On David Zahl’s “Seculosity.”
Ours is still a religious nation, only the religious kick is being found and fabricated in places other than the sanctuary.
I was first introduced to the writing David Zahl through a mutual friend, Tullian Tchividjian. Soon after, I discovered the Mockingbird blog (I think through this piece) and have remained hooked ever since. I was fortunate enough to meet Dave at the 2015 Christ Hold Fast Conference in Orlando, Florida. It was one of those weird moments when an online acquaintance is met in person — made doubly weird because Dave was one I looked up to and revered and he knew who I was before I even introduced myself. I won’t soon forget meeting him because he was so kind and gracious with his time. Ever since, I have considered him a friend. It was an unbelievable honor when he invited me contribute to the writing endeavors on the Mockingbird blog. It was infinitely more encouraging when he reached out to support and encourage me as my family and I endured one of the most difficult seasons of life in 2018 and 2019.
All of which to say, I am incredibly grateful for Dave’s friendship and ministry. Though we may hail from different denominational stripes, we are both saved, healed by the same stripes. (Is 53:5) Such is why I am thankful to call Dave a friend. Such, too, is why I am eager to share with you this brief review of his book, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It. If you are unfamiliar, “seculosity” is a word of Dave’s own conjuring, combining “secular” and “religiosity” in order to speak to the reality of our culture’s burgeoning everyday religions. And so as not to bury the lede, Seculosity is in my estimation the most prescient and insightful read in the last decade.
Dave opens Seculosity with guns blazing, seldom letting up on his penetrating examination of society’s addiction to religious impulses that may possess the appearance of “Sunday church” but surely do not consist of the substance of it. “The religious impulse is easier to rebrand than to extinguish,” writes Dave in the introduction; “the marketplace in replacement religion is booming” (xii). Such is the basis upon which his subsequent analysis of productivity, love, parenting, politics, and more, is found. He begins by probing the “seculosity of busyness” and how individual feelings of enoughness have come to be intricately connected to individual performance. From there, he proceeds to investigate the “seculosities” of love and marriage and parenting. There is, perhaps, no platform upon our which our proclivities for performance-based favor are more clearly identified than in the realms of living with a spouse or raising a child. Next, Dave spends some time speaking to the “seculosities” of technology and work, which are very much akin to the religion of busyness scrutinized in the opening chapter. He writes:
When work becomes the primary arbiter of identity, purpose, worth, and community in our lives, it has ceased to function as employment and begun to function as a religion. (94)
Dave moves to examine the “seculosities” of leisure and food, noting that “Sunday mornings no longer present a toss-up between church and the gym; the gym now is church” (106). He closes with a one-two punch of insightful surveys of society’s religious affinity in the realms of politics and religion itself. Notwithstanding whether you find allegiance with elephants or donkeys, Dave’s shrewd words on the “seculosity of politics” feel as trenchant as ever. Indeed, as Dave writes, “there isn’t a liberal or conservative in that hospital room, just a human being” (158). I only wish more would come to that same realization.
The resonance of Seculosity, for me at least, will be acutely felt for a long while. Scroll through any of the unholy triad of social media conglomerates (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and you will be intimately aware that the concept of “religious nones” is at once both true and false. The data which identifies the growing number of folks leaving the church and setting aside traditional religious affiliations (and values) lends credence to the “religious nones” moniker. However, at the same time, our society is more religious nowadays than ever before. But, as Seculosity keenly shows, they are just getting their religion from somewhere other than the church. “Our religious crisis today is not that religion is on the wane,” Dave asserts, “but that we are more religious than ever, and about too many things. We are almost never not in church” (185). Ours is still a religious nation, only the religious kick is being found and fabricated in places other than the sanctuary. There are a wide array of seculosities to which many faithful adherents can be found, each with their own liturgy and creed.
Be that as it may, what Seculosity evidences is that while these other religious undertakings are good and worthwhile in their own right, they will always come up short when compared to the church’s proclamation of the gospel. Precisely because all our quests for peace and rest and prosperity have at their root the same generating cause, namely, self-justification. Or, to use a more familiar term, enoughness. Every endeavor that man has ventured upon has had as its primary objective the obtaining of enoughness. And such is why the gospel of Jesus Christ will always prevail. Because only the gospel announces that your struggle for self-worth, self-salvation, and self-justification is over. It was over before it even began because of Christ’s finished work on the cross (Matt. 11:28–30). “Our attempts to engineer our own salvation backfire, and do so dramatically,” Dave continues. “The only life raft capable of reaching a world drowning in seculosity will not be inflated with anything we do or don’t do, but what God himself has done and is doing” (187). Which is to say: only the gospel has grace.
David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019).