Reviewed by: Joseph W. Smith III
Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It, by David Zahl. Fortress, 2019. Hardcover, 250 pages, $18.69 (Amazon). Reviewed by OP elder Joseph W. Smith III.
“For an increasing amount of the population, to be alive in the twenty-first century is to wonder privately how much longer you can keep feeding the beast before you keel over” (6).
That’s author and podcaster David Zahl in his terrific new book, Seculosity. He’s talking about our society’s exhausting (and self-imposed) busyness—just one of many “new religions,” which, as the book shows, have replaced genuine spirituality in modern culture.
The widespread nature of this “secular spirituality” is indicated by Zahl’s subtitle: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It. As the author puts it in his text, “The religious impulse is easier to rebrand than to extinguish” (xii).
In a series of pithy, insightful, and often convicting chapters, Zahl shows how contemporary Americans use such things as work, family, love life, and political affiliation to gain the sort of self-worth, inner peace, and freedom from guilt that were once the purview of traditional Christianity.
Yet he also shows that in the long run, these quasi-religions are actually much crueler taskmasters than the biblical gospel of free grace from a kindly Father who (unlike worldly pursuits) does not constantly require us to “measure up.”
“We may be sleeping in on Sunday mornings in greater numbers,” Zahl writes, “but we’ve never been more pious. Religious observance hasn’t faded apace ‘secularization’ so much as it has migrated—and we’ve got the anxiety to prove it” (xii).
Seculosity is especially hard-hitting in its examination of jobs, love, and politics. Zahl shows how success and failure are now automatically (and absurdly) linked to career—and how making romance the be-all and end-all has actually weakened lifelong marriage.
As for politics, Seculosity explains why this has become increasingly divisive and vitriolic: because we’ve staked our entire well-being on our own political stance, resulting in moral outrage, finger-pointing (by which we alleviate our own guilt by accusing others), and virtue signaling, as Zahl penetratingly dissects (148).
And yet the church itself is not free from these problems! Zahl’s penultimate chapter, “The Seculosity of Jesusland,” insists that we, also, inside the church have often replaced biblical dependence on Christ with a works-oriented mindset that results in one-upmanship, superficiality, and exhaustion. At the same time, he shows how both the church and the true gospel really do provide a refuge from the black hole of replacement religion.
Undergirding the whole book is a winsome, conversational, and often humorous writing style—one that is notably free from Evangelical jargon, while also drawing on a wide array of sources both secular and Christian.
This is a wise, helpful, and genuinely grace-driven book that can easily be shared with unbelieving friends and neighbors.
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