A review of
Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It
Reviewed by Aarik Danielsen
David Zahl isn’t a doctor. He doesn’t play one on TV. But in Seculosity, he addresses what ails us with keen diagnostic skills and a winsome bedside manner.
Based on his latest book, were Zahl a physician, his treatment would not only include a thorough battery of tests, but would involve sharing his own medical history, easing the patient’s stress and shame through a mixture of self-deprecating laughter, insight and a vision for a healthier future.
Seculosity keeps company with recent titles by the likes of James K.A. Smith and David Dark, authors who contend that our desires, hobbies and work-life balance—or lack thereof—has as much or more to say about our religious practice as our preferred house of worship or the -ism we claim to follow.
“The marketplace in replacement religion is booming,” Zahl writes in the book’s introduction. “We may be sleeping in on Sunday mornings in greater numbers, but we’ve never been more pious” (xii).
Zahl purports to break from his peers with the book’s namesake concept which, he argues, “is more than a filter or paradigm” (xi). Instead, it “is that which we rely on not just for meaning or hope but enoughness” (xiv). Seculosity, then, is “a catchall for religiosity that’s directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects” (xxi).
Zahl isn’t saying anything revolutionary. He’s not as far from Dark, et al. as he might think—and, certainly, idolatry precedes Christianity. But his voice and the scope of his concern uniquely resonate. When embraced to its fullest, seculosity has devastating implications within the chambers of our own hearts and the wider web of our relationships. Zahl trembles at the potential toll that devotion to replacement religion takes on a soul and a society.
“If we used to go to church once a week, we now go every hour,” he writes. “It’s exhausting, to put it mildly” (xx).
People chasing false gods will not avoid the most dangerous aspects of organized religion, but reproduce them without a personified hope able and willing to pull them from the mire: “Self-righteousness tends to follow self-justification, regardless of backdrop” (xvii).
Using the gospel like X-ray glasses, Zahl sees beneath the surface of our being to our doing, and beyond our doing to the longings which set us in motion—namely, our desire to matter. Grasping for enoughness is both an attempt to justify ourselves and a way of masking the devastating truth that we cannot.
Zahl tackles the usual suspects—busyness, technology, politics, leisure—and uncovers original and provocative angles on tried-and-true idols. In his chapter on romance, he pushes past the fruit most cultural alarmists would focus on, digging to expose its roots.
“I’m convinced that what some observers have mistaken for a hedonistic hook-up culture among college students is actually a fresh annex of performancism,” he writes (26).
And yet, as our culture and its mores evolve, Zahl draws a fascinating—and surprisingly straight line—between sex and food, translating parallel desires into a common language.
“Much of the moralism and anxiety that once surrounded the bedroom now focuses on the kitchen,” he writes. “We talk about food today the way we used to talk about sex. The last time you used the word cheat, for instance, was it in reference to a broken vow or something you ate? I’d wager the latter” (121-122).
As the father of a preschooler, Zahl’s chapter on parenting cuts deepest. He wisely identifies a “parenting-industrial complex”—a phrase I read laughing, to keep myself from crying—and all manner of attendant goods and services to stoke the parent’s ever-present fear of failure.
Raising children only amplifies our inborn crises of existence and belonging: “The question, ‘What kind of parent are you?’ is shorthand for what kind of a person” (55). Thus, we seek kindred spirits to ease our consciences and baptize our methods.
“Schools of parenting inspire denomination-like loyalty in which communities of like-minded parents function as de facto churches,” Zahl writes. The only trouble is the only trouble there ever is: replacement religions never deliver. “Yet, the tighter we hold to our set of rules, the worse we feel when we fail to uphold them” (55).
Zahl saves the best—or worst, depending on how you look at it—for last, turning over the “seculosity of Jesusland” which “seeps in when church turns into yet another venue to establish our enoughness, rather than the only reliable place to receive it” (168).
“‘Thou shalt transform’ becomes the imperative du jour, no different in impact from the edicts we receive via every other area of seculosity—anxiety, narcissism, loneliness and despair,” he writes (176).
Tragically, the church is often all too willing to foster this subtle anti-gospel. As we tally up our righteous deeds, we transform a transcendent religion that is simultaneously past-, present- and future-tense into something that begins and ends with us.
“What binds … expressions of Jesusland together, and makes them such close cousins of seculosity, is their scope as much as their scorekeeping,” Zahl writes. “(They) restrict God’s purposes so entirely to the here-and-now that they render any longer view incomprehensible. Christianity is a means to an earthly end, almost a way of using God to fix the world or yourself” (176).
Zahl keeps the book humming with a kind countenance and serious pop-culture savvy. He references Seinfeld and Walker Percy with equal facility, and astutely points out how our obsession with work has relocated sitcoms from the family room to the conference room (89).
The best preachers apply the text as they go, rather than hoard the practical for a few bullet points before the closing prayer. While thorough and thoughtful, Zahl’s chapters major in cultural exegesis and devote little space to steps leading beyond seculosity. This is both a minor flaw of Seculosityand wholly consistent with its design. Zahl doesn’t want to give readers more to do—the closing chapter is literally called “What to ‘Do’ About It”—and he no doubt fears making the fight against seculosity its own replacement religion.
While this might leave the reader feeling slightly adrift, Zahl’s conclusion casts a beautiful vision for what Christianity completely stripped of seculosity might look like, calling readers to chase that vision as they see fit.
Like the salt of the earth Jesus identifies in Matthew 5, Seculosity creates a thirst for grace only God can give. This blessed saltiness is wholly consistent with the angle taken by Mockingbird, the generous, subversive magazine where Zahl is editor-in-chief. (Full disclosure: Mockingbird ran an essay of mine in November 2017).
The book encourages those who strive to become those who seek first the kingdom of God and the beauty of God himself. Much like Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount, Zahl makes plain our need for a savior by revealing both the frailty of our actions and the folly of our hearts; if we will find a way to God, we must find a way through God. Seculosity might keep us busy and distracted from hard eternal questions, but it can only play substitute savior for so long.
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. His work is concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter @aarikdanielsen and find more of his work at facebook.com/aarikdanielsenwrites
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