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Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious

by David Dark

Before reading Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious (2016, Intervarsity Press), take some time to sweep your gaze across the cultural landscape, then get ready to launch into a rip-roaring conversation about Christian life.

 David Dark has a mesmerizing way with words. That is not to say that he treats his subject, what it means to be religious, lightly; he does not. But Dark’s narrative style has a way of being open, animated and in full-color. The artist’s palette that he takes from is what he calls his Attention Collection of life experiences: books, actors, mishaps, music, movies, slip-ups, students and pilgrims of the Christian faith, etc. Dark is a member of a Presbyterian congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, and says, “I am pleased to be there as one more pilgrim struggling with the mix of resources that makes up my heritage — that would be my weird religious background — and the blessing and burden of consciousness and conscience it imposes on me…I can’t imagine leaving [the Presbyterian fellowship] behind but hope instead to consciously confront it, to occasionally define myself against it and to dwell faithfully within it.”

Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious is a lament that Dark defines early in the book: “Here’s what I’m up to. I come to you as one bummed out by the way people talk about religion. Be it an online rant, a headline, a news report or a conversation overheard, I feel a jolt of sympathy pain whenever someone characterizes someone else as religious. It’s as if the door just got slammed. A person has been somehow shrink-wrapped. Some sweet and perfectly interesting somebody gets left out. And in a subtle, hard-to-get-a-handle-on kind of way, it’s kind of like someone’s been told to shut up.”

Pursuing difficult conversations is part of engaging the reality of life, says Dark, who doesn’t want the talking to stop when the subject of religion enters the room. “My fellow creatures, I propose that we not play that way. If what we believe is what we see is what we do is who we are, there’s no getting away from religion. We all want to know who we are, where and how we fit in, and what our lives might yet mean. And in this sense, religion might be the best word we have for seeing, naming, confessing and really waking up to what we’re all after in all we do…”

Dark is an educator, a title, he tells us, that he wants to use with humility not snobbery, and he has a great affection for Millennials, who are not, he says, ” shallow characters unplugged from lives of meaning and generally just coasting…I see [Millennials] running toward a deeper awareness of relationship, not from it, people more alert and alive to the ways we have of depleting our own value, not less.” With that in mind, and with the understanding that it is the Millennial age group that is very absent from mainline churches today, Dark has written a book that could open the way for many lively discussions with them.

In Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious Dark brings to the fore many intriguing and eclectic ideas. Here are some highlights from chapters called “Attention Collection,” and “Choose Your Ancestors Carefully” :

In “Attention Collection” Dark begins by telling about singer-songwriter Peter Case giving some young students an image of an artist. Case told the students to think of an artist as a thieving magpie, one who is always aware of bits and pieces that are worth picking up for building a nest, that is, an artist is always on the look-out for good material. Case then asked the students’ ages, with most replying that they were in their upper teens and lower twenties.”Nodding, he (Case) surprised everyone by saying, ‘You’ve seen enough then. You have more than enough material to get where you’re going. But maybe you haven’t seen what you’ve seen.’ “

Playing with the idea of seeing and awareness, Dark explains why since his teen years he has kept an Attention Collection. This collection, he writes, is evidence of what he is “into and up to,” and allows him “to see what he has seen.” It also helps him to understand his place in the world, as well as his connection to it. Dark says that “[An Attention Collection] is an unceasingly communal process. Literacy occurs between people, and it spreads one reading recommendation… and one of playlist at a time. I am the glad recipient, repeatedly, of myriad acts of intellectual hospitality on the part of people who’ve been kind enough to see within me an intelligence I have yet to access myself, people who saw fit to take me seriously by regarding me hopefully and imaginatively. Maybe you are too.” Dark considers an Attention Collection to be a “conscious cultivation of one’s own thought life, and a sacred necessity.”

The chapter entitled “Choose Your Ancestors Carefully” is about seeing one’s surroundings clearly, living an examined life and making choices that will lead to living courageously. Dark wants his readers to know that one’s past is not necessarily a predictor of one’s future. He states, “As wandering pilgrims always in search of a more coherent story, we can change, convert, reform and stumble into new habits of being at any given moment. People can wake up to themselves at any time. We aren’t, as it turns out, irredeemably stuck.”

Dark notes that some people choose a way of life that impedes change, and that by doing this, especially by blocking associations with others, individuals may be denying themselves access to “the gift.” Dark has taken the idea of “the gift” from Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gilead, an epistolary from a pastor-father to his young son, which includes this comment on the Christian life: “It all means more than I can tell you. So you must not judge what I know by what I find words for. If I could only give you what my father gave me. No, what the Lord has given me and must also give you. But I hope you will put yourself in the way of the gift.”

“Put yourself in the way of the gift” is a beautiful phrase, and one that Dark uses several times in Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. I would like to think that by that phrase Dark means, among other things, to be open to receiving Jesus Christ as the greatest gift. I wish Dark were more clear in his book about the preeminence of Christ in the Christian life because I believe that the only real means of changing one’s life and effectively engaging the culture for good comes when our attention is turned, for good, not simply to religion but to Christ.

However, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious remains a vibrant and creatively written volume. It is delightful to read, as well as a valuable guide to understanding the Millennial mind. I hope it is read and discussed widely, and that the name David Dark is added to many Attention Collections.