Review: Life’s too short to pretend you’re not religious, By David Dark (IVP Books, 2016)

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What you mean when you say secular depends on whether you’d apply the term to yourself. That hasn’t always been true. Traditional Catholic doctrine uses the term to designate the non-sacred: the vocation of a monk or nun is sacred, and the vocation of a plumber or politician is secular. Others use it to suggest a space in which religion is meant to be excluded — a “secular public square,” for instance.

But today’s common and complicated usage is as a label synonymous with “non-religious,” part of a binary — complicated, because what side of that binary gets privileged depends who’s talking. Some conservative evangelical Christians, for instance, have developed entire curricula for teens around learning to combat “secular humanism” — a humanism devoid of faith. On the other hand, a sizeable percentage of American Jews self-identify as secular: twenty-two percent, according to a 2013 Pew survey. …

We visited the dead today.

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They are always with us, but I notice it more in Europe, where “antique” sometimes means something very different than it does back home. The bed we’re sleeping in could be as old as America, for all I know. But it’s just a bed in a flat we rented near all the old haunts of the people whose books I’ve been reading.

Today, we went to a museum full of artifacts of occupied Paris, jackets and news clippings and letters and hats: things that belonged to people who’d wanted freedom more than life, and made that hard bargain.

Then we went to a sprawling house and studio that once belonged to the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, now full of his work and the casts used to make it. Even the garden in the center of the building holds the towering statues, mostly bronze, like some kind of garden of giants Aslan passed through. The sculptures themselves depict old stories and legends beloved of another dead culture — muses, Apollo — and busts of famous philosophers and artists, wrought finely enough that you want to push back a stray hair on the poet’s moustache. …

My husband is currently a vampire.

By which I mean that he has shifted into a work-all-night sort of schedule for the last few weeks, because he thrives on it and does great work.

What’s kind of nice about this is that in the past, he would get up after me, so I’d spend the first hour of the morning tiptoeing around quietly. But now, when I get up in the morning, he’s still up working and awake and happy to see me, and I’m the sleepy one.

Also nice: he has recently gotten into making good coffee, carefully, with fancy methods involving scales and pouring over and things he learned from Seattleites and the Internet, and when I get up he makes me a cup, which is the biggest luxury I can imagine. …

I eat every day. I don’t write every day.

The easiest thing in the world is to forget to write, or to “forget” to write, as I do. Since college, I also am one of those people who forget to eat when they’re busy.

What I’m saying is that I’m good at ignoring my body.

So this week I missed five days of writing about what I’m tasting and delighting in, and also, I missed five days of running, and five days of eating before 3pm. I had five days of crawling out of bed and heading straight to the screens. …

On Monday night, I cracked.

The end of the semester is a time for candy, and not just for students. When you’re a student, all the projects and exams and studying and deadlines wear your willpower down so much that the only proper thins to do is to buy great big pounds of peanut butter M&Ms and subsist on them solely as days slip into nights and back again without you really noticing.

I’ve been a student three times, and this has happened every time; what I wasn’t expecting when I went into academia was it would happen again. Every semester I get a little better at resisting. …

Don’t ever wear cheap black heels to a movie premiere.

Here is why: though you’ll think to yourself, It’s cool, I’ll be sitting the whole time, it’s a movie, you’ll have forgotten that after the actual movie is a whole party. The party is in fact the point.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be at one of the good parties, one of the ones thrown by a studio with money to burn on its tentpoles. The best wrap party I ever went to, back when my husband worked in film, was for the first season of Boardwalk Empire, which was held on the actual boardwalk set (which, at the time, was in Brooklyn) and involved fancy carnival-inspired food, like tiny corndogs on sticks, served by catering staff that surely were Gap models in their white button-downs and khakis. There were also carnival games and a lot of excellent things to drink. If you’re ever invited to a party thrown by HBO, don’t ask questions. …

One small cup of Stumptown coffee, poured hot and fresh on the way to the subway, balanced precariously while I purchased a Metrocard because I left my monthly pass in my back pocket of a different pair of jeans.

One piece of shortbread, so rich that it was nearly all butter, eaten while I stared down an MTA notice on the G train platform quizzically and tried to decide if I was waiting for a train that would never come.

The dregs of the coffee I licked off the back of my hand when the cup wasn’t empty and the train, which eventually arrived, lurched unexpectedly. …

First, have a late night. Then crawl out of bed as early as you can manage to finish that review you started twelve hours ago.

When you finish, look up at the clock. It will be noon.

Wonder if you should stop and eat something. Then become engrossed in the work again. Look up briefly an hour a later when your husband hands you the first cup of coffee of the day.

Stop to smell it. It will smell like nuts mixed with roasted grain, and it will set your brain buzzing.

He’ll leave for the gym around two o’clock. Remember that you’re still hungry. Tie on your shoes. See something scroll by on Twitter that can’t be ignored. …

I am pretty good at keeping my chin up, but this week took it out of me, a slow slide from pretty good on Monday to Thursday night’s thumping of my forehead on the dark, grainy wood of the bar where I sometimes work.

It’s been discouraging.

To calm myself, I remind myself of what I know to be true, not by blind faith so much as proven experience: I am not all that important, in the grand scheme of things, but I’m more important than a lily, and in the end it will all come right.

When I draw a deep enough breath to gather my wits about me, I pay my bill, pack my things, and go to a friend’s house nearby, where all our families are meeting us for dinner. We eat pasta and meatballs and salad, and the kids crawl all over us. …

I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not good at talking to girls, I can’t do it. Don’t make me. I don’t know how to do that.

(Of course, I do.)

I find the place and realize I’ve been here three times before, with boys, theologians whose language I speak without thinking. And I’ve just come from talking to boys who know me better than most people do, who know most of the things I tell nobody, actually, even years of things I only faintly remember.

But: here I am, now. The host cards me — a decade out from legal age, I thank him and he still checks in return, and smiles, and offers to check my bag, and I duck downstairs and look around. Drat. Multiple all-women tables. I will not wander up to each, and if the nice young man upstairs hadn’t just taken my bag and handed me a ticket, let’s be honest, I’d run. …


Alissa Wilkinson

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