Book Note: Andrew Root’s “The Pastor in a Secular Age”

What is a pastor? For a long time a pastor (or a priest) was someone who helped others navigate the unseen world. A pastor lived in the space between everyday life and the forces that pressed in upon it from beyond. The world was enchanted then, it was the site where heaven and hell collided. But it is no longer. Most of us don’t believe in such forces anymore. So what is a pastor to do?

For a while pastors earned their keep as the most educated and eloquent in the community. They played a central role in forming communities that kept the forces of chaos. You needed a pastor then because you needed someone to make plane the confluence of the law of nature and the law of God. We don’t need pastors for that anymore.

In the last hundred or so years pastors have tried on other models in an effort to make their work coherent to others and to themselves. These models remain in our own time. The pastor can be a sort of celebrity of authenticity, buying influence by sharing that they too share the struggles of everyone else (and have the tattoos and vocabulary to prove it). The pastor could also become the advocate for justice, speaking truth to power. Or the pastor can be the religious entrepreneur, building a platform selling religious ideas and experiences.

The thing to notice is that none of these contemporary forms of pastoral identity require God to do much of anything. In his book The Pastor in a Secular Age Andrew Root suggests that contemporary pastors can reclaim their vocation by looking again to God’s action in the world. God, Root suggests, is a pastor. God’s very identity is expressed in ministering. What vocational pastors do, then, is participate in this divine ministry. Pastors help others notice God in the uncanny. Pastors help others anticipate God’s arrival in the moments when life is squeezed almost to nothingness. In short, pastors are people who call others to prayer.

My quick take: Root is dealing with an important subject and gets a lot of things right. However, the book suffers under heavy traffic in jargon, which indicates a set of ideas (from Charles Taylor and Robert Jenson) not fully integrated into the subject matter. Along the same lines, since Root begins his analysis with the work of a philosopher, he misses some important on-the-ground nuance.

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