I wasn’t sure about reviewing this book, which the author, David Zahl, calls Seculosity. As you might guess, the term is a mashup of “religiosity” and “secularism.” Surely, I thought, this can’t be another screed against the creep of secularism into our churches. I could already hear it: What do you expect when you let the walls down and anything goes? Alcohol, movies, dancing. Where’s the line anymore? But once I actually read the subtitle (“How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It”) and the table of contents, I about-faced. What could be better than confirmation of my own observations about our culture’s false idols? I’m in!
For centuries, some humanists have promised that once we throw off the fetters of religion and its attendant guilt, we’ll be liberated to enter a new era of human flourishing. But that’s not happening. While capital-R Religion, institutionalized religion, is famously declining, small-r religion, what Zahl calls “replacement religion,” is more than filling the void. Rather than slipping the bonds of religion’s quest for righteousness, we’ve tightened the harness and shifted the venue from church to . . . well, nearly everywhere else.
The book has nine chapters, each dealing with a specific manifestation of seculosity: In order, they are Busyness, Romance, Parenting, Technology, Work, Leisure, Food, Politics, and lastly, Jesusland. Zahl’s thesis is clear: “The book sets out to look at how the promise of salvation has fastened onto more everyday pursuits like work, exercise, and romance—and how it’s making us anxious, lonely, and unhappy.”
Dreams of Wholeness
But what exactly is secular culture wanting to be saved from? Zahl offers a loosey-goosey run at a working definition of this force we call religion: “It is what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter.” It’s “another name for all the ladders we spend our days climbing toward a dream of wholeness. . . . Our small-r religion is the justifying story of our life.”
Three key words thread through the book, terms that Zahl often uses interchangeably: enoughness, self-justification, and righteousness. I’m tempted to split hairs over definitions, but I accept his premise that “enoughness is a universal human longing.” Even our desire for righteousness (by which he means something more like self-rightness) seems universal as well. On this point, Zahl cites moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose book The Righteous Mind identifies our fixation with righteousness as an innate part of human nature rather than as a force conjured up by Religion and wielded as a means of manipulation. Zahl goes one step further, arguing (perhaps provocatively) that our desire for righteousness and enoughness is more acute now than at any time in the recent past.
With my seculosity lens in place and focused, I was ready to plow happily into affirmation of my own critiques of secular culture. But then the worst thing happened. Clever man that he is, Zahl (who is founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries and editor-in-chief of the popular Mockingbird website) hits the reader first with “The Seculosity of Busyness.” In a single word, I’m felled. Do you know anyone who doesn’t define their day (or their year, or their life) as “crazy busy?”
Busyness, Zahl writes, is “a public display of enoughness” that confirms our importance in the world. While perfectionism has been a favorite target for quite a while now, over the last few years it’s been joined by its evil twin: performancism, a term Zahl uses throughout the book. Besides being unhealthily over-scheduled, we are relentlessly graded on the outcomes of our must-do lists. Everywhere we turn, we are scored, ranked, and measured—from preschool through graduate school, in our jobs, on social media, even in video games. Others define us by our ranking and performance, and we’re all painfully aware of our own “score.”
There’s no endgame here. The beast of enoughness is never satisfied. The busier we are and the better we perform, the more we fuel anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, fatigue, and isolation.
Already, most of us are implicated, especially if we’re church-goers. As Zahl claims, “some of the most toxically performancist environments exist inside the church, where anxious people frantically try to outdo one another in the good-works department . . . as if our spiritual resume was the ticket to God’s approval.” I’m reading these words on a Monday, the day that’s become my Sabbath from the Sabbath. I’m always knocked out. We joke about it in the halls of our churches, as we whiz past one another saying, “Welcome to the day of rest!”
In the chapter on romance, Zahl tackles the Soulmate Myth: the belief that if we just look hard enough we’ll find our “perfect match” who will “complete” us (thank you, Jerry Maguire). Throughout history, people married for practical reasons: for economic security, for land, for children. But in an affluent culture riddled with irreligiosity, we seek far more. Zahl quotes renowned marriage therapist Esther Perel, who describes our expectations for our romantic partner. We want belonging, identity, continuity, transcendence, mystery, and awe, all blended together. We want novelty, yet familiarity; predictability, but also surprise. In a word, we want everything.
Parenting, argues Zahl, is an equally fraught enterprise, centered on controlling our children and searching for the perfect methodology that will deliver the results we desire. Children bear impossible burdens. Our children are our second chance. Our children are our future. Our children are the measure of our enoughness as human beings.
Of the nine areas treated, work holds a special place in Zahl’s pantheon of seculosity. Inarguably, work has become “the primary arbiter of identity, purpose, worth, and community in our lives.” From work, we now expect the meaning and fulfillment we once sought from God. Zahl cites a study showing that 20 percent of Americans feel “acute guilt” over not working efficiently enough. He asks, “Would 20 percent of Americans admit to feeling acute guilt about more conventional moral failures, such as lying or cheating? Doubtful.” It appears, then, that our society values productivity over the pursuit of righteousness.
How far have we gone in our pursuit of enoughness? In our leisure, we strap on fitness trackers that mark, measure, count, and rank our athletic achievements. Food has become a moral battleground. Even sleep has been commandeered as something to be tracked and hacked for the sake of productivity.
In the politics chapter, Zahl addresses moral outrage, the new coin of the realm. Moral outrage, he notes, is less about morality than a sense of mattering. People broadcast their outrage to be seen and heard and thus to confirm their value. I posit a different root, however. Because we’ve all been given a voice through social media, we’ve come to think of silence as patently immoral. We’ve turned “doing the right thing” into a question of what we proclaim rather than how we behave.
A Grace-Filled Church
Every chapter prods and goads. And in a survey like this, there are some inevitable over-simplifications. I would raise a hand in the Jesusland chapter to identify another piece of Christian enoughness that’s not addressed: the genuine desire to love God and neighbor and to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission. Not all of our “works” are based on works-righteousness. Paul was on the go most of his life, visiting churches and dodging stonings. Even when imprisoned, he was busy. Nor do we have a sense, post-Resurrection, that the other disciples lounged around, resting in what Christ had accomplished. I am not sure that “grace” answers all our faith-versus-works dilemmas.
Yet Zahl is clearly right to see performancism and the replacement religion of seculosity cropping up “everywhere.” In a strange way, I admire our human ingenuity—our penchant for converting so many of our needs, pursuits, and passions into substitute religions, complete with rules and commandments far harsher than any traditional religion ever imposed. Christians are by no means exempt. We’re all implicated in this massive human plot to prove our sufficiency apart from Jesus Christ. And that’s one of the best features of Seculosity. Rather than blaming secular culture or the church, our two favorite scapegoats, Zahl rightly locates the seeds of destructive self-righteousness within our own fretful hearts. We’re contaminated from within.
This is, essentially, the good news of replacement religions, which I see as a kind of triumphant disaster. Our failed attempts to find enoughness, rightness, and self-justification—both inside and outside the church—encourage the hope that some, in their exhaustion, will seek an entirely different kind of rightness, the kind rooted in what Jesus has already accomplished on our behalf.
The final clause in the book’s subtitle (“And What to Do About It”) promises a solution to seculosity. It’s a trick, of course, and Zahl admits it. Do we really want to address our culture’s performancism with yet another rigorous plan of action? Zahl offers something else: fresh glimpses of what it means to be declared righteous and enough by God’s work rather than ours. And lest we forget what grace means, he reminds us that “a religion of grace begins with failure.” A truly grace-filled church, Zahl argues, would focus more on motivation than behavior, operating somewhat like an AA meeting—an assemblage of people who gather humbly and preface everything with, “Hi, my name is Leslie, and I’m a sinner.”
I finished Seculosity not as a reviewer but as a penitent. The book is wise, moving, and often quite funny. Zahl has given us a tonic, smartly and affectionately revealing both the vacuity of our own pursuits and the brilliance and power of the gospel to satisfy our greatest strivings.
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt, and the Seas (NavPress). She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska.
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