Review of "Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion And What To Do About It"
Review of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion And What To Do About It, by David Zahl (Fortress Press, April 2019).
reviewed by Matthew O. Staneck
I hate to be the guy who starts at the end of the book—especially if for no other reason than it seems like I am doing what students often do with book reports. But I can think of no better place to sum up what this book is about than this line, “Your life depends on letting go of control” (187).
Author David Zahl is the founder of the Law-Gospel focused Mockingbird Ministries (www.mbird.com). I’ve long been a reader of David Zahl. We initially were introduced over coffee some several Thursday mornings by the pastor for whom I was interning in New York City during the summer of 2009. Since that summer I have been a reader of both Zahl and the ministry he founded. There was a time when a Friday afternoon wouldn’t turn into Friday evening until I had read Zahl’s “Another Week Ends” column on his website. I subscribe to The Mockingbird quarterly journal he publishes and own several of his books. I also annually attend the conference he runs through Mockingbird in New York City every April.
I say all this by way of introduction to get at the heart of the matter of Zahl’s new book. All at once, Seculosity feels like a good introduction to Zahl’s thought and a showcase of how his thinking has reached its maturation. This is shown in his ability to get his point across succinctly. Central to Seculosity is the theme that, while society largely no longer participates in “Capital-R Religion,” nevertheless “religious observance hasn’t faded apace ‘secularization’ so much as migrated—and we’ve got the anxiety to prove it. We’re seldom not in church” (xii). The term “seculosity” follows from this observation, “I’m using it as a catchall for religiosity that’s directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthy rather than heavenly objects” (xxi).
Zahl’s writing is accessible in that it is conversant with American pop-culture. The book includes references to Aziz Ansari on romance, to Crossfit on leisure, to Jim Gaffigan on food, to NBC’s The Good Place on busyness, to Lady Gaga on Jesusland, to Seinfeld on politics, and to David Foster Wallace on technology. But it’s not all pop-culture; he also brings Martin Luther, the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, and even underground modes of spirituality like what is promoted at A.A. into the conversation. Zahl’s theology is grounded in Luther’s law and gospel paradigm. In fact, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to suggest that Zahl’s theology depends on law and gospel. This is what makes his writing so accessible. The theme that channels this theological current is the distinction between what Zahl calls “enoughness” and the freedom of “letting go.”
Here’s where I think this book might speak well to Lutherans. Lutherans have long been in an ongoing struggle over what to do with the law in the life of a Christian. That controversy continues to this day, with some Lutherans even advocating for less law and gospel in preaching and more exhortation (law). Anxious minds turn to the law to get control over what feels like an out-of-control situation in American society (and even in the American church). The concerns inducing this anxiety are not unfounded, but their prescription misses something important that Zahl diagnoses accurately. The problem is not too much grace in our day. The problem, rather, is the opposite: there is not enough grace in our day. A grace-less society—and a grace-less church—leads people to look for “enoughness” in all the wrong places. This doesn’t mean that Zahl dismisses Christian living; he’s just careful to locate it in its proper place:
“Yet as with every other area we’ve surveyed, the point here is not that transformation is somehow bad. I would be tempted to label that person a sociopath who could look at themselves and their surroundings with any degree of attentiveness or honesty without desiring transformation. Life is hard. The world is a rough place. Yearning for peace and holiness among all nations—for the kingdom of God—constitutes the height of goodness. To imply otherwise would be antithetical to Christianity. It would be nihilism. The issue does not lie with the possibility of transformation but the guarantee of transformation” (175).
Looking for enoughness in all the wrong places leads to our vocations becoming idols instead of gifts. Rest becoming a means of production instead of renewal. And instead of food being for nutrition and community, it becomes a measure of pharisaical righteousness.
Early on Zahl writes, “the bulk of my personal life—upbringing, education, friendships—has been spent as the only religious guy in the room, the one who, like it or not, has been called upon to translate in both directions for as long as I can remember” (xxii). This resonates well. When I look out at the world I know I don’t see a “secular” world devoid of religion or spirituality. Instead, I see a world full of people turning to anything they can in order to fulfill righteousness and, perhaps more to the point, in order to receive relief. This leads to misadventures and idolatry. But I don’t get the general sense that the modern man or woman is actively seeking to defy God. No, I get the sense that they are actively pursuing God. After all, the law is written on their hearts. They just pursue gods that can never give them what it is they ultimately need.
What is the message to people who are in constant pursuit of the divine, whose sin consists of thinking they can control what this pursuit looks like? It’s an invitation to “let go,” and Seculosity invites them on that adventure. No doubt this is easier said than done. But no one—Zahl included—said that it would be easy, just that it would somehow be worth it. The problem with our view of worth today is that we immediately connect it to something we’ve achieved through our own effort. The good news of Seculosity is that worth is shown to be a gift given like all the rest. It is something neither earned nor achieved; it is a gift received.
But, if you’re the type of person who does need a little law, well fine, here it is: you should read this book.
Matthew O. Staneck is an associate editor of Lutheran Forum and pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Glendale (Queens), NY.
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