Philosopher Charles Taylor has spent a lifetime of careful study unpacking the meaning and development of secularism. One of the things he demonstrates in A Secular Age (2007) is that one of the most common assumptions about modern secularism is, in fact, so completely erroneous as to constitute a myth. Yet, it continues to be believed, and has assumed such mythic value that to question it can elicit surprise if not shock.
The assumption involved is what Taylor refers to as “subtraction stories.” The idea is that previous generations, as they became more enlightened and educated, shed unfashionable and increasingly untenable beliefs about demons, miracles, virgin births and other propositions that science had revealed to be dubious. This process of subtracting traditional and unproven beliefs allowed people to get back to a view of reality that was simply natural and obvious—and entirely secular. Taylor says that’s not the way it happened.
James K. A. Smith, in How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (2014), defines it this way:
Subtraction stories Accounts that explain “the secular” as merely the subtraction of religious belief, as if the secular is what’s left over after we subtract superstition. In contrast, Taylor emphasizes that the secular is produced, not just distilled (p. 143)
Near the beginning of A Secular Age, Taylor puts the issue this way:
I will be making a continuing polemic against what I call “subtraction stories”. Concisely put, I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process—modernity or secularity—is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. (p. 22)
The significance of this is considerable.
The myth involved in subtraction stories suggests that secularity is the more primordial view of things, what human beings would tend to believe if they were allowed to come to their beliefs without outside interference from parents and preachers. As Taylor demonstrates, this can be shown to be untrue in a careful reading of the history of ideas. So, the ideas and assumptions that led to modern secularism can be examined, must be examined, and must not be assumed to be more natural or obvious than religious beliefs.
Another implication of this involves having confidence that the simple call to faithfulness for Christians—opening our lives and homes in warm welcome, giving the gift of unhurried time, sharing simple meals and conversation, listening and asking questions, probing into what our neighbors believe and why, providing safe places for people to be honest—remains radically countercultural even in our secular world. Christian faith is not contrary to humanness. The advent of advanced modernity does not mean only philosophers can bear witness to the vibrancy and relevance of the gospel.
Every believer will not need to work through the 850 pages of dense argument presented in A Secular Age. Only a few of us need to do that. I would, however, encourage Christians to work through the 143 pages of How (Not) to be Secular, because the ideas presented here, though seemingly abstract, actually touch on what it means to live in the secular world of advanced modernity.
Child of God (1973) is Cormac McCarthy’s most disturbing book, and the film is hard to watch. The story is of Lester Ballard (played with an uninhibited intensity by Scott Haze) who, deeply traumatized, marginalized and disturbed descends into increasingly violent depravity. We first meet Lester when an auctioneer, accompanied by a band and pickups full of eager buyers and on-lookers pull up into his family’s farm that has been repossessed by the county and now is to be sold off. “To watch these things issuing from the otherwise mute pastoral morning is a man at the barn door,” McCarthy writes. “He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps” (p. 4).
James Franco, who directed the film, co-wrote the screenplay and plays a minor role, makes certain we hear that description of Lester. That is good because it is the essence of what McCarthy is trying to say to a culture that wants so badly to be hopeful about the promise of future technological, economic and educational advances and finds that to maintain that hope it needs to explain away the evil and brutality that maddeningly will not disappear quietly into the past of human history.
I can’t simply recommend this film, since it is far too raw and brutal for that, a story of murder, rape and necrophilia that like the novel is determined that we face human depravity in all its horror. Some will want to watch this film, and for the rest there are good reasons to decline. Though the film is unfortunately choppy (due to the editing), it contains some very strong performances—by Scott Haze as Lester Ballard and Tim Blake Nelson as the sheriff—that may garner attention if not awards. The landscapes, sets, and cinematography are also remarkable, so that the rough rural woods, small towns and hollows of East Tennessee seem to take on a darkly foreboding cast. As usually occurs when novels and made into films, a key scene in the book is skipped in the movie, a flood that becomes a metaphor for divine judgment.
Watch the film with care. It speaks truth, though the truth it depicts is neither pleasant nor easy. I hope Child of God prompts my non-Christian neighbors will think deeply about the human dilemma and about how the stubborn existence of evil in human affairs and hearts will not be solved by reorganizing society, expanding opportunity, and providing treatment. A far more radical solution is needed. And I hope my Christian neighbors will join me in reassessing how easily we reduce evil to embarrassing sins rather than owning it as the deadly power that seeks, every moment, to devour our souls and fill us with darkness.
The fourth reason detective mysteries are appealing as stories is related to the foundational truth that human existence is meaningless apart from community. We do not thrive nor are we fully content as solitary creatures, because as the Creator said in the beginning, it is not good to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Extended solitary confinement can drive a person mad, and even hermits usually build their cells near one another.
And because we are finite and fallen creatures, as soon as community is established a system of some sort is necessary if justice is to be maintained. It may be a simple system that grows up informally, but something systematic is required if the community is not to descend into some sort of libertarian anarchy. This is the wisdom in Jesus’ instructions to his followers about how to proceed if someone sins against us (Matthew 18:15-20) and when churches fail to take his words seriously the result is rarely admirable.
And because we live in a broken world, corruption can penetrate our systems, within the church or without, and when it does all of life is disrupted and perverted. Sadly, corruption is a constant threat, from cities where the police accept bribes to look the other way to the incestuous relationship between Washington and Wall Street. Corruption undercuts the pursuit of justice, skewers the hope of victims, and allows the powerful to gain at the expense of the powerless.
Detective stories bring this complex interrelationship of community, system, justice, and corruption into focus so that as we read life seems to be clarified. We love detectives who are incorruptible, and see them as heroic. We wonder about the detective who takes shortcuts for the greater good, and cheer if their breaking the rules results in the criminal being apprehended. And we feel a weight when the story is of corruption all through the system, so that justice is always thwarted and the forces of law instead make a bargain with the forces of crime to keep the evil within “acceptable” limits. This is why debates about a nation’s judicial system become so heated—even if we are not dragged into the justice system personally it matters to us that the system in our community is not corrupted.
And so detective stories are appealing because they allow us to live in a fictional world where these realities are explored, for blessing and for curse. We follow the cases of incorruptible detectives and feel hopeful, or the cases of corrupt detectives and wish they would be caught and exposed. Human community, systems of law and order, and the diabolical threat of corruption are constantly with us, and both justice and hope lie in the balance.
Lord Peter & Father Brown
If you have not read Dorothy Sayers’s (1893-1957) Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries or G. K. Chesterton’s (1874-1936) Father Brown mysteries, please do so. I think it is correct to say that these two Christian authors not only wrote ripping good stories, they revealed how glorious the detective genre could be.
Lord Peter is a stereotypical British aristocrat, with a trusty butler, and time on his hands because his money, which is considerable, was inherited. So he solves mysteries, and because of his moral commitments and lack of need, is incorruptible in his pursuit of justice. An interesting detail for Christians is that though Lord Peter is not a believer, another character in the stories is, and the interplay between the two is fascinating.
Father Brown is a Catholic priest, and is a good detective because he cares only for truth and has spent so many hours hearing confession that he has no illusions about human nature. He can see past and through deception and lies, and notices ordinary details that more distracted people all miss. When he confronts the criminal at the end of the story it is not with the standard, “You are under arrest,” but with “I am ready to hear your confession.”
Both Sayers and Chesterton clearly saw how detective stories fit into the deeper biblical story of reality, and though neither series are religious in the sense of being preachy, both take law, guilt, justice, mercy and forgiveness with the seriousness they deserve. The fact that neither detective is corruptible makes the stories all the more satisfying. I’d like both Lord Peter and Father Brown to be at work in my community.
Father Brown (51 short stories published in various editions).
Lord Peter (11 novels plus 6 short story collections published in various editions).
The Danish national police force includes the P.E.T (Politiets Efterretningstjeneste) division, whose job is similar to that of the U.S. Secret Service, providing protection to politicians, public figures, royalty, and visiting diplomats. The series follows a group of new recruits to the service, so we get a glimpse of the more mundane as well as the exciting parts of the job. The individuals on the squad have personal lives and concerns, and how these interact with their demanding and dangerous work is a subtext woven into the plot.
In one sense The Protectors is not a detective series, yet fulfilling the tasks assigned to them usually involves needing to anticipate dangers and unravel threats to the persons they must keep safe. Their work carries them to the edge between criminal violence and social justice, and hidden clues and mysterious criminals always lurk. And they are tasked with preventing terrorist attacks, tracking dangerous persons, and finding stalkers.
One of the delights of The Protectors is the insight it allows into Danish life and society. Filmed in Copenhagen, each episode provides lovely vistas of Danish countryside or the scenic streets, architecture, interiors, and neighborhoods of Copenhagen. Following the members of the squad also allows insight into Danish culture, mores, and daily life.
I enjoyed this series, appreciated the character development as the episodes progressed through each season, and came to understand how even working as a bodyguard can demand choices that are rife with ethical concerns, and sometimes moral confusion. The Protectors are often misunderstood, criticized when things go badly by powerful figures in politics and the media, and ignored when everything goes well. Yet the squad remains committed to its work, and does its best even when needing to protect unsavory characters. In a fallen world, police like the P.E.T. will always be necessary, and one can only hope that they act with the integrity the officers in The Protectors sought to nurture and display.
The Protectors (2 seasons, 10 episodes each, 1 hour each episode, Danish with subtitles, available on DVD or streaming)
The Protectors is set in Denmark and follows a squad of limited officers who desire to live with integrity, while Spiral takes us to France where nearly everyone depicted in the series seems willing, if not eager, to be corrupted to get ahead. Spiral is delightful for the opportunity it provides to see into French life, society and culture and the lovely setting of Paris. The corruption comes not because they are French, but because they are fallen, and to mark the contrast, one figure in the series seeks justice even at personal cost.
The French system of justice is quite different from what I am used to, with magistrates empowered to investigate crimes and determine whether the persons involved should be brought to trial. The series follows one such magistrate and the police working under his direction depicting how he must weave his way through a labyrinth of political vested interests and legal corruption. Two young attorneys, trying to get their careers launched in a crowded and competitive field, discover the temptation to bend the law is not merely present but is usually far more lucrative than just doing the job of a lawyer.
The depiction of corruption is never glorified, and though characters may claim things are relative, the stories reveal that is not the case. Choices have consequences, justice perverted is never victimless, and the individual who chooses corruption may gain wealth and even prestige but loses their soul.
Each series of episodes tends to follow one major crime, as it is investigated and brought to justice, with subplots of other smaller cases woven into the plots. Over time we watch as temptation, disappointment, and choices make a difference, setting up ripples that work their way out to poison the system upon which the community depends. This is a rather dark and gritty series, one that shows not just the horror of crime, but the tragedy that is corruption.
Spiral (5 seasons, 8-12 episodes each, 1 hour each episode, on DVD and some streaming, French with subtitles)
A production of BBC Two, Peaky Blinders tells the story of a family gang that ruled the streets of Birmingham, England in 1919. World War I has just ended, conditions for working men in Birmingham are grim, Communist agitators are seeking to organize resistance, industrial pollution is unrestricted, and despair and alcoholism are rampant. The Peaky Blinders, a family of gangsters are named for their caps, into the peaks of which they have sewed straight razors, so in a street fight they can be slashed across an opponent’s eyes. The neighborhoods that the gang rules are bereft of law, the police either bought off or too afraid to get involved. Then the brutal but effective Chief Inspector Chester Campbell (played by Sam Neill), is brought in from Belfast by Winston Churchill to clean up the mess, and he soon comes up against the head of the Peaky Blinders, the clever and ambitious gangster Tommy Shelby (played by Cillian Murphy).
In this series we go one step further and watch what life is like when corruption has perverted the system, so that the street gang and the police are more alike than not. Both take life when it suits them (though for different reasons), make compromises to get ahead, and try to find a way to further their own ends even if integrity is lost in the process.
In some neighborhoods today residents fear a squad of police arriving on their street even more than they do the gangs that rule the street when the police are absent. Peaky Blinders gives some hint of what that must be like, and it is not as it should be. Chief Inspector Campbell is on the side of law and order, yet is willing to brutalize, torture, invade homes, and make the sight of a constable a reason for the law abiding citizen to fear.
The trajectory from Lord Peter and Father Brown to The Protectors to Spiral to Peaky Blinders follows stories of increasing corruption. None of these productions glorify crime and corruption but force us to face the reality of the tragedy of living in a darkly fallen world. They reveal how badly we yearn for a system within our communities that seeks justice with integrity, which in turn reveals why we mean it when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The Peaky Blinders (2 seasons, 6 episodes each, 1 hour each episode available exclusively on Netflix and DVD)
One of the most important books to be published in these opening years of the 21st century in philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. It is the story of a cultural journey, tracing the steps involved in moving from a world in which belief was considered normative to the world in which we live today where that is no longer the case. The downside is that the book consists of 776 pages of densely argued prose. So we can be glad for James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular, weighing in at 139 pages, that admirably extracts and summarizes the heart of Taylor’s arguments and conclusions.
One fascinating point that Taylor makes is that the movement to secularism in society has an intense effect on how believers believe. Even if we are careful to remain orthodox in our religious convictions and practice, living in an age of unbelief means that our relationship to our faith will be markedly different from that of believers who lived, say, in Europe in 1500.
One way things is different, Taylor argues, is in what he terms the fragilization of belief. Smith defines it this way in his helpful Glossary:
Fragilization In the face of different options, where people who lead “normal” lives do not share my faith (and perhaps believe something very different), my own faith commitment becomes fragile—put into question, dubitable. (p. 141)
Taylor discusses the phenomenon in various places in A Secular Age, and in one place describes it this way by saying we need to imagine what things were like 500 years ago:
At that time, non-belief in God was close to unthinkable for the vast majority; whereas today this is not at all the case. One might be tempted to say that in certain milieux, the reverse has become true, that belief is unthinkable. But this exaggeration already shows up the lack of symmetry. It is truer to say that in our world, a whole gamut of positions, from the most militant atheism to the most orthodox traditional theisms, passing through every possible position on the way, are represented and defended somewhere in our society. Something like the unthinkability of some of these positions can be experienced in certain milieux, but what is ruled out will vary from context to context. An atheist in the Bible belt has trouble being understood, as often (in a rather different way) do believing Christians in certain reaches of the academy. But, of course, people in each of these contexts are aware that the others exist, and that the option they can't really credit is the default option elsewhere in the same society whether they regard this with hostility or just perplexity. The existence of an alternative fragilizes each context, that is, makes its sense of the thinkable/unthinkable uncertain and wavering.
This fragilization is then increased by the fact that great numbers of people are not firmly embedded in any such context, but are puzzled, cross-pressured, or have constituted by bricolage a sort of median position. The existence of these people raises sometimes even more acute doubts within the more assured milieux. The polar opposites can be written off as just mad or bad, as we see with the present American culture wars between “liberals” and “fundamentalists”; but the intermediate positions can sometimes not be so easily dismissed. (p. 556-557)
The irony of all this, of course, is that Taylor may be correct in this—I am convinced he is—while we remain more or less unaware of the situation. We weren’t around 500 years ago, have grown up in our secular age, and so whatever it consists of is simply part of our normal. As I have read Taylor, on the other hand, my experience has been less learning something utterly alien so much as seeing what’s been in front of me all along but that I haven’t been able to name.
And so my question to you—Does fragilization strike you as correctly identifying some of the reality of life and faith we experience today? Where do you see or experience it? I invite your comments.
- Denis Haack
- Good conversation and a leisurely meal, shared over fine dark ale, is a precious gift. We can't sit and talk in our living room at Toad Hall, so this will have to do. I am a generalist, interested in almost everything, and my posts reflect that. I cherish your comments, for or against.
- A Glass Darkly
- Asking questions
- Avett Brothers
- Ballpoint pens
- BB King
- Bob Lefsetz
- Body of Lies
- Book review
- Center for Public Justice
- Charles Taylor
- Christian faith
- Christina Rossetti
- Colbert Report
- Covenant Theological Seminary
- Creation care
- Credit cards
- Eugene Peterson
- Farmer's Market
- Film review
- Financial crisis
- Foreign policy
- Francis Schaeffer
- Frederick Douglass
- J. I. Packer
- John Newton
- John Stott
- Katie Bowser
- Kenny Hutson
- Luci Shaw
- Makoto Fujimura
- Margie Haack
- Michael Pollan
- Middle East
- Millennial generation
- New earth
- North Korea
- Over the Rhine
- Plymouth Brethren
- Popular culture
- Ransom Fellowship
- Religious freedom
- Ridley Scott
- Spiritual reality
- St Augustine
- Stanley Fish
- Sweet corn
- T Bone Burnett
- The Aviatrix
- The Fray
- The Onion
- The Shack
- Tim Keller
- Toddy Burton
- Urban life
- Walker Percy
- Wall Street
- Wendell Berry
- Woody Allen