Cascade Books, 158 pages | Published February 2, 2023
Phil Davignon’s Practicing Christians, Practical Atheists: How Cultural Liturgies and Everyday Social Practices Shape the Christian Life takes a bird’s eye view of secular life, critiquing the ways it has infiltrated the Christian world through a weakening of virtues. Davignon criticizes the four areas of life in which secular lifestyles often permeate: education, work, consumption and leisure, asserting that each area of life diminishes Christianity not through over-exposure to anti-Christian rhetoric, but by a deterioration of values and dispositions.
I anticipated solutions and support for a modern world predominately filled with and run by religious “nones” (individuals who claim no spiritual association). The back cover promises a discussion about individual Christians whose actions are practically atheist, while the sports-themed front cover implies we will learn how Christians interact with the secular world — neither of which does justice to Davignon’s content. While he claims to be extending James K. A. Smith’s “cultural liturgies,” he does so in close conjunction with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and with robust quotes from Pope John Paul II. Davignon is a sociologist who views the world through a theologically conservative lens, concluding that secular life degrades Christian values.
Unfortunately, Davignon offers a blanket critique, starting with the commercialization of commodities that deteriorate the Christian love and respect for creation. For example, he argues that by Christians consuming food that is any way artificial, they are partaking in an anti-eucharistic consumerist culture. He is frustrated by everything from multiple choice exams to curriculum-based programming for faith formation in a parish setting. He views the modern world so negatively that he even critiques congregations that utilize secular tools such as social media to promote their ministries.
Davignon describes abortion and euthanasia as the two moral pillars of the worst parts of humanity, repeatedly comparing all other sins and secular moral downfall to those. By making robust claims on the moral downfall of society, the reader must contend with what is valuable about our secular world, which Davignon would argue is nothing.
This book offers helpful language for those working in parish ministry who struggle with congregations whose collective piety is lacking due to the influence of a messy secular world. It intentionally avoids statistics and academic reports of dying churches, but “has adopted a hermeneutical approach that ‘reads’ the underlying form of culture in an effort to show how it disposes practicing Christians toward secular dispositions of mind and heart.”
Although I didn’t expect a silver bullet to “fix” Christian culture, I did expect a word of hope, which Practicing Christians lacks entirely. I struggled from cover to cover. I walked away from the text frustrated, hopeless and personally conflicted about the unclear next steps Davignon offers church leaders. He successfully offers a sociological critique of the modern world, but I believe Davignon is willing to ostracize much of society in order to claim the moral high ground — not a healthy Christian view of the world, and not a helpful in a Christian resource.
Presbyterian Outlook supports local bookstores. Join us! Click on the link below to purchase Practicing Christians, Practical Atheists: How Cultural Liturgies and Everyday Social Practices Shape the Christian Life from BookShop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. As an affiliate, Outlook will also earn a commission from your purchase.