We announced this a month ago, glad to be able to give an early shout out about David’s forthcoming book. Now it is here, and I’ve been itching to write about it. More, I’ve been itching to read it. Some circles of the internets have been been happily ablaze with discussions of it. Our friends over at Englewood Review of Books have offered a free chapter. Patheos has pushed it. I’ve seen the cool-looking, hot red cover on Twitter every day for two weeks.
And this is as it should be. I’m glad that reviewers and critics and marketers have determined that this is an important book. David Dark is a national treasure, a witty and wise Christian voice — a humane human voice — and it’s good to know this brand new one has been so eagerly anticipated. As Jessica Hopper (of the very important indie music magazine Pitchfork and author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic) says, “David Dark is one of our most astute and necessary cultural critics. His work gracefully opens new doors of understanding and breaks down barriers between secular and non-…”
This book is so rich and interesting and fun and important and wonderfully written — its been called a “bracing manifesto” and an “optimism-infused love song” and an “irresistible triumph” — that it deserves more of a serious review than I can render here, now. It’s been a hard month, a hard week, and I’m nearly flabbergasted (I’d say gobsmacked but I’m not sure what it means) by how great this book is and how it has brought joy to me these last few days. I’ve read paragraphs and whole pages out loud to Beth (and anybody else in earshot.) There are great lines, great stories, great revelations. Apocalypse now, indeed.
In Life’s Too Short to Pretend David reflects on a central thesis of his, namely, that religion, complicated as it is, is essentially the stories we tell about ourselves and in which we find ourselves — he doesn’t exactly use the word worldview — and these come from what he calls (in an extraordinary, delightfully honest chapter) “attention collection.” (Do we see what we’ve seen, he asks, inspired by conversations with song-writers and poets and art critics.) If this is true — we are all up to something, making meaning and finding happiness and perhaps forging goodness in the world — and that happens as we accumulate influences, then our story is not just our big creeds or claims, but the things that matter to us and how our daily life is directed by them. For David, as for many of his most zealous readers, this includes TV shows and billboards, movies and novels and lots of rock and roll, righteous cultural critics low and mid and high-brow. And, yes, church, too. Dark was raised in a pretty fundamentalist family, and his negotiating with that tradition passed on, those stories, those values, those ways of life, are part of what he tells us about.
And, man, it’s beautiful stuff. His own religious journey has been fascinating. David generously describes a hilarious episode of wolfing down Saltines and Welch-aid in a Kroeger’s parking lot (you can imagine why) and being scolded by a pious grandmother for making promises like “see you later” without qualifying it with “Lord willing” and some incredibly dear tellings of his love for the Bible (“as long as everybody gets to talk, I’ve never been to a Bible study I didn’t like.”) Whether this is your weird story or not — he’s convinced most of us have some weird stories — you will enjoy, perhaps be deeply blessed as I have been, by reading about an evolving faith development without shame or bitterness or anxiety. This stuff is splendid, and it is Dark more joyous and (dare I say it) upbeat than ever before.
He admits to being zealously earnest in concerns about public justice and restored, right relations, the common good, the beloved community, etc. He uses the word righteous in, well, a righteous way. He says once that he can be sanctimonious — I loved this; perhaps it takes one to know one.The second book that he wrote was called The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea and was laden with heavy, righteous insight, and I still commend it, even if it was a bit more Flannery O’Connor and Daniel Berrigan than Steven Colbert. I was honored to offer a blurb upon his last book (right next to Eugene Peterson!) which was called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. Again, I heartily recommend it, although it is intense. Weighty, even. Dark has always written in an energetic style, creative, flowing, fascinating, blending generative ideas with colorful, at times even poetic writing. But as pleasant of a fellow that many of us know David to be, these books were serious business; dense. I was delighted to realize how much I enjoyed — truly, truly enjoyed — Life’s Too Short. His whimsy and wit and generosity is clear as he bears witness to a life of practicing wonder, kindness, curiosity. The content is exceptionally smart, but not tedious. Brian McLaren notes that the writing is “muscular and graceful.” Yep.
If we were seriously invited to “question everything” in his earlier work, here we are invited to take it all in, to appreciate much, to care enough to share who we are and what we hold most dearly. From a remarkably generous appreciation for those who shared mix tapes to his fondness for certain comic book characters, he invites us to wonder why we love this stuff
Or, as he puts it often, “what we are up to.”
What are you up to? What, as some of the cool kids used to say, are you “into”? Are there stories you’ve collected, episodes from life that make you who you are? What do you most deeply love? Want to talk about it? Life is too short, after all, not to be real, to be alive. Wake up.And so, this love letter to the hip and sophisticated who may be postmodern versions of what 19th century Schleiermacher called “cultured despisers” of religion. You know in this age of toxic fundamentalisms — radical Islamicists, religiously-motivated abortion clinic bombers, evangelical parents that disown their own gay teenage children, faith-based science deniers — there is much to worry about religion gone awry. But Dark invites us to get beyond the corrupt and caustic and cynical and discover life-giving and healthy ways to talk about the deepest things that matter most to us all
The book started out, I’ve learned, as a caring letter to a beloved relative, to whom the book is dedicated. I suppose it could be a missive to any who these days call themselves “spiritual but not religious” or the now-ubiquitous “nones.” He’s not buying it: nobody believes nothing. But how to talk about religion among those who hate the word?
Well, charming and pleasant and witty as Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious is, it is also a serious critique of alleged religious neutrality. Everybody lives in light of ultimate concerns, shaped by stories and myths and what some might call presuppositions (although Dark does not.) Our hearts are touched by those who love us, by those who repel us, by fragments from SNL or great novels or favorite rock albums or sociology classes or wonderment experienced in the great outdoors or in loving friendships — you know. Our beloved influences are everywhere — it’s an everyday apocalypse out there, remember — and humans are wont to make meaning, to have enthusiasms, to love stuff. “Ya gotta serve somebody” Dylan growled, and although David isn’t spitting out the words the way Slow Train Coming did, he’s adamant.
Nathan Schneider, author of Thank You Anarchy, offers a perfect one-line endorsement (and warning):
Prepare to have idols smashed. David Dark renders futile the cherished modern ambition to opt out of human religiosity.
But, again, even as Dark methodically, gently, disarms our allergies to religion, even the increasingly popular disapproval of the word itself, he isn’t doing apologetics in any conventional sense — defeating bad ideas or defending the truth. He’s telling his story — and as a memoirist, he’s shining — and inviting us to think about what matters to us. He invites us into relationship.
Let me be clear: Dark is an open-minded Presbyterian who draws a bit on theology but just as much about his intuitions and passions and wisdom gleaned from here and there. He’s a serious reader, and his footnotes are spectacularly interesting; I applaud IVP for offering such a literary and learned book, drawing on sources not often found in books released by evangelical publishers, from David Byrne to Daniel Berrigan, from Kierkegaard to Vincent Harding, from Marilynne Robinson to Philip K. Dick, from Ursula LeGuin to Wendell Berry, from Neil Gaiman to Kurt Vonnegut.(And, hooray, there’s a footnote naming our friends Rob and Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma — their new journal is called Topography, by the way — whose ministry name, “culture is not optional”, is actually a line from Calvin Seerveld’s Rainbows for the Fallen World.)What a wide and diverse and interesting set of accumulated affections Mr. David Dark has on display here. Signs for all of us, bearing witness to his interesting, good life.
This winsome and fascinating book isn’t all just “let’s tell our stories” and agree we are all secretly interested in God. Can’t we just all get along? He’s too astute and aware for that. Sure he’d “like to teach the world to sing” I suppose, but I suspect it might be more like that last scene from Mad Men, appropriating and deconstructing and re-appropriating goodness here and there, aligned with some agenda. He’s not a cynic, but he’s not a pushover either. One of his kids is named after Dorothy Day, for God’s sake. There is bite and seriousness here; this is a call to wake up to the fact that we’ve been informed (“catechized”) for better or worse. In talking with students, trying to get them in touch with their deepest ways of ordering the world, their below-the-skin worldview, he talks about weird religions. “I bet many of you were raised capitalist.”
In one chapter he reflects wisely on the role of anxiety in our quest for meaning. Another chapter is called “Policy is liturgy writ large” and although he doesn’t quote Jamie Smith or Walter Brueggemann, he might have.He invites us to “genuine consciousness vs trivializing shallowness.” (“How might we access wisdom, compassion, hospitality and other forms of life for which there is no app?”) How? Here’s one clue: he says “poets are the most specific people on earth.” He takes us to Kurt Vonnegut’s curious understanding of anti-war Jesuit Daniel Berrigan as “Jesus as a Poet.”
This is all pretty darn interesting, let me tell you. Radical stuff. Stimulating and and at times stunningly eloquent.
And then he ends, almost, with a tender story of his son saying he didn’t want to receive communion one Sunday. It goes from funny to complicated to heartbreaking in a matter of a paragraph and I once again realize how amazing this book it, what a gift it is. David has opened his heart and his life and his very wide mind to help us all put our bodies on the line.
What are you into?
What do you really desire?
What story do you tell to yourself about yourself when you’re asked to tell others who you are?
What might the artists or writers or poets or Bible characters you most esteem think of you?
Might you want to live — do you have a deep craving for? — life lived in hope of some order, some sense of coherence?Could it be that religion matters, after all?
Give Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious to anybody who might be open to talking about the deepest matters of a good life, especially if they enjoy pop culture or important literature. And read it yourself, for your own sake — you will be blessed by David’s invitation to be intentional about what stories inform and shape us; this is a book from which you will find it enriching and valuable. And, also, read it so that you might be more caring and present with and to others — that you might emulate his own deepening practices of caring, connecting, sharing. I cannot imagine any educated reader who wouldn’t benefit from spending time with Dark — any of his good books, certainly, but especially this, his best yet.
Yes, this a love letter to those who don’t like religion, but it also is a witness to how to approach what Charles Taylor calls “the secular age.” If you recall the last section of James K.A. Smith’s overview of Taylor’s heady and hefty tome, How (Not) To Be Secular, Smith calls (as does Taylor) for a new way to do apologetics, a culturally-engaged, more artful way to think about faith conversations, pre-evangelism and evangelization, about bearing witness to God’s redemptive work here within God’s good but torn creation. Without saying so, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious is just this kind of project. It is one of the very important new books of this new era. It doesn’t do everything, but for what it is, it is nearly pitch-perfect, delightful, challenging, edifying, inviting.