HT: The Way of Improvement Leads Home
This is the third book I’ve read by Tim Larsen. I interviewed him on the other two books.
There is so very much to like about this book. I will simply list out four of my favorite things about the book:
Some shorter books like Larsen’s pack in plenty of content. If a lecture series becomes a book (as is the case with this book), there is a better than average chance that the smaller size book will have great content. You can see this with books (from another lecture series) like Andrew Delbanco’s fascinating, The Real American Dream. Larsen’s book does not disappoint as it offers the reader plenty of material.
Even though there is much content, the writing is lucid and engaging.
Larsen is an eminent historian of nineteenth-century Britain. You can always count on him to do careful archival work and know the primary sources. This book showcases those strengths.
Larsen is sensitive, as was George MacDonald, to Christians who struggle with doubt. As one who knows firsthand these struggles, I greatly appreciate Larsen’s treatment in this book.
Perhaps it is too late for a Christmas present, but how about a present for yourself for the new year?!
Collin Hansen is the author and editor of several books, the most noteworthy being Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Hansen is editorial director for The Gospel Coalition.
Hansen’s latest book is Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor.
Moore: For those who are not familiar, tell us why an entire book is devoted to the work of Charles Taylor?
Hansen: Charles Taylor’s 2007 book A Secular Age might be the most ambitious work published in the last 10 years. He aims to account for nothing less than the decline of religion and rise of secularism in the industrialized West. The way he pulls together philosophy, history, sociology, and theology in order to tell the story makes him a fruitful conversation partner, even when we disagree about the conclusions. Nobody has been more helpful to me personally as I look behind and beyond the headlines to understand larger trends and factors that make evangelism and discipleship so exciting but also difficult today.
Moore: The philosopher, James K.A. Smith, has also written a book on Taylor. How is yours different than Smith’s?
Hansen: I’m thankful for Smith, who has helped me and many other of this book’s contributors understand the significance of Taylor’s project. Smith does a lot to translate Taylor, who’s not the easiest writer to understand. It can feel like you’re joining a conversation already in progress, and you don’t know if you’re welcome. Several of the contributors to our book, most notably Michael Horton, engage Taylor in more critical ways, especially as it relates to the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. And throughout the book we give more attention to applying Taylor’s work to a wide array of ministry scenarios, from preaching to discipling millennials to forming worship liturgies and more.
Moore: In your introduction you wrote, “We don’t yet know, then, whether the children of the “young, restless, Reformed” will imbibe more of the restless or the Reformed. (Emphasis yours) Would you unpack that a bit for us?
Hansen: I talked with a friend in ministry who instinctively understood one of my motivations for this book. He described his undergraduate years in a Reformed college. Everyone there had grown up Baptist but as a teenager shifted more Reformed in contrast to their parents and home churches. But then they got to this school, and they no longer stood out. Everyone else had the same story! So they searched for new ways to express their individualism: they dropped John Piper for N. T. Wright or converted to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Taylor would recognize elements of the secular “subtraction story” in this narrative. In an age of “expressive individualism,” just about anything can be co-opted for stylistic projection, even if for a time it looks like settled conviction. If the Reformed don’t dig into and catechize the riches of this biblical theology, then they’ll set up their children for another reaction in some unknown new direction.
Moore: Several of the contributors have important points of criticism with Taylor’s work. In that regard, I am thinking of Carl Trueman’s observation that the automobile may have more impact than Taylor appreciates: “Perhaps it is not so much Luther who created religious choice at a practical level but Henry Ford.” Carl says he is exaggerating there, but his general point remains. What do you think about Carl’s comment about the car?
Hansen: That’s one of the standout observations from the book. And as an appreciative reader of Wendell Berry, I couldn’t help but agree with Trueman. How can you practice church discipline if anyone can just leave your church and join another one down the road? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology. What’s so special about your pastor’s preaching when you can watch someone better on television or listen to someone who tickles your earbuds via podcast? Why worry about sexual ethics if the pill and abortion separate intercourse from childbirth? Taylor has an unparalleled grasp on the philosophical factors, but he undersells the technological dimension to cultural change.
Moore: Let me ask this next question by invoking Yuval Levin’s masterful book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right. Levin makes the point that radicals like Paine are not going to be moved to reconsider why tradition is worth keeping unless they see its beauty. I would give us “Evangelicals” high marks on defending the Bible’s truthfulness, but very low marks on showcasing its beauty. Do you think Taylor has much to offer in this regard?
Hansen: Taylor doesn’t so much show us how to do it, but he at least reminds us of the opportunity before us, to showcase the beauty of Jesus Christ and his gospel. Let’s keep preaching and writing books like this one. But let’s also take up the challenge issued by Alan Noble in his chapter on the “disruptive witness of art,” and let’s appreciate what Mike Cosper captures about the longing for transcendence despite the “immanent frame.” We do not live in a secular age in the sense that our neighbors reject anything extra-sensory. We’re secular in the sense that we look to the self, not to outside authorities, for meaning. When we can stir the self to appreciate the beauty of the gospel, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for sinners drawn from every tribe and tongue for everlasting praise, we see that our secular age still longs for hope and eternity.
Moore: What are a few things you would like your readers to gain from your book?
Hansen: First, I want them to see that secularism isn’t just a problem outside the church but our primary challenge for discipleship inside every Christian home. If we don’t catechize ourselves and our children in the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in God’s Word, the culture will catechize us in ways that undermine our faith. Second, I want them to know they can learn from Taylor without agreeing with him on everything. Certainly I would disagree strongly with his relatively positive assessment of Roman Catholicism before the Protestant Reformation. And third, I want them to see there is hope in our secular age. Even if we could turn back the clock, we wouldn’t want to. There are challenges to faith at the dawn of the information age, no doubt. But God is at work, if we will only look for him.
Dones are those who still believe in Jesus, but are finished with church. Here is one perspective followed by my own reflection on why Dones exist and are growing:
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Some of the research for this new book was conducted while a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.
This interview revolves around Larsen’s latest book, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith http://www.amazon.com/Slain-God-Anthropologists-Christian-Faith/dp/0199657874
Moore: This is a rather unusual area of study. What led you to write an entire book on it?
Larsen: My whole scholarly life I have been interested in the collision between modern thought and historic, orthodox, Christian beliefs. A lot of these tensions have been explored over and over and over again by scholars: Christianity and Darwinism, Christianity and Marxism, Christianity and Freudian theories, Christianity and modern biblical criticism, and so on and on. When I read the letters and self-reflections of people in the second half of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century, however, what I noticed repeatedly was them mentioning the writings of anthropologists as unsettling to faith. This was a major theme in the primary sources, in the historical record. What had anthropologists discovered or theorized that seemed incompatible with Christian thought? I wondered. When I tried to find a written explanation for this, I instead learned that no scholar had made a sustained attempt to try to map this terrain as of yet, so I decided I would have a go at it myself.
Moore: When does the discipline of anthropology as we think of it today begin?
Larsen: In the second half of the nineteenth century. E. B. Tylor, who is often considered the founder of the discipline, published an early seminal work, Primitive Culture, in 1871, and was appointed to the first university position in anthropology (at the University of Oxford) in 1884. Franz Boaz, who is considered the founder of the discipline in the United States, received his first university appointment in 1899 (at Columbia University). During the World War I era, Bronislaw Malinowski pioneered the expectation of intensive fieldwork.
Moore: You write that Edward Tylor “could not find a way to think anthropologically and as a Christian at the same time.” Why is that? What would you have told him if you had the chance?
Larsen: He was in the grip of a pretty smug, self-flattering, stadial way of thinking – with the three stages of human development being: savages, then barbarians, and then civilized people. He thought because “primitive” peoples were religious this somehow discredited faith as incompatible with being modern and civilized and scientific and so on.
I wish I could have explained to him that there is a lot more continuity in the human condition over time than he ever imagined – that so-called “savage” people were actually quite logical, scientific, and rational in ways he could not see, and that so-called modern people have other needs and thoughts and experiences and insights that do not fit into his procrustean assumptions about what is means to be a rationalistic, scientific, modern person.
Moore: The Christians at the college in Didsbury had a wonderful confidence that made them more than willing to engage skeptics like James George Frazer. How common was that among the Christian population during the late nineteenth century?
Larsen: What a great question!
This is one of the major misconceptions of evangelical and orthodox Christians in the nineteenth century – that they were somehow fearful of modern ideas and rejecting scientific and theoretical advances, that they were hostile and obscurantist. Some of that stereotype is just erroneous secularist propaganda and urban legends that have been transmuted into the public consciousness as “fact”. For example, you can read in major, premier, authoritative venues (a recent book by Yale University Press, for example, and articles in papers of record such as the New York Times) that Christians in the nineteenth century opposed the introduction of anesthetics for women in childbirth because Genesis supposedly dictates that this experience must be painful. Yet this is a completely false urban legend.
I defy anyone to find a single sermon by any minster of any denomination anywhere saying any such thing, let alone an article in a Christian magazine or other publication, let alone an official pronouncement by a denomination. There are many examples of this kind of thing.
Some of this misunderstanding comes from back-dating things that happened in the Fundamentalist movement beginning in the 1920s (which did have anti-intellectual, fearful, and obscurantist elements to it).
Late Victorian Christianity was actually quite open to and welcoming of new knowledge and scientific theories—even ones that were surprising given traditional Christian assumptions—and very confident that faith and science would cohere together in one, integrated worldview.
Moore: Mary Douglas is an utterly fascinating person. She was shrewd in the best sense of that word. Unpack her observation that “Debates which originate in quite mundane issues tend to become religious if they go on long enough.”
Larsen: Yes, yes, I feel like I have been inspired to become a better, braver scholar by reading about her life and work. She was so comfortable in her own skin as a leading intellectual who was also a conservative Christian! That particular quote has been picked up on by several anthropologists since I wrote the book and it haunts me as well.
What she means is that people who imagine that theology can be set aside, marginalized, or ignored in modern academic discussions are actually the ones being intellectually naïve. What intellectuals really care about are issues which go to the heart of the question of the nature of reality, of meaning, of ethics, of values – and these are all debates that are inherently bound up with theological content and reflections. Whenever you discuss anything (“Is it important to recycle plastics?” let’s say, “Or should I buy this new suit of clothes that I want?”), the more you discuss it without coming to a quick conclusion, the two sides of the question inevitably lead you back to a more fundamental value or sense of meaning or conviction or principle or proposition and this is heading you into the territory of religion.
Moore: What has been the response to your book from those within the academic world of anthropology?
Larsen: I am unbelievably, joyfully, relieved to say that it has been received very well. I say this because for at least a couple years while I was researching it I felt like an incompetent interloper, if not a complete fraud. I have never even taken an Anthropology 101 course! I had to learn the whole discipline from scratch just by reading, and reading, and reading. I was quite ready to be rebuked by professional anthropologists for not understanding the key theories in the discipline correctly and just not “getting it”. Instead, the contemporary anthropologists that I most admired, not least the ones who do not self-identify as Christians – including Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University and Joel Robbins at Cambridge University, as well as the former Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Jonathan Benthall (in the Times Literary Supplement! – I would count it a triumph to have my work abused in the TLS) – have received it so wonderfully warmly and appreciatively. There was a whole panel on the book at the annual meeting the American Anthropological Association, and I have been invited to speak on it at the major anthropology seminar at Oxford, at the London School of Economics (the very storied seminar that Malinowski founded), at Cambridge, at Northwestern University, and so on. It feels like dumb luck that I wrote this book at a time when the Anthropology of Christianity has suddenly become a hot subfield in the discipline. I am very, very grateful for how anthropologists have welcomed and received my work.
Moore: What kind of non-academic would profit from reading your book?
Larsen: Another surprisingly wonderful question. These things are a matter of taste, so I am willing to accept humbly if others see it differently, but I see myself as a narrative historian who works very hard to have a literary quality in my work akin to an author of fiction. Just like a short story writer uses a lot of details in description to build up a vivid, compelling portrait of an imagined character, so I have tried to do that with these historical characters. In other words, I think the lives I present in the book do work for the ordinary, intellectually curious reader who cares about the human condition and experience as lived up-close and in-detail. Buy it for your grandmother for Christmas!
Here are five of my favorite books which help me with “Doubting Thomas” syndrome:
The Skeptical Believer by Dan Taylor
Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin
Longing to Know by Esther Meek
How (Not) to be Secular by James KA Smith
Believing Again: Doubt and Faith in a Secular Age by Roger Lundin
My latest interview on how Tolkien and Lewis processed being in the thick of WWI:
My interview with the author of a fascinating book: