SECULOSITY: HOW CAREER, PARENTING, TECHNOLOGY, FOOD, ETC. BECAME OUR NEW RELIGION AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
David Zahl is the author of a terrific, Seculosity, new book with the provocative neologism of “seculosity.”
Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries. He also serves on the staff of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The following interview was conducted by David George Moore. Some of Dave’s videos can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.
Moore: I think Jesus Creed readers would be interested in hearing more about Mockingbird Ministries, so why don’t you tell us a bit about it?
Zahl: Sure, Mockingbird started about 12 years ago in New York City as an initiative to reach young people who’d been “burned by the church.” Over the years it’s morphed into something larger, essentially a media platform for connecting the grace of God with various aspects of everyday life. Which means that in addition to our website (www.mbird.com), we host conferences and podcasts, publish books, and so on. It’s been quite an adventure and continues to be a lot of fun. The name refers to the bird’s gift for repeating the song it’s heard, which we hope to do, albeit in fresh and creative ways rather than irritating ones.
Moore: What does this new-fangled word “seculosity” mean?
Zahl: Seculosity refers to religious devotion or energy directed at earthly rather than heavenly targets. It’s shorthand for the way that everyday activities like parenting or voting or dating or eating start to function religiously, as arbiters not only of community or meaning but enoughness and even salvation. I wanted a word that didn’t ascribe ‘belief’ per se yet captured the often oppressive piety at work in ostensibly “secular” environments. I also wanted a vocabulary other than that of idolatry, since most of what I talk about in the book has to do with self-justification rather than ‘worship.’
Moore: You thoughtfully address the ubiquity of social media. Would you describe how social media reflects seculosity?
Zahl: Probably the most compelling aspect of social media has to do with the ease with which it allows us to form and maintain identity. We get to assert to the world who we’d like to be, or who we think we should be. I’m not sure we’ve ever had such an effective tool, in religious terms, to establish one’s righteousness or justify one’s existence, according to whatever standard we deem important. Christians have always talked about the difference between who we are on Sunday and who we are the rest of the week, and how keeping up appearances distances you from both God and your neighbor, to say nothing of yourself. Today everyone deals with that dynamic, times 1000, no matter what they check on the census form. But you could even go further. Social media is so intoxicating because it allows us to chase after our ‘enoughness’ (approval, etc) while distracting us from that which we would rather not feel, usually some sense of not-enoughness, or what we religious folks might call, the condemnation of the law. If Paul were writing to the Galatians today, I have no doubt he’d point to the dynamics that make social media such an anxious arena.
Moore: Baylor professor, Alan Jacobs, believes it would be wise if ministers regularly warned their congregations about the perils of technology such as smart phones and the Internet? Do you share his conviction, and if so, what should ministers say to their congregations?
Zahl: I love Jacob’s How to Think and heartily co-sign that book’s reservations about social media, especially how it allows us to vilify those with whom we disagree—and that applies to how Christians view those outside the church just as much as the other way around. Of course, social media can be a tremendously helpful avenue for publicizing events and staying in touch with friends. I hear all the time from people who’ve discovered Mockingbird through social media and as a result, feel that their faith in God has been renewed. Clearly technology is no longer an escape from ‘real life’ but an increasingly large part of it. That said, I worry about the overwhelming, always-on pace of life afforded by smart technology, the way it frays our attention and allows us to reduce other people to demographics. The church is becoming one of the only places where we gather—physically!–with those we don’t already know, and with whom we may not share any affinity. It’s a place, ideally at least, where we are bonded together by our shared need for God, rather than any shared attribute or strength. That’s a fairly radical proposition and will only become more so. I don’t think we’ve even begun to appreciate the spiritual and mental health cost of the Internet—pastors would be wise to broach that discussion with all in their care.
Moore: You have a terrific sense of humor that is on display throughout this book. How can humor persuade folks to see things they might otherwise miss?
Zahl: Ha! I’m flattered—and will tell my kids you said so. But I do think humor is super important when it comes to communication. Not forced jokiness that attracts attention to itself, but the kind of laughter that flows from a punctured self-importance (which sounds kind of self-important to say, but hopefully you know what I mean). Humor commiserates with others whose foibles are equally pronounced and relieves the pressure of life. I know that I personally gravitate to writers and speakers and preachers who can laugh at themselves—partly because humor lowers defenses and allows a person to feel that they’re not alone. Furthermore, I think laughter, to the extent that it’s involuntary and bypasses our pretensions, can return us to truth.
Moore: I found your chapter on politics one of the most helpful. You well know that we are living in a divisive political climate that tragically even separates Christians. I know major Christian leaders who can’t speak to one another because of their differences over Trump. What can be done to improve this pathetic situation the church finds itself in?
Zahl: Gosh, that’s a tough one. First thing I’d say would be to tell folks to read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which I paraphrase in that chapter. It won’t solve things full stop, but it will give you some understanding and patience for those on the opposite of whatever divide you’re on, beyond the usual “they’re either crazy or evil” line. There are competing visions of righteousness at play and people are guided by instinct more than reason, ourselves included. Such a renewed focus on motivation would not only resonate with the Sermon on the Mount (and Christ’s emphasis on intention), it would unlock compassion. Secondly, I’d say that it’s important for us all to admit that anger and indignation feels good, to acknowledge that to be a sinner living among other sinners means that we have to hold even our fondest certainties with suspicion. That doesn’t mean we don’t harbor strong convictions and work for the good, the true, and the beautiful, just that all of us are, in one sense, on the wrong side of the divide between good and evil. For its own part, I think the church would benefit from talking just as much about death (which puts politics in perspective and puts us all in the same boat) as it does about life (which usually doesn’t).
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers will take from your book?
Zahl: First and foremost, I hope the book makes a decent case for the grace of God as it relates to the stresses and demands of everyday life, under which we are all, to some extent, suffering. I hope it points to something that’s of genuine comfort, which is always how I’ve experienced capital-R Religion. But other than that, I hope readers feel recognized in its pages—feeling “understood” is pretty darn close to feeling “loved”—but recognized with sympathy rather than (more) accusation.
As I try to make clear throughout, I’m exploring these targets of seculosity from within, as a co-religionist rather than someone outside or above.
I suppose I also hope that the book reconfigures in a helpful way our anxiety about the diminishing relevance and plausibility of Christianity in the context of rising numbers of nones, etc. We don’t have to find these trends so threatening (or foreign). Put another way, religion is not as ‘weird’ as I think Christians sometimes fear it is. Who knows, maybe the book will serve as something of a bridge, drawing religious and non-religious people closer together by showing how they are working with similar impulses, and are subject to similar emotional and behavioral patterns.