Rarely does the term “religious” come with positive connotations; it sits as a red “R” upon the soul’s clothing. For the continually discussed “nones”, the term can evoke violent intolerance, stale rituals, and the construction of opulent cathedrals while the poor cry out. Within Christian circles, Jesus is often pitted against religion. Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “religionless Christianity”, floats about like a ghostly cliché. The idea of a living, breathing, blood-flowing through it sort of faith is opposed to stagnant, cold institutional forms of religious life—a relationship with God is diametrically opposed to religion. In the public square, “religious” is a label that allows for the conversation to end.
David Dark’s Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious hopes to resuscitate the term religion. According to Dark, a professor of Theology at Belmont University, religion is
the farthest-reaching readily available concept for looking hard and honestly at our own lives, for really leveling with ourselves and for abandoning our dysfunctional ideas for better ones, truer, livelier, more sustainable ways of negotiating our existence. Life’s too short to pretend we’re not religious.
Instead of being code for less desirable forms of human spirituality or broken institutions, religion is the “controlling story” which guides your patterns of action, forms your heart, expresses itself through how you spend your time, attention, and life. Dark states,
We’re never not speaking and acting upon our religion. We’re never not involved in everyday worship. We’re always in the thick of it, this living fact of what our human hands have wrought under the dictation of what’s actually going on in our human hearts and minds. Our real sense of what’s really sacred is regularly on display.
Everybody “religions” whether they choose to or not; you are never not bearing witness to your controlling story. The activity of religion is part of being human, and every activity is part of the daily worship service that reveals your true religion. Your receipts, your words, your daily activities and embodied life, are the window into what you truly believe.
As Dark understands it, honesty about life’s religious core frees us to see the interconnectedness and beauty of every other human. Recapturing humanity’s irreducibly religious nature is a way to recognize the complexity of those around us and defuse habits of easy dismissal and thoughtless division. Good religion provides a sacred and comprehensive vision, it can draw individuals and communities into a life of “meaning, coherence, and a loving future.” Dark’s vision reveals a grace-saturated world, his faith-formed eye floats, flies, it doubles back upon itself, questions itself, it attentively looks and with a good measure of grace, and it looks again. Recognizing the religiosity of everything leads to a sacred pause, an extra level of nuance, a long look for the beauty of someone or something. There is the danger of accumulating nothing but buzzwords here, but there is also the possibility of a simple hope, for ultimately, Dark hopes religion can provide a way to stitch back together what should have never been separated in the first place—ourselves and others. As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says: “God is in the connections we cannot make.” God is the needle and thread pulling the ragged mass of humanity together.
Bookended by two very different experiences of the Lord’s Supper, this sacramental practice is central to Dark’s communal vision for religion. One humorous—as a teenager, Dark consumed grape juice and crackers in a Kroger in a fit of guilt— one parental—his son preferred a Dr. Pepper to communion, and Dark discusses hoping for his son to be grateful for the gift of God and community. There is a pilgrimage here, one from liturgy as a way of dealing with his personal feelings to a sign of the falsity of our culture’s solipsistic auto-pilot, an expression and an invitation into life-giving forms of relationship. This book is about communion, as life’s too short to pretend you’re not in communion with one another. The liturgical pattern of how we commune with others can be beautiful and true and full of healing, but this is never easy.Genre-wise, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious engages in a form of apologetics. Not in the John MacArthur Evidence that Demands a Verdict sort of way, but more a mixture of memoir and pop-culture criticism. As an apologetic, it doesn’t argue so much as it draws you in through the quality of its voice and vision. He isn’t defending Christianity, but hospitably invites readers to see and relate to the world in a certain way. Some theologians have argued the saints, holy lives, are the truest form of apologetics available to Christianity. Dark’s work is an exercise in holy vision, displaying what Christ and faith means for how to see the world and others. And while I’m not necessarily the primary audience of this book—I often feel more at home in the “religious but not spiritual” camp—without a doubt, Dark’s form of apologetics is what American Christianity could use more of.
Some readers will want more from Dark, possibly spying a certain mushy creedlessness in his reflections and apologetics; longing that the book might be a little less Christ-haunted, a little more explicit in regarding what faithful religion and relating looks like. For example, from one page to the next, Dark makes such statements as this:
When we’re enmeshed in bad religion, we have a way of denying the fact of our own bodies and degrading and destroying the bodies of others. Oversimplication kills. It always has. Good religion cherishes bodies, and it is evident in any practice that restores, reinforces, reconsiders and redeems the human form…
This is well said, yet it is rare to meet someone who is explicitly against attentive hospitality, nuance, love, and healing forms of community. Only when you get into the material conditions of life, the specifics, can you get a true sense of what individuals and communities mean by those words. Asserting the goodness of the good is good, but at a certain point, we need to start talking about the specifics. But asking for more on this is maybe a little unfair, because Dark is using his own particularities as the place to begin a conversation about these topics.
Dark spends two chapters on his “attention collection” and the idea of “choosing your ancestors.” The “attention collection” is what makes up one’s cultural catechesis, the experiences, songs, books, communities that you love. These transformative and formative loves are meant to be shared, and amidst the hypnotic drive to consume and dispose, deep and faithful attentiveness is a communal discipline that requires the best cultural resources. According to Dark, we get to choose our tradition, the “attention collections” of the past that exercise and influence how we view and live in the world. The past and present are full of gifts and traps, and good religion means drawing from a healthy tradition that draws you into community with living breathing humans around you.This form of engagement with tradition and history creates an omission within Dark’s work. He gives us the etymology of the word religion, but skips over the history of its usage. French scholar Daniel Dubuisson, among others, has argued the modern concept of “religion” was a creation of the West, part of how 19th century scholars attempted to create a transhistorical and transcultural taxonomy of human rituals and faith. As an idea, it helped contribute to the sacred-secular divide, and was a way for radical difference between cultures to be boiled down into a universal and hierarchical system. This formulation of religion assisted Western colonialists to carve up indigenous life and designate parts of their communities for extinction. To put it directly, the concept of “religion” was an instrument of colonialism, justifying and supporting oppression.
Understandably, Dark is more concerned with its current cultural usage—especially by the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd—but the full weight of what Dark is rejecting is lost by ignoring this history and the social relations that the concept of religion supported. A simple redefinition and expansion of the term doesn’t inoculate it from this problematic history. Not everything is chosen, that is part of what it means to have ancestors, and a deeper struggle with this unchosen history of the concept would have helped.
Even with this deep question about the suitability of the concept of religion, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious is a meaningful book. Dark’s vision reveals a grace-saturated world; his faith-formed eye floats, flies, doubles back upon itself, questions itself, attentively looks, and with a good measure of grace, looks again. I felt as if I was reading a book length version of the commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College. There is beauty and insight, an awareness of the sheer difficulty of faith, and yet it is frustratingly broad. Dark’s work is like theological eye drops, it provides clarity and the possibility of renewed vision, but the relief is temporary. Ultimately, it’s not new or perfect, but it is needed.
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