America's Secular Challenge: The Rise of a New National Religion
by Herbert London
(Encounter Books, 100 pages, $20)
I'm picking texts for my seminary, worldview class in the spring, and I think that Herbert London's new book, America's Secular Challenge, should be in the mix:
1. It's wise. Not just clever. London gets it right basically: Pure secularism, our new "national religion," is a dead, and deadly, end.
2. It's sweeping. He moves artfully from natural science to the arts to economics.
3. It's informative. For instance, I didn't know that since 1933, one percent of American households have held 35% of the nation's wealth; that, in Germany, declaring bankruptcy will permanently disqualify you from membership on a corporation board; that companies who buy naming rights to stadiums have a high mortality rate (TWA, Enron, etc.); that the OSS (the CIA's forerunner) was staffed almost entirely by Yale men.
4. It models cultural literacy. E.D. Hirsch should love the apt citations of Tolstoy, Bellow, Newton, Leibniz, Frost, Dante, Orwell, Smith, Toynbee, Waugh, Chesterton, Paine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Grosseteste, and Mill.
5. It cherishes our linguistic birthright. Whether recalling Abraham Lincoln's expression, "the silent artillery of time," or reclaiming the venerable concepts, civitas and hubris, London shows his gratitude for the classic voice.
6. It reduces absurdities to absurdity. It marvels at the way that people can glory in multiculturalism (including defense of FGM) while bashing the culture of the West.
7. It's edgy. It takes nerve to quote Saul Bellow, when he says, "I will read the Zulus when they have produced a Tolstoy."
8. It's unashamedly Judeo-Christian. London, who is Jewish, loves the Christian tradition as well as his own.
9. It chooses its targets well. In his crusade against venality, hubris, sophistry, and just plain silliness, he spends quality time on the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Jimmy Carter, Kevin Philips, Newt Gingrich, UT professor Robert Jensen, and Hollywood's latest version of Superman.
10. It crafts strong language. Whether speaking of "anesthetic philosophy," "conflating infamy with fame," the "secular catechism," or "a civilizational fatwa metastasizing around the globe," London lights up a page.
I should add that it's succinct. Coming in at just under 100 pages, and free of academic obfuscation and bloviation, it's the sort of book M. Div. students struggling with family needs, outside jobs, and academic pressures just might read cover to cover.
Of course, as with any book, one can quibble with details (e.g., the reliability of the old Tocqueville quote about America's greatness). And I think London overstates the need for doubt, which is not the same as caution. But the book is a treasure, and I'd like to build some classroom discussions around it.
As an impoverished church planter several years back, I had to take on a variety of jobs, including high school substitute teaching. There I was struck by literature teachers' affinity for "counter-culture" assignments, such as Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Wright's Black Boy, and Heller's Catch 22. Of course, as London's book demonstrates, these were tedious tokens of the prevailing secular spirit, deracinated and cynical.
If they want "counter-culture," they should assign America's Secular Challenge. Of course, many will cry, "He can't say that!" But he did, and he said it well.