Culture critic and religion professor David Dark wastes no time getting to the provocative claim of his new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. His statement is right there on the cover, bright red as a warning sign, but that’s only the beginning of a brief, entertaining, and thought-provoking book you’ll want to take your time pondering. Through a short and readable blend of memoir and cultural analysis, Dark is all about nuance and taking time to ruminate on the big questions: What is religion anyway? How does it shape a supposedly post-Christian culture? Can you truly escape it, dismiss it, disown it?
Everybody has a weird religious background, Dark claims, opening his personal story with some amusing anecdotes from his own youth (particularly an incident involving guilt-induced, makeshift communion in a Nashville Kroger parking lot). All of us Christian kids love to swap stories about our wackier beliefs that we’ve presumably abandoned, but Dark isn’t doing that here. He owns it, and informs the reader that yes, actually, you are religious.
“If what we believe is what we see is what we do is who we are, there’s no getting away from religion…. religion might be the best word we have for seeing, naming, confessing and really waking up to what we’re after in all we do, of becoming aware of what’s going on in our minds.”
From there, he builds his argument, often wandering into unexpected territory, but always returning to the central thesis that religion runs through all we do and are. He holds our culture up for examination, devotes a whole chapter to the common searching spirit in religion and science fiction, defends the vital importance of community, and raises questions about how our life liturgies shape our policies — ethical, political, or otherwise. He wades through the depths of philosophy, ponders pop culture from Doctor Who to Radiohead, and confronts our inner tendencies to label others and isolate ourselves.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God, and religion is always weaving through our lives and stories whether we like it or not.
Last year, James K. A. Smith’s Desiring The Kingdom was a perspective shifting book for me, and I can’t help but see Life’s Too Short as an excellent companion. Like Smith, Dark argues that our lives are shaped by forces all around us — nationality, culture, religion — whether we want them to or not. And as Smith would say, “you are what you love.” Religion compels us on a level deeper than intellect:
“I’m not sure anyone’s ever experienced enlightenment, been born again, been called to repentance or decided to sell their belongings on account of a system. The voice, the tale, the image, the parable that gets through to you — that wins your heart — religiously is the one that makes it past your defenses… Religion happens when we get pulled in, moved, called out or compelled by something outside ourselves.”
Dark’s book asks us to slow down, and really consider how we label each other, how we look at ourselves, and how the religious impulse runs through all we do. If you’re feeling a little worn down, and all the negative feelings that come with the word “religious” rub you the wrong way, this book could provide the fresh perspective you need.
Jen Rose Yokel is a poet, freelance writer, and spiritual director. Her words have appeared at She Reads Truth, CCM Magazine, and other publications, and she released her first poetry collection Ruins & Kingdoms in 2015. Originally from Central Florida, she now makes her home in Fall River, Massachusetts with her husband Chris, where you can find her enjoying used bookstores and good coffee.