Nearly a generation has passed since a time when anyone would be surprised to learn that reports of the death of God were greatly exaggerated. The decline of religion in public life, a cornerstone of secularization theory, turned out to be not so inevitable. Whereas the forward march of the modern once heralded the end of miracles, magic, and myth, history reminds us daily that this narrative was something of a myth unto itself.
Intriguingly, at the very moment when grand theories predicting mass secularization came under fire, scholars began to take greater interest in the cultural significance of “the secular.” As luminaries like Talal Asad, Jose Casanova, and Charles Taylor have shown, “the secular” is best understood not merely as the absence or opposite of “the religious,” but as a relevant category in the study of many aspects of social life (including religion) that have been shaped by the ideas, institutions, and technologies that made the project of Western modernity possible. It refers to a process of classification, rather than negation. Religion did not wane with the advance of secularism so much as get consigned to a specific role and purpose in the world. Secularization theory is dead, long live secularism.
This is an important distinction. When we view secularism as a system of generalized principles and institutional arrangements, it is easier to recognize that religion as we know it is neither a remnant of ancient pasts nor a natural adversary of progress but a category born of, and integral to, the very ways in which our modern lives are ordered. If secularism set religion apart in the order of things, limiting its public authority, then by the same token secularism effectively enhanced public faith in the idea that something universal called “religion” actually exists, and that it is worth preserving, so long as it knows its place. Secularism thus poses religion as a distinguished ideal as well as a problem to be resolved.
Few religious groups embody this tension, and struggle with its everyday implications, as routinely as conservative Protestants in the Euro-American West. It is no wonder then that tension and struggle emerge as central themes in Anna Strhan’s book, Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals. This is an ethnographically rich and theoretically ambitious study, based on 18 months of fieldwork with the urban congregants of “St. John’s” (a pseudonym) — a conservative evangelical Anglican church in central London, whose members are mostly white middle-class professionals and college students. Though Strhan’s work is not explicitly on secularism, it is focused squarely on “the secularity of urban space” as a context where we find evangelicals working through multiple, intersecting modes of inhabiting “the City,” while trying to minimize conflicts that ensue.
The conflicts Strhan unpacks are not the usual mass-mediated controversies like abortion, but everyday ethical and existential conflicts that arise for churchgoers in situations where doing what God wants and doing what seems like the right thing at the time are not necessarily one and the same. This is apparent, for example, in moments when the desire to be a strong Christian “witness” to the world comes up against metropolitan ethics of tolerance, propriety, and non-intervention.
Take James, a young investment analyst who incurs the ire of his HR director by distributing an evangelistic tract, which he wrote himself, to every employee in his firm. Forced to apologize to his co-workers individually, James cleverly re-imagines this as “one-on-one follow up time” with each person in the office. Yet this seems a rather small victory, as James is duly chastened by the prohibition against proselytism in the workplace. He chalks it up to the persecution of the righteous, and like so many white-collar evangelicals, decides that he can still evangelize at work, but by working hard and doing a good job for his firm.
Such concessions are so common for urban evangelicals as to become almost intuitive, but they are hard pills to swallow. This is just one of the reasons Strhan describes evangelical life as a “struggle for coherence” amidst layers of disjuncture and alienation that come with “metropolitan modernity.” In her thoughtful analysis, it is a struggle that produces as much fragmentation as it seeks to ameliorate, though for Christians this seems to pose at least one clear advantage: fragmentation makes room for God.
Strhan’s main argument is itself quite layered and relies on several key concepts, “fragmentation” being the most vivid. Her analysis builds on the idea that life in the big city, as urban theorists have long argued, is intrinsically alienating, driving people to distraction and detachment, and putting them in contact with cultural norms they find disagreeable or frustrating. Conservative evangelicals, already theologically predisposed to regard “the City” with great ambivalence, respond to this by seeing themselves as “aliens and strangers” (from 1 Peter) in relation to urban others (“the lost”), by virtue of their orientation toward a transcendent Other. Religious identity is rooted in a sense of rupture with the secular city in which they dwell. Strhan calls this “external” or “moral fragmentation.”
In turning to the divine, she further argues, evangelicals learn to know God as the source of ultimate coherence, otherwise absent from their lives. The “personality of God” (a term nicely adapted from Georg Simmel) instills in them the desire to attain such coherence, a desire that intensifies as evangelicals become conscious, almost obsessively, of their own inadequacies as Christians, fixating on how often they fall short of doing what they believe God expects of them. Strhan characterizes this as a form of “ethical subjectivity” in which the self is divided within itself, a condition of “internal” or “subjective fragmentation.”
Extending from all this are two additional insights worth noting: First, Strhan brings together recent scholarship on object-oriented ontology and lived religion to make a case for analyzing God as a “sacred figure,” whose “personality” exerts a kind of social agency in the everyday lives of evangelicals. This agency is mediated through “embodied practices” of evangelical speaking and listening, which I return to shortly.
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