A Feature Review of
The Pastor in a Secular Age:
Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God
Reviewed by Joshua Rhone
As Bob Dylan famously sang, “The times they are a-changin’.” Or, if you are to take philosopher Charles Taylor seriously, as Andrew Root does in his new book The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God, it might be more apt to say that the times have changed. Where once there was a world of enchantment––”a world drowning with meaning because it was a world soaked in divine action (30)”––we now inhabit a very different world. The age we now inhabit is referred to by philosopher Charles Taylor as a “secular age,” an age in which, according to Root, “unbelief becomes a legitimate option (112).” Needless to say, this is a momentous, earth-shaking, belief-altering change. Yet, this change did not happen overnight. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is a change that has been millenia in the making.
In part 1 of the book, Root will look at the stories (and ministries) of six different pastors––their ministries stretching from the fourth (Augustine) to the twenty-first century (Rick Warren). These pastors will serve as archetypes for Root, examples of “how pastoral identity has changed (x),” throughout the ages in response to the changing tides of belief in the divine and divine action.
Root’s historical sketch begins not with Augustine, but with Thomas Becket. Becket was a medieval priest (ca., A.D. 1100), who eventually was made archbishop of Canterbury by his King Henry II. Thomas believed it was the king’s duty to rule his kingdom, as God ruled the universe––which Henry II did not. When he called the king a tyrant, Thomas was murdered by a group of knights. He was made a saint, and quickly “his blood began to appear as a relic, believed to hold powerful magic, able to protect and heal (27).” Thus, according to Root, in Becket’s time, “The pastor’s job was to give order and protection from the constant flood of enchantment. It was a world drowning with meaning because it was a world soaked in divine action (p. 30).”
Historically, while Augustine precedes Becket––his ministry taking place during the fourth century––in many respects, Augustine’s emphasis on inwardness, the self, and personal connection with God gave shape to Western Christianity, which “gave us resources not only to build intricate inner worlds but to eventually build them with high walls and elaborate security systems that could keep out the transcendent (64).” In short, the buffered self was lauded and freedom reconceived in such a way and to a degree that “we are now free to disengage… to turn off and tune out (69).” Transformation was now largely up to each person. In and through the Protestant Reformation this idea would be reinforced and even strengthened as the priest was replaced with the priesthood of all believers. Each person was their own priest, and the domain of their ministry was their home and family.
Enter Jonathan Edwards. Edwards believed that “we show indeed our affections are turned to God and not to ourselves by continually being reformed. And we do this not by just going to church but by living out each minute of our ordinary lives… in direct obedience to God (79).” In other words, it is not what you do that matters, “but how you do it (80).” Discipline became paradigm. The pastor’s job was to prod individuals (and all of society) toward decency and godliness. Again, the home, and in particular one’s family, was viewed as important, as it was “the first place you lived out the how of your deeds (91).”
Henry Ward Beecher took the Puritan’s insistence on the importance of ordinary life a step further than his forebears, concluding “that ordinary life was indeed so central that it needed to be enjoyed (102).” At first blush, Beecher’s conclusion seems rather mundane, until one considers its consequence: namely, it would pave the way for an age when “all sacred sense of ordinary life [would] be perceived as secular (102-3).” For the pastor, this meant not being seen as “other” or “holier than,” but rather as an example among equals. Root writes of this pastoral shift: “The point was no longer to show your difference but to show your sameness… If Edwards was pushing his people up the hill of holiness, making priests of them all, Beecher layman-ized the priesthood, making the pastor just like one of the people (106-7).”
If Becket, Augustine, Edwards, and Beecher represent and/or reveal the introduction of the elements of disenchantment, inwardness, a buffered self, and an affirmation of the ordinary in Charles Taylor’s secular age, Harry Emerson Fosdick clearly served as a herald of a modern moral order. Arriving at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, at the rise of the new liberal theology, Fosdick came to believe that it was possible to know God’s law but it was solely our responsibility to embody or act it out. In other words, for the first time God’s action and that of humanity could be viewed as equal––a belief that would lead one of Fosdick’s professors to suggest that democracy and the kingdom of God were one and the same. The pastor, then, “was to remind his [or her] people of God’s ideals, helping them to take responsibility to mobilize these ideals so that society could flourish (118).” The pastor once again had prominence, but it was a prominence rooted in the civil religion of the empire or state, that seemed to give little attention to divine action.
Eventually the age of mobilization (and the coinciding and somewhat overlapping) rise and fall neo-Durkheimian age would give way to a post-Durkheimian age. Root writes of this age: “[R]eligion would be completely severed from people’s conceived history, fading into one’s individualized and completely buffered sense of the self as completely self-chosen (132).” In other words, religious, political, and even national identities no longer are at the center of a person’s understanding of self. A person is free to choose, to self-select, to determine with whom and in what ways one wishes to identify oneself. In such a milieu, fidelity to oneself is prized. Being true to oneself is important. Authenticity is valued. From the 1980’s onward, pastor Rick Warren and others embraced the “authenticity revolution,” as Root refers to it, creating a church that “is no longer a collective community that builds a broad identity, but is instead a resource to help you (individually) finally find the authentic purpose you’ve been seeking (138-9).” In so doing, Jesus became the answer to the “how” questions that first arose with Edwards, and continued with Warren leveraging that Jesus was the best of the smorgasbord of options in today’s spiritual milieu.
Having traced the historical trajectory and outlined Taylor’s philosophical argument regarding the rise of the secular age, in part 2, seeks to offer something substantive about the role of the pastor in the secular age. Personally, as much as I loved the historical overview situated in the framework of Taylor’s philosophy that was at the heart of part 1, I think part 2 is where Root really shined. Utilizing Michael Foucault’s lecture series, which was entitled “Security, Territory, Population,” Root provides a thumbnail sketch of what he refers to as “The DNA of the Pastoral.” Particularly, of interest, is the way in which Root reads and applies Foucault’s conception of “pastoral power”––its locus, purpose, and telos.
After surveying Foucault for “the DNA of the pastoral,” Root turns his attention to God, who, Root contends, is pastor par excellence. Root’s discussion of God and God’s pastoral work draws heavily upon the work of Robert W. Jenson, who suggested, “God is the one who arrives in the event of freeing Israel from Egypt and raising Jesus Christ from the dead (179).”
In the end, Root offers his readers no easy answers regarding what it means to pastor in a secular age. No tried-and-true formula. No easy-to-replicate game plan. Instead, he offers his readers an invitation to see and understand the work of God, so that pastors might once again reclaim their pastoral identity and participate in God’s acts of ministry in the world.
To say that this book is sorely needed and to suggest that it should be required reading for anyone considering or entering into seminary would miss the mark. This book is for anyone in ministry; anyone who is considering ministry; or anyone, in the days to come, who wonders why the church at the beginning of the twenty-first century has wrestled, as it has, with things such as mission, models of ministry, the role of the pastor, etc. Root helps his readers to understand their unique historical context, and how we have arrived at this point. He offers refreshing (and challenging) insight regarding pastoral identity and activity, as it relates to the God who calls men and women into ministry. It was so good; I could not help but go out and purchase a copy of the first book in the series.
Joshua Rhone is a husband, father, and pastor. He is a graduate of Houghton College (B.A. in Religion) and Portland Seminary (M.A. in Ministry Leadership and M.Div.). Josh currently serves on the pastoral staff of First United Methodist Church of Hanover, in Hanover, Pennsylvania. He blogs at JoshuaRhone.com.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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