I will move this to “best books” in a week or two, but for now, I want to add Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age to my list of books I believe every pastor should read. This book came out in 2007 and I am embarrassed to say that it took me eight years to get to it, and boy have I missed out. This is a truly brilliant analysis of the evolution of the Christian faith from first century to the modern/post-modern day. Anyone who wonders why the Christian churches in North America are facing the realities and challenges they face today need look no further than this book. Anyone wondering why we have bogged down in endless theologically adverse, emotionally charged debates and arguments need look no further than this book. Anyone wanting to know how we can be relevant as a Christian faith moving forward need look no further than this book. I guess what I am saying is that we would really benefit if more Christian leaders would read this book.
And having said this, I know for a fact that this will not be a popular book with an awful lot of people. Fundamentally (and I use this word cautiously), we would all have to set aside our postures, positions, polemics, and prejudices for this book to make a difference. At its base, it points out that the scriptures we claim to love and revere are essentially useless the way we try to interpret and use them in our 21st century culture. The primitive, pre-modern, mythic/magic, Middle Eastern/Mediterranean context and culture of ancient Judaism and Christianity were addressed to collective, corporate, cohesive communities, not individuals. Any use of Hebrew/Christian, Old/New Testaments for anything other than the common good or social reordering is inappropriate and a modern intrusion on a pre-modern vision. The moralism we find so prevalent in our Bible exists only in the eras since the Middle Ages, reinforced by Puritans and Victorians, but having virtually nothing to do with the intentions of Holy Writ. The individualistic, personal, private, rights and entitlements mentality of modern-day U.S. culture is completely and absolutely alien to any understanding or intention of biblical writers — they simply did not think this way. This is a conception of reality that emerged in recent centuries, yet it clouds and filters our reading of the Bible. Setting aside modern moralizing and individual rights would lead us to entirely new conversations about such topics as human sexuality, abortion, guns, death penalty, and economic/racial/gender justice. Think of these conversations with rights, entitlements, individual responsibilities and moralistic imperatives removed! The common good, justice for all, strengthening the community, protecting our future. These are the grounds upon which testamentary teachings were initially created. Even if we hold that the Bible is inerrantly delivered directly from God, it was delivered to Us, not you and me.
Taylor scrupulously analyzes the evolution of human filtration and cultural machinations regarding Christianity. From a common identity to a set of right beliefs, from the fallen condition of sin to the commitment of behavioral sins, from a way of being in the world to a way of being better than the world, this incisive book explains so much about ways we have reduced our faith to a battlefield and have weaponized our Bible.
The brilliance of Taylor’s analysis is that under current conditions, no one wins. Progressive, liberal, radical reformers are no better off than traditionalist, conservatives or fundamentalists. All current debates are grounded in the cultural dynamic of personal salvation, individual faith and beliefs, and the “me-and-my-buddy-Jesus” approach so popularized by the 20th century “do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” drift from scripture. Even when we talk about “Christian community” or “covenant community” we are talking about a voluntary organization where each individual decides whether he or she will be a part of it. Church is not who we are; it is something we are a part of if it suits our needs, wants and desires. Most Christian believers today think they can be just as good and faithful alone as they can be as part of a church community. Unfortunately, there is no Biblical precedent to support such a notion. The simple reason: it isn’t a Jewish or Christian concept. The whole monstrous modern shift to “personal” salvation misses the whole point, but it does define our current conundrum. This is the church we have created. Taylor’s book holds up a mirror and seriously asks why kind of church it is, because it certainly doesn’t resemble the early church.
What we have created is on us — it is ours, lock, stock and barrel. We can’t credit/blame Jesus. He didn’t do it; we did. And so we need to carefully, prayerfully ask, is this the will of God? Is what we have what we need and what we want, and can it survive to be of value moving forward? As long as ours is a church of individual rights, preferences, opinions and beliefs, we will continue to splinter and decline. If we reclaim a common good, a higher calling, and a purpose greater than individual claims, we might actually reorder our society and renew our culture. We might stand for something together that is impossible at odds with each other. The challenge will be that everyone will have to let go of some personal idols and be willing to “lose” so that all might “win.”
I would love for our denominational leadership to commit to read A Secular Age and discuss its meaning and implications. I don’t have high hopes because I think our current cultural constraints are so deeply entrenched that we simply will not move beyond them. I hope I am wrong. I do encourage each of you to read the book, and engage in dialogue (here and elsewhere) to begin to envision the church we could be beyond the church we are.
Thank you for this, and for your ongoing inspirational and challenging support of the church!
I agree this should be a must read but after watching our church leadership look for quick and easy fixes I doubt most will even open the book because they will immediately see that it is a weighty tome (literally as well as figuratively) with no pictures and that will be the end of it. I am also persuaded that so many of us live in the church bubble and are obsessed by issues the rest of the world funds be utterly irrelevant (e.g. The political process surrounding nomination and election of bishops). Week after week I attend church and leave wondering why we bothered, based on the thin,, bland being served up.
Sadly, I must agree with the assessment of the reading limitations of some of our leaders. I worked for a General Secretary whose first response to every book recommendation was “how long is it?” I’m not sure she read anything over 300 pages in her ministry. Her curiosity ended at length, never content. And when all we get is a steady diet of church growth books and evangelical leadership titles, it is no wonder our conversations don’t go any deeper than they do…
Dan, another book in this vein is Brad Gregory’s “The Unintended Reformation.” He argues that the splintering of Christianity in the Reformation arguments over Scripture paved the way for the Enlightenment and the end of Christendom. Well-argued historical perspective. James K.A. Smith has written about this as well, as well as another book by Richards and O’Brien: “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes.” More grist for the mill.