How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith (Review)

A few years ago I worked my way through Charles Taylor’s magnificent A Secular Age.  That book was one of the most challenging and rewarding books I’ve ever read.  It is definitely in my top five of all time, that despite me knowing I need to re-read it sometime to fully get what Taylor is saying.  The basic question Taylor asked is why it was so easy to believe in God in 1500 and so difficult in the year 2000.  What has changed?

The common secularization thesis is that as people learned science and became modern they left behind religion.  Taylor’s book shows that this substraction story is simply not how it happened.  He seeks to tell a different story.

It is a fascinating book and certainly changes the way you look at our world once you read it.  That said, I found myself wishing there was some sort of summary book out there.  First, such a short book would help those of us crazy enough to read Taylor’s tome.  Second, it would be a valuable resource for pastors and others who don’t have the desire to plod through 800 pages of narrative philosophy.

James K.A. Smith has provided us with such a book, How (Not) to be Secular.  Smith has become one of my favorite writers recently and this book just adds to my admiration.  He distills Taylor’s great work.  This will be one of the books I will recommend most to my pastor friends, even my college students.

The only part I found odd, out of place even, was near the end.  Smith was talking about how Taylor argues that much modern Christian consciousness has removed the wrath of God, leaving only love.  Smith mentions Rob Bell in passing as an example of this.  It seemed like a cheap shot.  Bell’s musings on hell, punishment (or lackthereof) and universalism aside, there are real biblical questions about what the future judgment entails.  Taylor may be on to something, perhaps God’s wrath is more distasteful to Christians today then in other eras.  But maybe this distaste has driven Christians to a renewed study of the topic in scripture, just as Luther’s distaste for indulgences led to his study.  And there are much better people pursuing this study then Rob Bell, I think of the likes of John Stott who rejected the traditional eternal conscious torment view.  It seems a valid question to be decided in Biblical exegesis, regardless of how tasteful or distasteful we moderns find the idea.

That aside, the other 99.5% of the book is fantastic!  Highly, highly recommended.

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