanding the world. It feels like a brilliant assessment of where we are at in Western society today, the reasons we have landed here, along with some analysis of what we do about it.

What I didn’t

Usually, my critique with Smith’s writing is that it can be a hard slog to read at times. This one is no different. And it saddens me because it makes this a much more difficult book to recommend to the average person to read. There are so many brilliant insights that Taylor has that are inaccessible due to the size of his book. And Smith’s book, while a helpful doorway into Taylor, is still several steps above what I would consider a ‘popular’ level of writing. I wish it was a little easier so I could give it to more people.

Major Takeaway

There is so much gold to take away from this book. However, this simple little quote is just one example of the ways Smith (and Taylor) help us appreciate the value of a change in perspective:

The doubter’s doubt is faith; his temptation is belief, and it is a temptation that has not been entirely quelled, even in a secular age.

Who should read it

I’d love to say everyone, but the book, as much as it tries, is just not that accessible. You’ll want to be a reasonably good reader to get through this one. It’s not particularly long, but it’s dealing with some complex ideas. Anyone in church leadership should certainly give it a go, and anyone with a particular interest in understanding culture and the times in which we live.

4.3Overall Score

How (Not) to Be Secular

There are few books I've read more than once. I've got more than enough I want to read a first time, I don't often feel the need to go back to something a second time. This one, however, made the ...

  • Difficulty to read
    As is typical of Smith's writing, there's plenty of big words and obscure cultural references.
  • Overall Rating
    An excellent look into Charles Taylor's important work. Perhaps not quite as accessible as it hopes to be.

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