Pastoral Backstory – November 5th, 2015





November 5th, 2015


How (Not) to be Secular, James K.A. Smith

How (Not) to be Secular, James K.A. Smith

Last Sunday our topic was witness–what it takes to take part in the privilege of making Christ known, in word and in deed.

You can’t talk about speaking about Jesus in a pluralistic age without considering all our hesitations in doing so. So we spent some time in the sermon identifying and analyzing them, and then landed the sermon by isolating the only motivation that might overcome any and all hesitations.

But there’s one hesitation we didn’t have time to unpack, and this one happens to be borne out by sociological analysis.

A friend sent me an article from the Washington Post a few weeks ago that led with an interactive question for the reader employing the following graphic.


The article posed the following scenario: a consulting firm has been asked to do an analysis of public perception of the fashionableness of baseball caps. The peach dots represent those who think them unfashionable–turquoise dots represent those who think them fashionable. The lines between the dots represent the social networks–those with whom they have a connection–between respondents.

Given the number of respondents who considered caps unfashionable, the consulting firm might’ve readily recommended now was not the time to invest in cap-production. But looking closer at the way the networks split out, an interesting phenomenon emerged.

Look again at the relationships those who voted “unfashionable” had. In this scheme, the lion-share of those of the no-cap respondents knew of people who thought caps to be fashionable. And given the preponderance of people who knew others who liked caps–the paucity of the latter constituency notwithstanding–a perception might’ve emerged that caps actually were fashionable rather than not so. It all depended on who and what opinions were most prevalent in a person’s social network.

The phenomenon is what researcher Kristina Lerman calls “the majority illusion,” and it has become a topic of increasing interest in our convolutedly networked world. The study’s abstract summarizes the occurrence:

the structure of the underlying social network can dramatically skew an individual’s local observations, making a behavior appear far more common locally than it is globally.

Is it possible that the hesitancy we might feel in speaking of spiritual matters is that the network of people with whom we have the most contact are the most opposed to such behavior–even though they represent only a small, but vocal, minority of people? In other words might we project onto all people what we hear from just some people–projecting a minority view onto a majority? If this is sounding like that research into the “Spiral of Silence” Bill Harris spoke to us about earlier this summer, you could say it’s the “majority illusion” that foments the “spiral.”

If that’s our reason for remaining tight-lipped, then we may very well be submitting to an illusion.


This Sunday we shift our focus from witness to idolatry–though accommodating a minority (or majority) opinion may be one prime example of the latter.

In the text we’ll hear from (Acts 17:16-32), Paul will call out in the Athenians assembled among him a devotion to gods and goddesses not worth the title of divinity. The scene may sound like a throwback to an obsolete age. But the instinct to ascribe a practical divinity to people, ideas, things, or aspirations is as prevalent today as any bygone age. Paul’s perception of his listeners’ being demonstrably “religious” would be just as appropriate in the 21st century.

Carrie Fisher, forever known as Princess Leia, confessed to reporters on the cusp of the franchise’s latest film how her involvement in Star Wars literally created for her an expectation to which she felt had to comply. “I swear when I was shooting those films,” says Fisher, “I never realized I was signing an invisible contract to stay looking the exact same way for the rest of my existence.” And when she was approached to reprise her role as the unflappable princess, she conceded, “They didn’t hire me, they hired me minus 35 pounds.”

Fisher embodies the instinct to make something so important–in her case the acceptance of her fanbase–that it rules your existence. But that instinct isn’t confined to celebrity. We’re all susceptible to it; we’re all guilty of it.

So we’ll hear about idolatry Sunday morning. But then Sunday night during our customary time of corporate prayer, we’ll practice praying through what may have become idolatrous to us, and moreover how we might give only God our true worship.



A stomach flu hit me earlier this week–a scene playing out throughout the land I hear. One item that briefly took my mind off the visceral churning* was the latest installment from the masterful Youtube channel that puts C.S. Lewis’ thick logic into a memorably visual form.

*If you or someone in your household comes down with something you wouldn’t want to share, be sure to stay home. There are plenty in our midst–young and older–who don’t have the robust immunity needed to ward off those microscopic menaces. We love you, but love the community when you’re ill by being faithfully absent.


Author: Patrick

Pastor of Christ the King Church (PCA)

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1 Comment

  1. I noticed on the Wash. Post chart, that none of the “blue” dots, who thought baseball caps fashionable, communicated with one another. Blue dots only communicated with peach dots.

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