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The Reign of Grace

Review: David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It (Fortress, 2019. Pp. 250. $26.99). 

Review by Matthew Boulter

Before I read David Zahl’s Seculosity, I wondered if it might be a variation on Charles Taylor’s magisterial A Secular Age. Taylor put forth an academic genealogy for the secular culture and society in which we in the West dwell: “How did this world, in which many or most people live their lives without recourse to God, come about?” 

Zahl does something quite different in his book, written on a more popular level. For Zahl, the life we live in our secular world bears the same structure and shares the same dynamics as traditional religion. Whether it’s busyness, romance, one’s children, technology (instant access to information, primarily through smart devices), work, leisure, food, or politics — we deal with the stuff of our lives religiously (sort of as a medieval monk, as Zahl would have it), whether we happen to be sitting in a pew on Sunday mornings or not. 

It’s not just, as Tim Keller argues, that we tend to worship these things in our lives. It’s not simply, as Alexander Schmemann points out in For the Life of the World, that we are homo adorans. Zahl’s point is that we are homo religiosa. We are inescapably religious, and for Zahl this is more of a curse — at least in the immediacy of our day to day lives — than a blessing. 

That’s because for Zahl, the manifold complex of religion is about one thing: the Law. And the point about the Law, as Martin Luther argued, is that it condemns. 

But wait: it gets worse! Not only does the Law condemn — after all, we never seem able to measure up to its unrelenting demands — but, further, it becomes a weapon in our self-righteous hands that we then use to condemn others.

These uses and abuses of the Law are by no means limited to the Old Testament Law of Moses. On the contrary, Zahl claims that the Law structures and conditions every dimension of human life: our relationships, our efforts to succeed and survive, our very hearts. As such the Law is a death knell. Its sole purpose, beyond the general preservation of the human race, is to drive us to Christ, to his grace and mercy.

Such is the structural logic of the first eight chapters, ranging from “the seculosity of busyness” to “the seculosity of politics.” It is a logic Zahl articulates trenchantly, wittily, and compellingly. It is a logic he articulates by way of two Leitmotifs that recur in each of the first eight chapters: enoughness (the goal toward which we all existentially strive but inevitably fail to reach) and performancism (the set of practices, or the meta-practice, by which we try to attain that elusive but unrelenting need for emotional enoughness). It is a logic I embrace wholeheartedly. 

Whether it’s the “parenting-industrial complex” that stokes the guilt-consciousness of new parents while commodifying their needed salvific therapies (chapter three), the virtue-signaling involved in opting out of — or at least limiting the encroachment of  — our omnipresent smart devices (chapter four), or the post-McDonald’s penance performed (at the gym) to expiate for that fast-food iniquity (chapter seven), our religiosity lurks everywhere and saturates our every moment. 

Just as it is the nature of beer yeast to emit carbon dioxide, it is the nature of the human heart to strive, then fail to meet, the demands of the law (religious or secular, vertical or horizontal). So we then either despair or pretend. (As the “spiritualized version of the New Yorker cartoon of the man holding his companion’s hand,” quoted in chapter nine, has it: “I can’t promise I’ll change, but I promise I’ll pretend to change.”) Finally, depending on your skill at religious charades, you can use the law as a badge of your moral superiority over others. 

After chapter eight, however, the structure of the argument shifts. In chapter nine, Zahl rightly rehearses the way in which “Jesusland” is the exact inversion of seculosity. In both right-leaning evangelical circles as well as left-leaning mainline churches, the fixation on transformation all too easily becomes a law that condemns. Jesusland, in other words, denotes Christian communities characterized by a performancism sanctioned by religious trappings. If organic-only foodies or the well-toned evangelists of CrossFit use their ethical codes to self-justify on a horizontal plane (within the immanent frame), then one-sided churches of the left and the right end up importing this same post-religious system back into the church. (Thanks be to God that, according to Zahl, a more authentically gospel-based culture has emerged in so many of the basements of these churches: the radically anti-performance, 12-step communities of Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Allow me to offer some potential criticisms of the book (and of the Mockingbird movement Zahl founded). Fair warning: I will undermine these criticisms later in this review, for I align myself with this author and his ministry. My perspective is that of one who spent more than a decade in the conservative, Reformed world of Christianity, first as a seminarian and then as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America. I am now an Episcopal priest.

In the Reformed world of American Christianity, one well-known movement goes by the name of Sonship Theology, promoted by the late, gifted pastor-theologian, Jack Miller. As indicated on Miller’s Wikipedia entry, Tullian Tchividjian (also a friend of Mockingbird) sums up Miller’s teaching this way: “Cheer up: you’re a lot worse off than you think you are, but in Jesus you are far more loved than you ever imagined.”

I will not elaborate on the theology of Sonship, or to engage in the kind of polemical critique that used to occupy my time far more than it has during my last decade in the Episcopal Church. Suffice to say, when I was in the PCA, I used to worry that Sonship was “like Lutheranism, only without the Sacraments.” In other words, the genius of Lutheranism and Luther, in my opinion, is the combination of a grace-saturated gospel (always in dialectic with the Law) with the salvific, metaphysical nature of the sacraments, particularly baptism and Communion. Just as Sonship lacked this latter emphasis, at times I have worried that Mockingbird does as well. In Zahl’s otherwise compelling articulation of the church of the future (if it is going to regain cultural traction), there is no mention of the sacraments. No mention, either, of the kind of catholic ecclesiology that seems essential. Zahl seems to think that when the Church talks about ecclesiology, “it has nothing left to say” (see p. 191).

A second, related qualm concerns contemplation and mysticism. Central to my Christian journey is the notion that prayer, or the contemplation of God, is not only an activity to be performed as an end in itself, but is actually (strange though it may sound to modern secular ears) the end or purpose for which human beings were created. When we are engaged in contemplation of God, we are tapping into what the Westminster Divines of the 17th century called “the chief end of man”: “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” In this kind of prayer, we actually experience a foretaste of Heaven.  

Now, I absolutely love Zahl’s emphasis on rest, and to his credit, he includes a thoughtful section on mindfulness. Yet in his chapters on work and leisure I worry that his conception of rest amounts to merely a cessation of work (as opposed to deep repose in the presence of God, where we are actually touched mystically). His view of work reduces to secular career (as opposed to the fulfillment of the “creation mandate” of Genesis 1, which would include activities such as child-rearing, worship, prayer, and much else besides). 

Zahl commendably critiques modern capitalism’s tendency to turn laborers into commodities, as well as the hypocrisy of Silicon Valley’s efforts to turn work into entertainment. In reality, he recognizes, Google worships utility every bit as much (or more) as General Electric did in the 1950s, even though GE’s employees were not allowed to sip on lattes or bring their pets to work. But rest, Zahl might not sufficiently appreciate, is more than the cessation of productivity. It is also the chief end of the human person. Further, it is in restful contemplation that, for someone like Augustine, our desires — the desires that fuel so much of the horizontal, secular religiosity Zahl deftly documents — are both provoked and then satisfied.

In a similar vein, leisure is more important than mere kite-flying or model trains (see p. 115). Indeed, as Josef Pieper would have it, it is the very basis of all culture. 

These, then, are my two critiques: a lack of catholic ecclesiology (including sacramentalism) and an under-appreciation of the contemplative and mystical dimensions of Christian existence. Far from “works of the law,” these gifts are provisions from God to draw us deeper into the life of Christ.

Why, then, do I support Mockingbird? (I play a role in organizing the annual conference in Tyler, Texas.) Two reasons.

First, and most banally, no Christian movement can embody the whole truth. It takes the whole Church to the know the whole truth, as many have said. That Mockingbird is not the whole Church and hence needs to be supplemented by other sectors of the body of Christ is not a good reason to oppose it. Any organization that openly and joyfully proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ for sinners, especially one so directly associated with the, ahem, sometimes too liberal Episcopal Church, deserves robust support.

The main reason for my support, however, has to do with the reality of rest. Regardless of Zahl’s theoretical articulation of it, he knows how to practice it, for he has founded a community for which rest is the forte. I experience this at every Mockingbird Conference I’ve attended (and I almost tasted it while reading the book). 

At Mockingbird’s conference in New York City a couple of years ago, hosted annually at Calvary-St. George Church in Manhattan, Simeon Zahl (the author’s brother) described the conference as a form of catechesis. Really, this was when the lights went on for me regarding Mockingbird. It is an accurate description of what happens at the conferences. More than any single element — the wonderful music, the entertaining and compelling speakers, the delicious food — there is an ethos of rest and relief. There is almost an audible, collective deep sigh of relief, from every version of law, both secular and religious. It is an ethos in which you are surrounded by fellow stragglers and sufferers at the brutal hands of the Law. At that conference — at every Mockingbird conference — I’ve looked around, and I’ve been surrounded by folks who are simply enjoying grace, and enjoying it together. 

It’s the same kind of catechesis — a kind of initiation in the practice of rest — which the young boy Roger experiences in Langston Hughes’ short story “Thank You, Ma’am,” narrated in the final chapter of Zahl’s book. After Roger is caught on the street trying to steal the purse of Luella Bates Washington Jones, she takes Roger to her apartment and shows him mercy and grace, including a home-cooked meal, a sense of belonging and understanding, and (most of all) relief.  

Even if Luther’s “Law-Gospel Dialectic” fails to articulate the whole truth and needs supplementation, it is still very true. The law does condemn. 

But, in the end, grace has the last word. 




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