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How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor

4.23  ·  Rating details ·  1,691 ratings  ·  262 reviews
What does it mean to say we live in a secular world? Charles Taylor's landmark book A Secular Age provides a monumental history and analysis of what it means for us to live in our post- Christian present a pluralist world of competing beliefs and growing unbelief. This book by Jamie Smith is a small field guide to Taylor's genealogy of the secular, making it accessible to ...more
Paperback, 148 pages
Published May 1st 2014 by Eerdmans
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Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Contested World

It may not be entirely obvious but Charles Taylor’s 2007 book, The Secular Age, was the antidote (or at least therapy) to Trump before Trump arrived on the world-scene. A shame, then, that relatively few have read it. Taylor’s book is about Fake News, about what it is, why it’s a problem now, and how it can be dealt with. Smith offers a summary and interpretation of Taylor for those who may find the latter’s 900 pages and rather more than complete footnotes too formidable to t
Russell Fox
Jan 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
James K.A. Smith's short book is an absolute marvel, and for me at least, quite literally a guilty pleasure. The guilt comes in because this book, in 139 thoughtful and readable pages, lays out the whole argument of Charles Taylor's massive and reportedly magisterial tome, A Secular Age. I have wanted to read that book for years...and yet each time I have attempted it, I've found myself unable to penetrate its prose and really engage its argument. This is embarrassing for me, as someone who wrot ...more
Thomas Mulshine
Dec 14, 2020 rated it liked it
I finished this book. I rate it three stars because it may be worth more than that but I don’t really know what I read. After I’ve completed this book I begin to wonder whether English is my first language.
Drew Bennett
Dec 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
Significant book, but still obtuse. Someone should write the book, "How to Read James K.A. Smith Reading Charles Taylor." ...more
Sep 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed Taylor's A Secular Age and I also enjoyed this distillation of it.

Smith's preface notes that Taylor's really long historical analysis can help Christians better understand their own faith as well as the perspectives of those they seek to proselytize. He says it can also help doubters come to grips with a certain "haunting" they may encounter where the holy—apparent mumbo-jumbo—temporarily slips through the cracks of one's consciousness. Finally, he hopes, like Taylor, that it will red
I read this (in the same reading group at Baylor) immediately after finishing Taylor's A Secular Age. My review appeared in Modern Reformation (July/August 2016). [Jamie's wife is an elder in the CRC; Darryl Hart's response here is 🔥.]

See Smith's interview with Keller here. Interview with Smith at The Gospel Coalition.

vii: secular folks have different maps; no God-shaped hole
viii: doctorate of ministry program in a book
ix: longing
x: intended audiences; postmodern cross-pressure

Jan 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Smith's summary is faithful to Charles Taylor's masterpiece, "A Secular Age," naming both how things have changed in the past 500 years from the medieval age which had "communion with God" as its chief concern to today's chief concern as "human flourishing." The two don't have to be mutually exclusive, perhaps, but the constructive movement of this particular definition of secularism (as opposed to the subtraction of God idea most commonly understood) is one of Taylor's most important points. Sm ...more
Daniel Silliman
Dec 29, 2015 rated it liked it
From one perspective, this book does exactly what it sets out to do. It's a simplified introduction to Charles Taylor's massive _A Secular Age_, suitable especially for teaching at a Christian liberal arts college. That's the context and the purpose of the book, and it succeeds quite well. This book will be really good for Christians interested in but intimidated by Charles Taylor's work. (It will probably be especially useful for anyone who has been influenced by Francis Schaeffer and talk abou ...more
Alex Strohschein
It's odd rating this book because it is a distillation of a larger tome I have not yet read - how much am I praising James K.A. Smith for his explanatory skills and how do I tell what is his own contributions and observations from Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age?"

But as it is, this is an excellent primer for Taylor's magnum opus. Smith provides a very helpful glossary in the back that defines the varieties of secularism and terms such as "buffered self" and "subtraction stories." Smith quotes ex
Jun 10, 2015 rated it really liked it
Anyone who wants to speak intelligently and compellingly in the modern age should read this book. Taylor's vocabulary names so much of what it means to live in modernity. You could almost summarize the whole book with this sentence from page 47: "We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning"

I would have appreciated a final chapter that was more Smith than Taylor, or even another book in which Smith unpacks and applies these ideas. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd enjoy reading Smith ex
Jul 09, 2018 rated it did not like it
I had high hopes for this book based on everything I have hear about it, but was really let down. Maybe I just missed the point. It seemed the author was more interested in sharing his large vocabulary than making the material practically accessible.
Nicole Roccas
Jan 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Admittedly, I avoided reading James K. A. Smith's companion to Taylor's _A Secular Age_ for two reasons. First, I could not fathom its purpose ("A book about... Another book?"), despite having (tried to) read and digest Taylor's immense tome. Second and related, I could not fathom how such a slight-seeming book (a scant 143 pages to Taylor's nearly 1,000) could be an adequate distillation of the former.

After setting my mind to the book, however, I was sorry I had not done so sooner. It allowed
Jacob Aitken
Smith gives us a roadmap of Charles Taylor’s analysis of modernity. On most accounts, Smith’s treatment excels and the reader is well-equipped to analyze both Taylor’s work and (post)modernity in general. The book suffers from an unfocused conclusion and Smith’s overreliance on postmodern pop culture.

In some ways the most valuable aspect is Smith’s glossary of key terms in Taylor (noted below).

Smith’s version of Taylor (S-T) avoids crude genealogical accounts of how the West declined. But there
Adam Shields
May 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Notes from second round: Skip this on audio and read the print version. The narration was fine. But this is a book that is constantly referencing something else, whether Taylor or another author or subject and the constant reference without the visual cues of what is being referenced make comprehension difficult. Also the constant references to pages of A Secular Age, which make sense in print, do not make the same type of sense in audio. There were paragraphs that referenced specific pages numb ...more
Joel Wentz
Jul 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is an absolute MUST-READ for anyone in ministry or religious work, especially if you work with young people today.

Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" has been too intimidating (at 900 pages of philosophy) for me to consider tackling, even though I am an avid reader and very interested in his arguments, and I thank God (literally) for Jamie Smith's work here. He breaks down what seem to be the essentials of Taylor's argument, with much agreement and some soft critique, all to the end of helping
Nathan Mladin
Jul 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
Let me begin on a positive note. This is a very handy introduction to Charles Taylor's seminal ideas in A Secular Age. For those scared of Taylor's idea tic behemoth, this will be a very easy path to walk into into Taylor's thought-world. Smith presents Taylor's main ideas and eye-opening categories with clarity and rhetorical panache. As far as the negatives go, I wish he had more cultural references throughout the book. The first few pages are quite deceptive in that the personal address to pr ...more
Dec 23, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I first read this 3 years ago, and just reread it as a roadmap while I slowly make my way through Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age,” which is not exactly impenetrable but is rather dense and long, and it’s therefore easy to otherwise miss the forest for the trees. This book is an enlightening introduction to Taylor’s influential work, examining why it was once unthinkable to imagine a universe without God, whereas now this seems to be a viable option, and living life as if there is nothing more i ...more
Jean-Daniel Veer
Even having not read The Secular Age, not a whole lot of what's been said in here sounded alien to me; either through reflections of my own or through classes or other reads. It would be a stellar introduction to the matter, but as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing new (under the sun).

It is, most likely, a great reader's guide to Taylor massive work.
Samuel Kassing
May 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing

We are secular people. But, God.

This is a helpful overview of Charles Taylor’s work. If you’ve ever felt torn between doubt and belief or wondered “how do I show the beauty of Christianity? This is a helpful book.
Jake Watts
Oct 17, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Crucial in understanding the origins (and future) our current religious and cultural order.

I will return to this again and again. Its diagnosis (and maybe cure) for what ails us in the West is spot on.
Bob O'bannon
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a big book – not big in length (just 139 pages), but big in terms of ideas and intellectual breadth. You might be stunned then to realize that the book is actually just a summary of a bigger book called “A Secular Age,” by Charles Taylor. Smith’s intent is to make Taylor‘s big ideas more understandable, but in order to do this, just so you know what I’m talking about here, a glossary is required for the task. That’s when you know you are in deep waters.

Nevertheless, this is an extremely
Jun 01, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've read Taylor's "A Secular Age," twice through--once with great care. I loved it. Reading Jamie Smith's book, a few years later, was very helpful. He seemed to have organized the notes that I had left in the original in various underlinings and emails written to myself. One further thing--as I got deeper into Taylor, further from the story-telling early on and more into his cultural and religious criticism of the various kinds of secularity nearer the end, I found Taylor's style more and more ...more
Roy Howard
Nov 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age" is one of the most important books of the last thirty years. It is also likely the least read. It's nearly 900 pages of dense historical, cultural and philosophical analysis of how we arrived at what he names accurately as a secular age. Originally offered as the prestigious Gifford lectures, he wants to probe the deeper question of how we arrived in an era when belief in God is rare, contested or ignored which would have been unthinkable 1500 years ago. What tre ...more
Greta Valentine
Jan 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I'm going to call this the most important book I've read this year, only because it makes accessible to me one of the most important books I've probably encountered in my life (and not had time to read in-depth) - Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. Jamie Smith concisely presents a simplified description of Taylor's layered work regarding how the (western) world has transitioned from one in which atheism is largely unthinkable to one in which belief in the transcendent is almost unbelievable. This b ...more
Apr 12, 2016 rated it liked it
“A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor is thick, not just in its physical size but in the thoughts communicated by the author. In “How Not to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor” James KA Smith helps one to navigate his way through Taylor’s thoughts. Now not every book about a book is a good book. This book about a book is not only a good book... it is a great book! Smith summarizes Charles Taylor's complex argument on secularity; he helps us to grasp this in the following way: He maps the development ...more
Ben Smitthimedhin
Smith's summary of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is a gift to the world, especially those who want to understand more about the secular age we live in. Taylor's book is 896 pages long, but Smith was able to condense it into a 139-page summary.

Smith does this by dividing Taylor's arguments into sections that deal with the history that lead us to our secular age, an analysis of our secular age, and how to live in our secular age. Taylor's theory can be described as a "haunting" that is taking pl
Tim McIntosh
Nov 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
Very helpful compendium of Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. James K.A. Smith's short book touches upon the most important themes and insights.

I like Charles Taylor and, thus, was predisposed to Smith's book. Taylor is one of the few influential Catholic or Protestant philosophers who admit the reality of the post-Christian age (thus the "secular" in the title). What's more, both Taylor and Smith acknowledge the great progress Western culture has made in the sciences. This allows both to bracket t
Jan 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book is a more accessible summary of the work of philosopher Charles Taylor (A Secular Age). Though its meant to make an 800 page tome more accessible for non-academics like myself, it was still very dense, and paradigm shifting. I was grateful for the glossary of Taylor's terms in the back of the book. And I was grateful for the Smith's personal recommendations for background music in the introduction as well. He put me on to Fleet Foxes, while also recommending Arcade Fire "Suburbs," Deat ...more
Oct 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: religion, philosophy
From what I understand, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is a beast of a book! This book does a good job of making the central points of that massive tome more accessible to a wider audience. As a person reading my review, the chief concept of this book is that certain events and moments in history have led us to a point where we inhabit a very different "frame" than people did in say... 1500 AD. This frame is so much a part of the way we think that we are not even able to critically challenge it ...more
Jul 04, 2016 rated it really liked it
This very worthy book is a kind of digest or propaedeutic for the philosopher Charles Taylor's opus A Secular Age. The basic idea is that our society is "secular" in the sense that, whether we are religious believers or not, we exist in a state of tension with those who believe differently, so that we feel in a way the force of their beliefs as they feel the force of ours. This seems to imply for both Smith and Taylor that the apologetic project must be based less on reasoning or an airtight syl ...more
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