the shape of leadership

Truth for a Disenchanted World

Andrew Root’s new book explores the pastor’s role in a secular age

Cameron Combs on October 15, 2019

Can you imagine anyone stealing one of Rick Warren’s Hawaiian shirts to heal their family golden retriever? No? You might be secular. Don’t worry. According to Andrew Root’s The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God, all modern westerners are secular, whether they like it or not.

Root divides his book into two parts. The first part draws on the work of philosopher Charles Taylor to explain how we got to a place where many feel they don’t need God. Root tells the story through the lens of six archetypical pastors, from St. Augustine to Rick Warren. In the second part, Root provides a theological proposal for ministry in a secular age.

The notion of “enchantment” versus “disenchantment” plays a large role in the story. As moderns, we know Rick Warren’s shirt holds no enchanted power. But in 1170, people thought the blood of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, had miracle-working power. Similarly, enchantment meant that people viewed storms, plagues and harvests as acts of the divine. God wasn’t the only actor, though. The earth was charged with spiritual forces — angelic and demonic.

Today we assume “science has explained (or soon will) every arcane mystery.” Despite the advances of modern science, the loss of enchantment might cause us problems. Root argues that pastors today feel a malaise. While recognizing they are ministers of a transcendent gospel, they often find it difficult to preach to people who feel they don’t need a God.

With modern skepticism comes an inability to perceive any divine action in the world. The pastor’s job is to direct attention to God’s action. But where people don’t have eyes to see God’s action, the western pastor’s vocation is in danger of becoming a business that merely offers helpful advice to consumers trying to reach spiritual goals. Nevertheless, most pastors sense that their calling is something more than overseeing businesses and developing leaders.

Of course, it is a good thing that people today aren’t superstitiously fearful of the world, expecting demons around every corner. But, Root contends, disenchantment results in a loss of meaning. Our lives feel flattened, robbed of mystery and divine action. People have a sense that there must be more to life than meets the eye — or any of the other four senses. There is a deep longing for something more, something enchanted.

J.R.R. Tolkien saw this desire for enchantment in readers’ hunger for fantasy literature. Tolkien said the old fairy tales explore something all our hearts desperately want. Why? Because all these stories — with their mysteries, enchantment and happy endings — remind us of our longing for something extraordinary, meaningful and transcendent.

Divine action peppers our world, if only we have eyes to see it.

It’s not that the gospel is just another fairy tale. Rather, the story of Jesus is different because “this story [alone] has entered History.”

Why does a story like Beauty and The Beast pull so deeply at our heartstrings? Because deep down we want it to be true — we need it to be true — that the sacrificial love of a Beauty (Christ) can transform a beast (like us).

But maybe this is a perfect opportunity for pastors today. Many people are longing for mystery, and perhaps that’s exactly what we need to show them. In the second part of his book, Root, drawing upon the work of theologian Robert Jenson, seeks “to return the pastor from being a religious institutional curate to one who leads us into experiences of the ministering God.”

Pointing the people of God toward God’s action in the world is a challenge when everyone’s attention is laser-focused on imminent realities. Root suggests the solution lies in the nature of God, who, in His being, is a minister. A minister is one who meets others in the midst of their “death experiences” in order to share in their suffering.

God is not a static being in the sky or a subjective feeling in the heart. Rather, as Jenson says, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.” He is the minister “who arrives” to an exiled Hagar in the wilderness, ministering to her broken spirit, and, as a result, bringing her into His own way of ministry by sending Hagar back to her broken-spirited mistress, Sarai.

Divine action peppers our world, if only we have eyes to see it. In God’s ministry, the pastor finds true vocation, which may look much like sitting in a hospital room with a dying church member and the family, sharing in suffering as Jesus does, bearing witness to the presence of God in the very moment when God can seem most distant. It is in the moments of His seeming absence the ministering God arrives.

Root’s book is a thrilling ride through the centuries, offering a helpful explanation of much of the modern Christian experience. But equally thrilling is the theological proposal in the second half of the book. This book is written for pastors, and it will challenge as it encourages them to return to the vocation of the shepherd, embodying the ministering presence of Jesus to a disenchanted world.

Book Reviewed

Andrew Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019).

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