A “Bonus” Book Summary from Books At a Glance
By Matthew Claridge
Table of Contents
- Hope in Our Secular Age, Colin Hansen
- Taylor’s Complex, Incomplete Historical Narrative, Carl Truman
- The Enduring Power of the Christian Story: Reformation Theology for a Secular Age, Michael Horton
- Preaching to the Secular Age, John Starke
- Millennial Belief in the Super Nova, Derek Rishmawy
- Liturgical Peity, Alastair Roberts
- Church Shopping with Charles Taylor, Brett McCraken
- Politics and Public Life in a Secular Age, Bruce Riley Ashford
- Free Faith: Inventing New Ways of Believing and Living Together, Greg Forster
- Whose Will Be Done? Human Flourishing in the Secular Age, Jen Pollock Michel
- The Healing Power of Bodily Presence, Bob Cutillo
- The Disruptive Witness of Art, Alan Noble
- Piercing the Immanent Frame with an Ultralight Beam: Kanye and Charles Taylor, Mike Cosper
Chapter One: Hope in Our Secular Age
by Colin Hansen
In previous generations, it was typical of evangelicals to engage the materialistic, secular culture around them with straightforward appeals to logic, argument, and evidence. However, resistance to belief runs deeper than many have imagined. There is something about times that makes religious conviction harder to swallow. People are driven more by secular narratives, and evidence coming from outside those narratives have little impact. Charles Taylor has been at the forefront of naming and explaining this deeper resistance to belief. It is a resistance that extends into the minds and hearts of believers as well. Quoting James Smith, a major interpreter of Charles Taylor, “Faith is fraught, confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting.”
Hansen’s goal in this opening chapter is to introduce his readership to Taylor’s insights into our secular age for the benefit of evangelical reflection and engagement. In thinking through how we moved from a culture in which belief was axiomatic to a culture where doubt is ascendant, Taylor provides evangelicals helpful tools for both speaking into the culture and assessing themselves as a part of it.
In terms of engagement, Hansen holds up Tim Keller as a model of applying Taylor’s philosophical analysis to the task of defending the faith. Keller follows a three-fold strategy, “First, level the playing field with secularists by pointing out the problems faced on both sides. Second, show how “immanentist” accounts fall short of solving the problem in an emotionally and intellectually satisfying manner. Third, reveal how Christians might better explain human experience.” Despite the ubiquity of a secular worldview, it is riddled with cracks that ought to be exploited. Both Taylor and Keller suggest that secularism will not be able to maintain a moral world-order for very much longer without a recommitment to the Christian roots of our Western civilization.
In terms of self-reflection, one symptom of our secular present is the rife, functional belief of many evangelicals in “therapeutic moralistic deism,” a term coined by researcher Christian Smith. The deep-seated assumption of radical individualism has domesticated God into a glorified therapist. Yet this very low religious view has also incited and inspired a backlash in the form of the New Calvinism, which Hansen highlighted in his Young, Restless, and Reformed. Although doubt is the air we breath in now, it is often heavy breathing. One of Taylor’s key insights is that all people now, religious or not, straddle an uneasy fence between belief and doubt, between radical inwardness and transcendent openness. This unsteadiness is evident in the pendulum swings between moral therapeutic deism and robust, Reformed theology.
As sure as many are of the truth of Reformed theology, we must be careful that our motives for embracing it do not reduce to a form of therapy against the static deadness of secularism. To counter-act this, we must embrace the hard edges of our theology that demand personal sacrifice. As Hansen concludes: “Where you see holiness, sacrifice, and love, you see religion that delights in God, religion that can survive a secular age … In our modern language, they’re signs that we’re following the risen Christ and not just treating our therapeutic needs.”
Chapter Two: Taylor’s Complex, Incomplete Historical Narrative
by Carl Truman
One thing that makes Taylor’s narrative of the rise and triumph of the Secular compelling is that he resists simple causes and explanations, and insists on the complex web of factors that each contributed. Despite this subtlety, Taylor’s approach to the rise of the Secular from a Roman Catholic bent might raise some flags for evangelical Protestants.
Taylor sees in the rise of two late-medieval intellectual developments, nominalism and voluntarism, a move away from “a world that naturally carries its own rich meaning(s) to one where human beings create such meaning for themselves.” Nominalism began a shift from locating meaning in the divine “giveness” of things to locating meaning in the linguistic consensus of society and culture. Voluntarism, on the other hand, subordinated God’s mind to his will rather than the traditional arrangement. The result was that God’s works and words in the world are inscrutable and even arbitrary, further eroding the tight ontological connection between what is necessary and what is good.
Taylor argues that the Protestant Reformation, if not entirely endorsing these developments, certainly relied on them in its bid to overturn the hierarchical authority of Rome. At the very least, they legitimized three results that flowed from the Reformation: 1) the dispersal of religious authority; 2) the secularization of the “sacred;” and 3) the emergence of the “buffered self,” or the autonomous individual.
Truman only directly addresses the second of these consequences. Unquestionably, the Reformation exalted the common, but the more skeptical move toward deism and eventually romanticism need not be seen as a direct descendant of the Reformation. Nonetheless, the search for transcendent meaning has not ended with the rise of Secularism, and this is one of Taylor’s major contributions. This search is as much a part of the Reformation heritage, as it is of every secular philosophy since.
While not challenging the broad outlines of Taylor’s narrative, Truman feels there are many gaps that need filling in to explain the rise of secularism. For instance, Taylor doesn’t adequately take into account material causes, such as the printing press or the widespread immorality of the Catholic hierarchy at the time of the Reformation. Other factors include the urbanization of the West, increasing demographic mobility, the entertainment industry, and the explosion in technology which granted to the West a sense of control over the environment. Truman closes by suggesting that biblical Christians must conclude, where Taylor doesn’t, that the rise of Secularism is rooted in spiritual causes, namely, “the denial of our creatureliness and the assertion of our autonomy.”
Chapter Three: The Enduring Power of the Christian Story
by Michael Horton
While acknowledging the many fruitful insights to be found Taylor’s work, and not least Taylor’s ability to so powerfully describe the experience of inhabiting a secular age, Horton seeks to offer a bit more of a critical evaluation of Taylor. Particularly, Horton is unsure if Taylor’s work represents an apologetic for Christianity—as many have assumed it does—rather than an apologetic for the very thing Taylor seems to critique, namely, secularism. As Horton puts it, “[Taylor is] critical of the processes that have disengaged, disenchanted, disembedded, and buffered the self toward an exclusive humanism in which human flourishing
is the only goal and immanence the only frame. [Yet] Taylor shares misgivings about traditional Christianity in ways that suggest he feels personally the attraction of the very trends he explores.” At the end of the day, Taylor appears to prefer a Christianity defined in largely ritualistic and formalistic terms, rather than doctrinal, theological ones.
Horton moves on to note several examples of Taylor’s misgivings. Taylor rejects or at least disparages many traditional orthodox beliefs: impassibility, immutability, penal substitution, total depravity, predestination, and the biblical portrayal of Hell. Taylor often tethers these doctrines to the development of the Reformation when, in reality, most of them were perfectly in tune with the received theological tradition from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas. Taylor faults Calvin with so exalting the goal of glorifying God—a goal impossible to reach without efficacious grace— that it provoked a hard reaction in the secular direction. On this point, Horton avers, Taylor is speaking out of both sides of his mouth—both blaming Calvinism for disenchanting the world and animating it with a singular vision of the glory of God.
Taylor expresses a distinct preference for the religious and social milieu of the Late Middle Ages. Within that culture, a balance was shared between the common people who could tap into the grace of God via formal and ritualistic actions, and the spiritual elite who pursued pious devotion to God and made up for the failings of their common brethren. Horton describes this picture as a “broadly participatory folk religion.” Horton wonders if it is not this kind of cultural and religious dualism that is indeed a much closer ancestor of modern secularism than Reformational Christianity. As Horton says, “the exclusive humanism that he exegetes so compellingly looks a lot like the seeds of medieval semi-Pelagianism and syncretism come to full flower.” Taylor even goes so far as to suggest that the Reformation was much more in line with the biblical prophets and the New Testament than Medieval Christendom ever was, yet Taylor still prefers the latter.
Where does this leave us? Horton sees secularism less as the flowering of philosophical and religious ideas gone to seed, than as the inevitable, combined, and snow-balling result of material changes in culture such as “industrialization, technology, individualism, rationalization, education, rights, and economic and political liberalism.” Yet despite this deterministic inevitability, Horton holds fast to God’s freedom to break that cycle through his personal intervention in history. “God’s promises trump the data.” This is what the church is called to do, to speak the unworldly word of God and practice the ethic of an unworldly kingdom. We must not be content with validating the mystical experiences of secular people groping for the transcendent within, but proclaim the justifying, covenantal experience of communion offered in the word of the gospel that comes from without.
Chapter Four: Preaching to the Secular Age
by John Starke
During a conference of pastors ministering in cosmopolitan urban settings, a common struggle voiced by many in attendance was that most people are simply “indifferent” to the eternal claims of Christ. For Starke, this hit a chord as he was reading through Charles Taylor at the time. As Taylor explains, and Starke experienced, many if not most in our culture are content with exclusively “immanent,” this-worldly concerns and goals for “human flourishing” and do not feel any need for a transcendent reference point. Alongside this, there is a haunting feeling of loss and longing for something beyond. These “cross pressures” of both secular contentment and spiritual longing also infects believers in the pews. How do we speak into these cross-pressures, not only apologetically but pastorally? Starke offers three concepts from Taylor that pastors should deploy in their preaching and teaching to our secular age and secular pews.
“the Buffered Self.” The modern person lives with a view of himself as “buffered,” or secure against outside (supernatural) influence. This perspective skews people toward the idea that spirituality and religion serve the primary purpose of securing individual human flourishing and meeting emotional needs. This axiomatic perspective makes the biblical call to pursue purposes above and beyond human flourishing difficult to swallow for believer and unbeliever alike.
“The Malaise of Modernity.” The “buffered self” has offered the modern person many advantages, the advantages of generating our own meaning and purpose, freedom from external constraints and moral maxims, the feeling of personal satisfaction in one’s own convictions and accomplishments. But alongside this, there is a sense that true, ultimate meaning in our lives has been lost. Theoretically, secular people are content with this; but existentially “we haven’t given up on transcendent feelings and experiences.” This sense of loss, longing, and inability to settle for a meaningless life and universe manifests itself in three areas. First, there is the ever-present anxiety that we might not find lasting significance and a stable identity. Second, we still can’t resist infusing life’s milestones—such as birth, marriage, and death—with spiritual meaning and rituals that a secular worldview denies us. Third, the realization that all of life is basically reduced to a cycle of desire and consumption leaves us empty and longing to escape the cycle.
“Age of Authenticity.” With the rejection of external standards of finding personal fulfillment, we have turned inward and have made our deepest, most authentic internal desires the infallible guide to our pursuit of well-being. There is a value placed in our culture, and even in church culture, on being “authentic,” “real” and “honest about our mess.” But what often fails to accompany these confessions is any requirement to repent. Starke captures the difference between the modern and pre-modern view of self this way: “the authentic self says, ‘This is me; you must accept me as I am.” The vulnerable self says, “This is me; take me and transform me.”
Chapter Five: Millennial Belief in the Super-Nova
Rishmawy focuses his attention on how Taylor helps us understand and reach the Millennial generation. Despite all the hand-wringing and over-wrought extirpations about this generation, they are “just like everyone else—but more so. They reflect major trends of the last couple of generations, simply a bit farther down the line of historical and logical progression.” They are particularly sensitive to the effects of, what Taylor calls, the “Nova effect.”
The “Nova effect” describes the existential results of the Western religious conflicts that has left us, not with a sense that one side has won, but that many spiritual options are possible and conceivable. Neither doubt nor belief is axiomatic. Indeed, the conflict has broken open an infinite number of spiritual possibilities. Moreover, the ethical lifestyle of rival beliefs often appears to come out in the wash. It is possible to be a moral and upstanding Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or atheist. The only resulting “moral imperative” that applies across the board is “being true to ourselves.” We must pick and choose what we believe, we don’t just find ourselves ready-made with obvious beliefs inherited from our ancestors.
For the Millennial generation, the rise of the internet has certainly expanded the Nova effect. The digital age has fragmented and democratized religious authority like never before. For the first time in history, older people have become beholden to the young who have a more immediate grasp of technology and greater access to information.
The material reality fuels the popular secular narrative of “doubter as hero” against the status quo. Rishmawy notes the rising “wave of post-evangelical memoirs centered on the spiritual journeys of young writers” as one example of this, at root, secular story line. These memoirs tell the tale of people coming to grips with the Nova effect and emerging more humble about their beliefs and more open, vulnerable, authentic, and personal about their “take” on the world. The writer’s “authenticity” grants them a right to be heard.
Rishmawy turns to how Christians should minister in this context. First, he calls us not to throw out the baby with the bath water from our “age of authenticity.” We really don’t want to go back to the era of cultural Christianity with its “spiritual authoritarianism, hypocrisy, and the shallow ‘belief’ of social conformity.” Second, given the fact that secular materialism has not, and cannot, shut down spiritual and transcendent longing altogether; the church still has the opportunity of presenting a rival narrative that is more satisfying than its alternatives. Third, we need to make space in our church fellowship and worship for the “Doubting Thomas.” A robust view of church membership and community should actually make such outreach and inclusion possible.
Chapter Six: Liturgical Piety
by Alastair Roberts
In what ways should our church worship and liturgy take into account our ascendant Secular Age? Roberts begins to address this question by drawing on the work of Alexander Schmemann and the distinction between “liturgical practice” and “liturgical piety.” Schmemenn develops the thesis that even while the formal and scripted liturgy of the church may remain stable over several generations, the actual imagination or “liturgical piety” of the worshippers may have changed dramatically in the background. In other words, the way the people interpret the formal liturgy may change in such a way that the intended point or goal of the liturgy is lost or reinterpreted. Schumemann offers the example of how people’s reaction to the liturgy under went a radical change after the Constantinian settlement even though the formal liturgy remained the same. In that instance, the liturgy itself, what ever its original intentions, gradually began to be viewed as a Christian version of a “mystery cult” in which a divine drama was performed and sacred rites secured salvation and sanctification.
Something similar, Roberts argues, is occurring today in the intersection between church worship and secularism. The imagination of Christian worshipers, even if the images of that worship remain the same, is subconsciously informed by the ubiquity of the “buffered self,” “age of authenticity,” and the privatization of art consumption. The significance of liturgical acts are transferred from the objective content of the liturgy and its communal stewardship to the individual who forges his own response to the worship experience. Communal activities becomes the stage (Taylor’s “mutual stage”) to showcase our authenticity and faithfulness to our inner needs and desires. Likewise, “art” is divorced from whatever objective grounding it had to reality and community practice, and now is viewed as an act of self-expression. Art retains its power to evoke the transcendent, but such power resides in subjective experience rather than as a reflection of an objective reality behind it.
Both sides of the “worship wars” can be infected with these deep-rooted modern beliefs. The move toward more “traditional” worship can just as easily be motivated by finding an “authentic” worship experience that signals “refinement.” While recognizing the important need of developing liturgical habits to shape people’s thinking over the long term, Roberts suggests that pastors and theologians must also speak directly to people’s imaginations through systematic teaching, preaching, and conscious reflection on the discontinuities between liturgical practice and piety.
Chapter Seven: Church Shopping with Charles Taylor
by Brett McCraken
The spirit of the “Age of authenticity” is “expressive individualism,” a belief so axiomatic to modern people that people naturally resist any external constraints or norms that would hold back our inner sense of values. This makes long-term commitment to church, not to mention any institutional community, increasingly hard. People are looking for a spiritual and aesthetic experience that confirms their internal yearnings. Such a standard places enormous pressures on church communities where disagreeable conflict between people inevitably rise and where “sufficiently tracking with [the attendee’s] evolving belief” is exhausting. The dilemma is that, whether churches like it or not, we live and move and have our being in this age of authenticity where either total capitulation to the spirit of the age or conservative retreat from it into a bygone era of church life will go down a path to irrelevance and shuttered doors.
Taylor himself thinks a middle ground can be found, but McCraken is not so sure. The gospel with its high demands for discipleship has always been counter-cultural and it must continue to be. Where Taylor tries to navigate a path for religion in purely sociological terms, McCraken insists we must let the Scriptures continue to teach, reprove, correct, and train us for righteousness. Any compromise here will necessarily render the church impotent.
Nonetheless, McCraken makes room for churches to explore some of the eclectic tastes of modern people, and even tap into them where they serve as an avenue back to the “good, the true, and the beautiful.” The tug toward finding significance in older truths and styles can play to the church’s advantage. Yet, at the end of the day, the church must continue to challenge the “suffocating interiority of true-to-yourself spirituality” with the free and external message of the gospel.
Chapter Eight: Politics and Public Life in a Secular Age
by Bruce Riley Ashford
The secularization of Western civilization has increasingly tamed and thinned Christian public witness. As “sacred authority” is transferred to a natural authority vested in human rationality, Christianity’s “code of permissions and prohibitions …[that] had historically impinged on society and the public square” has lost its hold. Christendom’s dominance of public discourse and morality may never be recovered, or even desired, yet the church is still called to present the gospel as a public truth that offers a vision of human flourishing that its secular counterpart can only achieve in the short run and by living off the transcendent capital of the Christian tradition.
The way back toward recovering a compelling voice of authority in the public square will not come through focusing on one social issue. An exclusive reliance on intellectual appeals and arguments for Christian relevance, for instance, is inadequate. Adding to our rational argument, we must add the biblical call to embody a new public order in the life and community of the church. As Ashford states: “[the church] community is intrinsically political as it assembles weekly, gathering around the confession that the risen and ascended Lord is King.” The gospel message, in particular its rich hope for the Kingdom of God, should shape and relativize our thinking about the scope of politics and its limited power in light of Christ’s lordship.
We must take this awareness of the biblical narrative into our engagement with our secular political establishment. The church is a “sent people” who are called to exist alongside and within the political orders of this passing age. As secularism insists on the primary importance of “human flourishing,” the church should be prepared to argue and embody a vision of human flourishing that challenges the diminishing returns of its secular counterpart. Furthermore, the church has been for some time overly enamored with short-term political gains at the expense of a broader and deeper penetration of our culture through cultivating marriage, family, art, business, and law. We should embrace Kuyper’s vision that there are many independent spheres with which the church is called to engage, trusting that Christ’s Lordship is able to touch on each and every one of them.
Chapter Nine: Free Faith—Inventing New Ways of Believing and Living Together
by Greg Foster
Forster tackles the question of how far evangelicals should defend “religious freedom” given Taylor’s thesis that it was a key factor leading to the establishment of the “immanent frame” and the dominance of secularism. Despite any misgivings, Foster continues the call that evangelicals should fully embrace and defend religious freedom regardless of what social changes it might release. The key is to “embrace [religious freedom] as our early modern ancestors did—as an uncompleted project, aimed at discovering solutions to an unsolved problem.”
Forster traces Taylor’s line from the “porous self” to the “buffered self,” from the transcendent to the “immanent frame” through the lens of civilization’s move from legitimizing and channeling human aggression through religious ritual to demonizing that aggression in the pursuit of religious “self-discipline, compassion, and dignity.” This second stage of religious development Taylor labels “reform.” This move toward self-control eventually birthed the idea of the buffered-self “that experiences the world as something radically separate from [itself].”
Forster largely accepts this construal but wants Taylor to take better account of the role “religious freedom” played in establishing the immanent frame. As it became acceptable, or at least inevitable, that civilization would have to carry on without religious conformity, it became imperative to “find a shared way of speaking and acting together in public spaces with those of other belief.” While the resulting consensus need not be a secular, materialistic mandate; such consensus does have to occur exclusively within the immanent frame.
The modern church, particularly the heirs of the Reformation, find themselves in an uneasy and inescapable union with the cause of religious freedom. On the one hand, we honestly shouldn’t want to turn back the clock to an age when religious conformity was enforced by inquisition and execution. But on the other, we couldn’t go back even if we wanted to. Modern technology and mobilization has created what Peter Berger calls “epistemic contagion”—the inability for anyone today to cocoon themselves from the cross-pressures of other religious and secular worldviews. As such, “religious coercion becomes impossible and even absurd.”
Where does the church go from here? Forster offers four pieces of advice: 1) “embrace religious freedom wholeheartedly, and accept that the challenges of the advanced modern world are the price we pay for that freedom;” 2) “accept the frightening and humbling fact that we don’t already possess a solution to the problems of advanced modernity;” 3) “be more intentional about building Christian communities that are distinct and formative as Christian communities, but whose purpose is bringing the holy love of God out of those communities and into an unholy world;” and 4) “build moral consensus in the public square and seek what Berger calls “formulas of peace” with those of different convictions.” If we adopt this humble yet confident mandate to live authentic Christian lives for the good of the world, we may not solve the problems of religious fragmentation, but we will be faithful in our stewardship of the church until the Lord’s return.
Chapter Ten: Whose Will Be Done? Human Flourishing in the Secular Age
Jen Pollock Michel
Michel begins her chapter with three different stories about abortion. The first recounts a story of regret; the second, the celebration of choice; and the third—most shockingly of all—portrays abortion as an act of worship that enshrines “choice” as a sacred obligation. Although questions of objective right and wrong could come into play here, beneath them is a much bigger question: the question of how we define “human flourishing.” Taylor has made it clear that modern, secular people are not more “evil” or immoral than people in the past. Religious and non-religious people both pursue the goal of happiness through healthy relationships and meaningful work. The difference “isn’t declining beliefs in God or waning ethical commitments. It lies in our definition of ‘fullness.’”
Modernity shares much in common with ancient paganism’s definition of “fullness” where the goal of life was placating the gods for earthly prosperity and longevity. There was very little concern for ends higher than human flourishing in the here and now. Christianity changed that. At its center is the cross, an act of supreme self-denial that placed transcendent goals above any immediate, personal ones. Modern people consider the cross a scandal in a way that many pagans might as well. There is the feeling that the Christian ethic is dangerous and unattainable. Suppressing and foreclosing our natural desires runs afoul of our pursuit of “authenticity.”
A closer look at the cross both challenges this perspective and corrects it. In one sense, quoting Taylor, “It is precisely because human life is so valuable … that giving it up has the significance of a supreme act of love.” The cross stands against the backdrop of God’s original gifts of creation, love, and communion. Furthermore, the cross challenges the ego-centric perspective of the secular age that defines human flourishing as a pursuit of rational self interest. The cross teaches that human flourishing at root a communal effort as Christ gives his life so that others may flourish.
Chapter Eleven: The Healing Power of Bodily Presence
When Cutillo, a medical doctor, was taking the pulse of a patient under his care, her husband commented, “[This doctor] still checks your pulse himself, just like they did in the old days.” The anecdote illustrates one of the symptoms of our secular age, what Taylor calls “excarcation,” in which the body increasingly becomes a foreign, malleable object that doesn’t deserve care and the personal touch of “bed-side manner.”
The roots of this objectification of the body lies in the rise of the “buffered self.” Confidence in our impervious rationality alienated the body and everything else as objects of unbiased calculation, analysis, and systemization. We turn to numbers and instrument readings rather than touch and communication with others as persons in need of care. This process of excarnation has produced several unfortunate results in our secular age: 1) our bodies becomes “private property” we can dispose of as we see fit; 2) experience submits to abstraction, and our bodies merely become pieces in the mental play of professionals and experts; 3) as the body becomes merely another machine, its repair is nothing miraculous and calls forth no praise or thanksgiving; and 4) seeing our bodies as “private property” breaks a sense of corporate responsibility to each other’s health.
Yet the Incarnation stands as a unique and powerful monument for the essential goodness of embodied life. Where excarnation drives us further inward, isolating and distorting our view of ourselves and others, the incarnation drives us outward, inspiring compassion and empathy. Cutillo takes note of how the Greek word for compassion/sympathy is derived from a bodily feeling in the gut. He also points out that Jesus feels “compassion” when he meets and encounters people face to face. While there are many ways the church should respond to our Secular Age, the simple response of human touch and personal involvement will go a long way in healing the emotional and social consequences of excarnation.
Chapter Twelve: The Disruptive Witness of Art
by Alan Noble
Taylor’s project has a particular bearing, Noble argues, on explaining how the arts function in our secular culture while providing a blueprint for Christians who would interpret and produce art themselves. To begin with, Taylor warns evangelicals from relying exclusively on “worldview analysis” when evaluating art. This approach can suggest that artistic works conform to some consistent metanarrative that excludes all others. In actual fact, every artist is now aware that their work is produced in a world where there are always other options, other takes, other narratives. No one produces art from the pristine vantage point of an innocently confident worldview.
It is this very unnerving awareness of other options, this “cross-pressured” experience, that Christians should exploit as they nudge people toward transcendent openness. In particular, the allegories of transcendence that many works of art tap into should be used to exploit the failure of “strict materialism” to “account for human agency, the weightiness of moral obligations, and the spiritual power of beauty ‘without impoverishment.’”
Taylor holds up Flannery O’Connor as an example of a Christian artist who wrote her stories entirely within the immanent frame “while providing ‘a point not visible to naked eye,’ a point that forces a paradigm shift.” Her use of the grotesque and violent unsettles our confidence in the immanent frame without removing us from it altogether.
The balance of creating art within the immanent frame that nonetheless opens a door out of it is quite difficult. “Art that unironically depicts the transcendent, as opposed to an allegory of transcendence, will tend to upset audiences.” Too much of the miraculous forces audiences to accept a worldview they just can jive with experience. On the other hand, depicting life within the immanent frame as “unsatisfying or joyless” runs afoul of many people’s contentment with it and unconcern for eternal questions.
Chapter Thirteen: Piercing the Immanent Frame with an Ultralight Beam: Kanye West and Charles Taylor
by Mike Cosper
Cosper gathers together many of the aspects of Taylor’s social analysis from across the book and brings them to bear on one particular cultural work of the recent past, namely, Kanye West’s February 2016 musical performance on Saturday Night Live. This performance “perfectly provides fodder for talking about Taylor’s A Secular Age. It’s all there: the buffered self, the immanent frame, the malaise of immanence, longing for fullness.”
Cosper proceeds to summarize these elements of Taylor’s book, which have been surveyed before in previous chapters. When applied to Kanye West and his performance, these categories of secularism take on flesh and blood. “Utralight Beam” is saturated with haunting lyrics and gospel allusions, all suggesting his feeling of vulnerability to the transcendent. Yet his personal life and the way he ends the song with a crass commercial plug for the album show him as a man making vigorous attempts to live comfortably and content within the immanent frame. As Cosper summarizes: “This is the pendulum of Kanye’s music: movements toward religious hope followed by despair and indulgence.”
Editor’s Note: This summary was produced in conjunction with TGC Learn Courses, which we are happy to commend for further learning opportunities.
Buy the books
OUR SECULAR AGE: TEN YEARS OF READING AND APPLYING CHARLES TAYLOR, by Colin Hansen, ed.