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We Become What We Normalize

By June 19, 2024 2 Comments

We Become What We Normalize: What We Owe Each Other in Worlds That Demand Our Silence

David Dark
Published by Broadleaf Books in 2023

I love the season of Lent. It is long, reflective, and pulls us to a sturdy grounding of mortality and brokenness in order that we have the right orientation of spirit as we approach the cross of Jesus and, ultimately his resurrection. And yet, as this year’s Holy Week approached, none of those very true things felt near. They were distant echoes that felt more like legends in our current moment, where things are measured more in volume than substance. During Holy Week, Christians often return to a scene in John’s Gospel called “the Upper Room dialogue.” The scene, which begins with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, moves through some final teachings of Jesus before his death: love one another, stay connected to me, be in unity with one another. I wonder if when Jesus said that, he knew that sometime in the future his disciples would forget these words, or that at times his words would be drowned out by a culture so violently abundant with distraction that they would be a mere whisper in the distance. 

“Is this thing on?”

That’s the question David Dark asks in the opening pages of We Become What We Normalize, and a refrain he revisits throughout the book. It is a question that can feel like yelling into the void of culture. And, Dark asserts, our present moment is one we arrived at on purpose. In his opening pages, he writes, “Injustice isn’t an accident, It’s a setup. It’s orchestrated” (13). Injustice, dehumanization, and rewarding the powerful and popular are things we have worked at, and they are not new. We’ve been working on perfecting our craft for a long time. In Dark’s words, “We become what we sit still for, what we play along with, and what we abide even as we hold on to what we have” (26). So then the questions that ring throughout the book are: What do we sit still for? What do we normalize? What do we go along with even if we know it can hurt ourselves or others? 

In the volume and space of those questions, Dark’s question of “Is this thing on?” stands as the cry of someone trying to get their voice heard in a crowded hall who doesn’t stand a chance. And yet, like the refrains built into the Holy Week rhythm of the church, his question represents the reflexive probing of individuals and communities who wonder if there is a different way to be in this world. In We Become What We Normalize, Dark keenly names the present moment in all its anxieties and bigotries, and then does the thing that robs it of its power. He humbly tells the truth, and, in telling the truth, he offers a vision of the kind of people and communities (countries, states, political parties, etc.) we can be.

Through a disarming vulnerability, Dark helps us see the things that are normalized in our culture (peer pressure, power, shame, fear, dehumanization), and reminds us that we aren’t actually supposed to be this way. We are wired for slowed-down connection and community. We are wired for patience and soulfulness. We are wired for wonder and play. Yet, he warns that these things do not come easy. Even if we are wired for them, they take discipline, and they take a community of other people to do them well. 

One of the best parts of Dark’s writing is that he doesn’t bash us over the head with the right answer to his questions. His is a sipped-slow in the lazy afternoon kind of wisdom. It demands and rewards patience. At the same time, he doesn’t lose his urgency by this approach. Experience and story remind us of the stakes as we read it. Dark’s writing style models his message. This is a slow-down, read-in-community-if-you-can kind of book. Its honesty demands to be taken seriously. In contrast to our world where we have normalized and rewarded all the noise and violence, We Become What We Normalize pulls us into that Upper Room space, where we can hear the refrain of those last words: love your neighbor, stay connected, be united–over the mechanical hum of now. 

I don’t want to put Dark into a Christian box; rather, I want to lift up the fresh air of his thinking. It will seem deeply familiar, yet all too easily lost, to a church that is called to embody the exact things Dark is offering. The opportunity is there for people of faith to step into the prophetic task of truth-telling. As he puts it, “the prophetic task is to stop pretending” (79). Dark challenges us to change what is normalized. “We can speak of values and virtues as sacred things we carry around in our hearts, but our values are only ever what we execute and embody in our getting, spending and speaking” (78). What are we embodying, executing, and spending our time on? What are we normalizing in our lives? Communities? Churches?

In our current moment that has its volume up to 11, it may be easy to dismiss the alternative questions of another way as the book begins. But with each passing chapter, the ideas compound to make up a strength that can push against the force of the brutal impatience, shame, and fear of the now. Can we move past the paralyzing fear of power? Can we sit still in our discomfort? Do we have the patience to do this work with others? Dark believes we have the capacity for it. The question for the reader is, will we?

Ryan Boes

Ryan Boes is the pastor of leadership and preaching at Third Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan, where he lives with his wife, Megan, and their four children.


  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Thanks for this review. Sounds like an important book for our times. In Kenya, they talk about “normalizing the abnormal.” We get so used to things being the way they are that we forget it’s “not the way it’s supposed to be” (another good book). Social media addiction, other addictions, gun culture, xenophobia, alternative facts, anti-intellectualism, conspiracy culture, political hatred & vitriol, etc. are NOT normal & NOT Christian.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Well put, my friend. I see in this book and review your own values concerning communities and churches and what God has wired us for, as well as the discipline it takes to live into those values. Dark’s book sounds timely and relevant, and I am grateful for not only this review, but also the way you’ve challenged our congregation to live into Christ’s vision. Thank you!