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How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James KA Smith

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James KA SmithTakeaway: Skip the audio and do this book in print.

Four years ago, I was very favorable toward How (Not) to Be Secular, since then I have read a number of books that have interacted with Charles Taylor, although none of them have attempted what Jamie Smith has attempted here. In How (Not) To Be Secular, Smith is attempting to summarize Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age while at the same time critiquing some of A Secular Age’s weak points. Other very helpful books have talked about broad ideas or using A Secular Age as a jumping off point. In some ways, it is easier to understand Taylor if you do not have to take the full range of ideas and the full development of Taylor’s argument.

After four years and a number of books about Taylor, I have decided that this fall I need to start reading Charles Taylor directly. I have a couple reasons for that, but primarily what I am interested in is Taylor’s work on how we create identity differently in our current world and how faith works in created identity. I am going to be reading Taylor with a strong eye toward how minority (both racial and other) identity works in his system of understanding the world around us.

Charles Taylor is intimidating, and not just because of the page lengths. Too many people that I know, and respect as smarter than I, have talked about how difficult Taylor can be to understand. I picked up How (Not) to Be Secular as a preparation. I tend to change formats with second readings. And because the audiobook of How (Not) to Be Secular was released recently, I picked up the audiobook.

Audiobook is not a format that works well with this book. The narration was fine. But this is a book that is constantly referencing something else, whether Taylor or another author or subject and the constant reference without the visual cues of what is being referenced make comprehension difficult. Also the constant references to pages of A Secular Age, which make sense in print, do not make the same type of sense in audio. There were paragraphs that referenced specific pages number 4 or 5 or maybe even more times, which made the ability to follow the point difficult.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James KA Smith

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James KA SmithSummary: We as humans do not change simply through new information, but we are shaped by ‘liturgy’, the habits and community rituals that surround us.

I am quite late to actually reading Desiring the Kingdom. It was first published 9 years ago. I purchased it 4 years ago, but I didn’t actually read Desiring the Kingdom until this week when I realized that there was a new audiobook out.

The basic ideas in Desiring the Kingdom are not new to me. I have read six of Smith’s other books including You Are What You Love twice. (You Are What You Love is intended to be a more popular level introduction to similar ideas.) Several of the illustrations, going to the mall and ball park as an alien anthropologist trying to understand what it is that we as humans are doing is familiar from other books and talks I have heard. But it is worth reading this full book as both a reminder of the ideas and a more full expression.

Desiring the Kingdom is attempting to refocus our Christian discipleship away from information sharing toward worship in a broad sense. We are not simply ‘Brains on a stick’ but we are ‘thinking things’. It is not that information and thinking are unimportant, they are very important. But we are not changed simply by being introduced to information. We are changed through the power of worship and by refocusing on what we love.

Part of what is difficult for me is that I am a part of a megachurch, which I love, but which does not really take the ideas of Smith’s understanding of worship into account. My church wants to be a church that unchurched people like attending. And I love that. Our church is full of people that hated church as children, teens, or adults and because they hated church they never understood the gospel (or in some cases the actual gospel wasn’t presented.)

Read Again: You Are What You Love by James KA Smith

You Are What You Love by James KA Smith

Takeaway: Expressive Worship and Formative Worship, while both valid, have different purposes.

It is good to re-read books. I can not remember where I read it, but I remember a discussion about the difference in reading habits of people a couple hundred years ago. The short version is that books used to be very expensive. So you would read and re-read a book several times because you only had a few options of what books to read.

Today books are cheap. I routinely pick up books for a couple dollars or even free. So we tend to read a book once and move on to the next idea. I have put a goal on myself to re-read at least one book a month. I rarely re-read books quite that often, but almost every time I re-read a book I am reminded about the importance of re-reading. Maybe others are more careful readers than I am. But I almost always find significant ideas that I either missed on the first reading or I have forgotten.

The most important idea from You are What You Love that I missed on the first reading is the clear understanding of the difference between what Smith calls Expressive and Formative worship. For Smith, expressive worship, the predominate focus of modern evangelicals, is about the importance of bringing praise to God. Smith does not say it is wrong to expressively worship. But he is not sure that expressive worship should be our primary focus and this is for several reasons. 1) Expressive worship is focused on what we do for God instead of what God has done. 2) Because of our age of authenticity, the temptation for expressive worship is to always seek out the new and innovative because repeated expressive worship feels less authentic.  3) Because of point one, the only real place for the congregation to participate in expressive worship is the music portion of worship. So expressive worship ends up minimizing the full range of worship in a service.

Instead Smith believes that we should approach worship as primarily formative. Formative worship is focused on what the activity of worship does to us. Music reminds us of themes of worship, creeds reminds us of the historical and catholic character of Christianity, the eucharist reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ and the power of the Spirit to act in us on a daily basis, the word reminds us of the message of the gospel.

I think that I have been so shaped in my evangelical formation on the importance of expressive worship that I have missed Smith’s distinction between expressive and formative worship in the first reading.

The main focus of the book is that we are shaped by habits that occur in the pre-cognitive portion of our brain. Things that we do without really thinking of them. So we should strive after creating habits that help us move in the direction that we want to go as Christians.

Letters to a Young Calvinist by James KA Smith

Summary: A series of letters (modeled somewhat after Hitchen’s Letters to a Young Contrarian and Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic)

It is part of my naiveté that I was aware of Letters to a Young Calvinist before I was aware of Hitchens’ or Weigel’s book.  And when I typed in ‘Letters to a Young’ in Amazon I found at a dozen or so similar books.

I remember when this first came out I was first starting to read a bit about Calvinism because of the rise of the Restless and Reformed movement. It is particularly these young new Calvinists that Smith was hoping to reach, although I have heard him say that this book never caught on as he hoped it would.

When it first came out, I remember that it was notable because Smith took a position that the essential parts of Calvinist (or Reformed) thought were not TULIP, but covenantal theology. And part of the ramifications of that was that Smith did not believe that you could be a real Calvinist and be Baptist (because Baptists were not Covenantal in theology). You could subscribe to the principles of TULIP, but that in and of itself is not Calvinism.

How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James KA Smith

Summary: The traditional story of how to the world came to be secular (a subtraction of belief) is not the real story.

Starting last year I have been paying a lot of attention to James KA Smith (Jamie). The first book of his that came across my radar screen was Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation. (I still haven’t actually read that one, it is on my list for this summer.)

But I did read Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. And it really did fundamentally change my perspective on liturgy and worship. Since then I regularly read Smith’s editorials (he is the editor of Comment magazine) and I have slowly been reading some of his other books.

How (Not) to Be Secular is the type of book I wish were more popular. For important ideas to really take hold, we need good authors to popularize those important ideas into formats that a general public can understand. Charles Taylor’s A Secular age is a massive and important book, but at 900 pages it is too long (and too dense) for most readers. (And more than a few people have suggested Taylor is not the most readable author.) So Jamie Smith has put together a 148 page companion that covers the basics of the argument and includes relevant contemporary examples.

The basic idea of A Secular Age is to explain what it means to live in a secular age and how we have come to this place in culture.

“We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.”

Taylor’s innovation is how he reframes discussion about secularization from what it has lost (belief in God) to how the very nature of belief claims have changed.

The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic by James KA Smith

1404896221_0.pngSummary: Maybe our need for interpretation and our finiteness as humans is a feature of our creation not a consequence of the fall.

The more I read James KA Smith, the more I appreciate his perspective.

The Fall of Interpretation was Smith’s first book.  It was an adaptation of his PhD dissertation that he lightly edited and re-released in 2012.  Last fall it was briefly on sale and I picked it up because it was written by Smith, without really knowing what it was about.

Like normal for Smith, this is a book that has way more philosophy than I understand.  But also like normal, I can follow the argument without always understanding some of the minor details.

Smith’s argument is “To be human is to interpret, to encounter the world and entities within the world “as” something—an encounter conditioned by the situationality of human finitude.”  And he is suggesting that our finitude is not something to be overcome, but something to be embraced as a feature of our creation.  (Yes the language can be a bit overly academic, but it is understandable.)

The problem is that,

“At root (and roots, of course, are usually buried, unseen and hidden) the linking of interpretation to fallenness may be understood as the product of a dominant Western interpretive tradition, a broadly neoplatonic understanding of creation and Fall, an understanding that is itself an interpretation. I believe that this tradition, which has significantly influenced aspects of the Christian tradition, remains plagued by an incipient Neoplatonism (or gnosticism) that continues to construe creational finitude and human be-ing as “essentially” fallen and therefore ties hermeneutics to such a corrupted condition.”

What was important about this book for me was his discussion of the finiteness of humanity.

Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture by James KA Smith

Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and CultureSummary: A series of essays on faith and culture.

James KA Smith is a philosophy professor at Calvin College and editor of Comment Magazine.  He keeps coming across my radar screen but I have not read enough of his books.  I picked up Discipleship in the Present Tense last year when it was released.  It has taken me a nearly a year to get around to reading it, but it is worth the read.

I have had a long standing opposition to parts of Reformed Theology.  But Smith makes me want to investigate wings of the Reformed world that are less focused on the newer ‘Restless and Reformed’ wing and more focused on the older full systems of the Reformed Tradition. (He is more interested in liturgy, the full life of the Christian and less focused on 5 points and cage fighting.)

In the series of 24 essays, Smith mostly is talking about the church’s relationship to culture.  Some of the essays I have read before, such as the very good review of James Davidson Hunter’s book To Change the World which appeared in Books and Culture Magazine and I linked to in my review of Hunter’s book.  But most were new to me.

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James KA Smith

Takeaway: Worship, Spiritual Development, Discipleship, all are based on what we do, not just what we think.  Plans for growth and worship based primarily on knowledge break down and leave Christians ill prepared for actual life as a Christian.

It has been six weeks since I have finished Imagining the Kingdom and I am still not sure how to write the review.  But I finally decided that the review is not going to get better the longer I think about it, it is going to get worse.  So I need to just write and apologize for not having fully processed this book.

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works has a deceptively simple premise.  Growth is based on practice.

Early in the book is a memorable illustration.  Smith, having being influenced by his his wife to read more about eating healthy looks around for a pen to highlight a passage from one of Michael Polen’s books.  As he is looking around he realizes that he is sitting (and eating) in a Costco food court.

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. SmithSummary: Discipleship and spiritual formation are not primarily about gaining new information but being formed over time through habit and worship.

I have been influenced by James KA Smith over the past several years more than almost any other author. In the last three years I have read five books and a number of shorter articles, not to mention watching at least a dozen lectures. And I do not think I am alone. I was in a private Facebook theology discussion yesterday when in 110 comments, Smith was referenced at least 8 times with no less than four of his books directly mentioned or hinted at.

There is a reason Smith is becoming influential. He is speaking to several issues that are important and prominent. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is the latest attempt both to deal with the issues and the first book to really attempt to speak to a lay audience about them.

There are three real points being made in the book. First, we are not solely intellectual beings. God created us with intellects and brains, but also emotions and unconscious bias. We are not, to use his common phrase, “Brains on a stick.” We are fully human, and we are intended to be that way by God. That may not seem like a big deal, but much of Christian culture has understood us to be Brains on a Stick. Our evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth are often primarily oriented toward the intellect. There is also the anti-intellectual parts of Christianity. But they are in many ways just as oriented toward the Brain on a Stick idea, just using the insight in a different method.

The second point is that because we are not brains on a stick, we need to take into account the various ways that we are influenced and shaped. Jamie Smith uses the term ‘liturgies’ to describe the shaping activities that are all around us. Going to the mall is a consumerist liturgy. The bright airy buildings give us comfort and place. Our five senses are being engaged by Cinnabon and the skylights and the comfortable seating areas. We are being shaped by the feeding of our desires and absorbing our place in the world as consumer. Sports have a different liturgy. We feel a participant in something greater than ourself, we have the us vs them mentality encouraged.

Offsite: Interview with James Smith about Imagining the Kingdom

I am getting close to being finished with James KA Smith’s new book Imagining the Kingdom.  I am both very impressed with the books and a little puzzled by it.  It makes me want to go back and read the first book in the trilogy Desiring the Kingdom.

James Merritt, a writer and pastor, has a good interview with Smith about his new book, what he means when he uses the word kingdom, why James Smith is not reformed in the same way that Piper, Mohler and the Gospel Coalition is reformed and a little bit about the final book of the trilogy Embodying the Kingdom.

Smith is also the new editor of the small, but very interesting Comment Magazine.