book review: how not to be secular

James K. A. Smith’s enlightening book, How Not to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor is a fascinating book.  Smith’s aim is to synthesize the exhaustive work of Charles Taylors nine-hundred plus manuscript dealing with the secular age.  Smith makes Taylor’s deep mind approachable.

For Smith, Taylor is a cartographer of this present age or rather how we got to this present age.  Taylor’s theory of secularization does not just pop up on the scene in the 20th century, but rather according to Smith, Taylor’s theory of the secularization of society started in the age of reformation in the 16th century.  It was there that Europe and the Americas (particularly North America) started its slow march into the secular world in which we live where we are “ensconced in immanence” and where the secular world is haunted by “transcendence.”  Smith proves Taylor’s point when he quotes the famous Julian Barnes as saying, “I don’t believe in God, but I do miss him (Smith, p. 5).”


If Taylor is right about the secular age being consummated some five-hundred before its full birth, then what does it say about the decisions we make for the Christian church in the modern era.  Recently, I have worked through Noll’s works on thinking, it puts it in an entirely new light.  How we think and approach the Christian work today could have monumental consequences for future generations. This is a sobering reality that engulfed me as I have worked my way through both text.

However, it is not merely the “five-hundred years moment” that worries me. If secularist live in a haunted age, I am haunted as well as a Christian.  Smith uses Julian Barnes work as another example.  Barnes in his work, Nothing to be Frightened Of, describes Christianity or religion this way:

“The notion of redefining deity into something that works for you (is) nothing short of grotesque (Barnes, p 46)…there seems to be little point in religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything (p. 64)…what’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious….seriously serious….unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life (p. 81)?”

I am haunted that the American church (particularly Evangelical) is not delivering a faith that is seriously serious.  I am haunted that my walk with Christ and the Christ I preach is not staining everything which was Noll’s point in The Life and Mind of Christ. I am haunted by the consequences of preaching a message of the cross that demands nothing more than a mere glance at the one upon it.


As I stepped away from this week’s swim through Taylor’s mind, I am more convinced that Christianity shares some of the blame for secularism.  I am also concerned about the state of Christianity and the future by the decisions we are making today.  We must reconnect the church to the mission. We must once again preach a message of the cross that stains everything.