Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a useful, compact history of the progression of Christian thought and heresy from the rise of modernism in the 1920’s (and again in the 1960’s)to the post-WW II revival of Christian neo-orthodoxy to the dissolution of church-going, especially in the mainline Protestant churches, in the 1960’s and 70’s, to the rise of evangelicalism to the present day lapse into mostly-heresy. Of course, these are trends not absolute descriptions of every Christian or every denomination.

I say it’s useful even though Douthat paints with a broad brush, and he admits that “a different set of emphases and shadings could yield a very different portrait of American Christianity at midcentury.” This caveat extends to the entire book. Douthat makes statements such as “the message of Christianity itself seemed to have suddenly lost its credibility” (in the 1970’s) or we are a nation “where gurus and therapists have filled the roles once occupied by spouses and friends.” I read these sorts of categorical statements, and at first I agree, but then I think of all sorts of exceptions and conditions and stipulations.

Maybe this book is the sort of nonfiction polemic which is best reviewed by my giving you a chapter-by-chapter summary of the major theses of Douthat’s argument, and then you can judge for yourself whether or not the book would be useful for you to read.

Part 1 of the book is history, a brief overview of the fluctuations in faith and practice of orthodox Christianity in the twentieth century and the twenty-first.

Chapter One: The Lost World. This chapter begins with the conversion to Catholicism of poet W.H. Auden and continues with Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as emblematic of the post-war return to Christianity and neoorthodoxy. Christian churches had the potential to become “the salt of the earth, a light to the nations, and a place where even modern man could find a home.”

Chapter Two: The Locust Years. The 1960’s and 70’s brought continued growth for conservative churches but but a crisis for mainline Protestant chuches and for Catholic parishes in the United States. “The culture of mainline Protestantism simply disintegrated,” and Catholics lost in terms of mass attendance, priestly and other vocations, and participation in almost every aspect of parish life. Douthat argues that political polarization, the sexual revolution, globalization and resulting religious universalism, and America’s ever-growing wealth combined to cause the decline in the credibility and eventually practice of the traditional, orthodox Christian message.

Chapter Three: Accomodation. Many churches and denominations responded to the challenges of the 60’s and 70 with an accomodationist message: “seek to forge a new Christianity more consonant with the spirit of the age, one better adapted to the trends that were undercutting orthodoxy.” The accomodationists, Catholic and Protestant, lost members, but didn’t simply disappear.

Chapter Four: Resistance. Other churches chose a different path: resistance to forces of modernism, sexual and materialistic hedonism, and moral relativism. Eventually, Catholics and Evangelicals found themselves as co-belligerents in resisting the “spirit of the age” and defending traditional Christian beliefs. As Evangelicalism grew, evangelicals re-engaged in politics and public life; Catholics moved away from adapting to the secular culture to the “tireless proselytization” and “moral arguments” of Pope John Paul II. However, the resistance wasn’t enough to stem the tide of heresy.

So, Part 2 of the book is entitled The Age of Heresy.

Chapter Five: Lost in the Gospels. Liberal, Dan Brown/Bart Ehrman/Eileen Pagels pseudo-Christian pseudo-scholarship encourages Americans to invent their own religion in which “no account of Christian origins is more authoritative than any other, ‘cafeteria’ Christianity is more intellectually serious than the orthodox attempt to grapple with the entire New Testament buffet, and the only Jesus who really matters is the one you invent for yourself.”

Chapter Six: Pray and Grow Rich. Joel Osteen, Kenneth Hagin, and others preach a Jesus who may not say crudely “name it and claim it” but who still “seems less like a savior than like a college buddy with really good stock tips, which are more or less guaranteed to pay off for any Christian bold enough to act on them.” I think Mr. Douthat goes a little off-course when he associates financial counselors like Larry Burkett and pastors such as Rick Warren, who Douthat admits have criticized the prosperity teaching of the Word-Faith movement, with that same heretical theology. It’s always tempting to tie everything into your thesis and make the chapter balance.

Chapter Seven: The God Within. “The message of Eat, Pray, Love (by Elizabeth Gilbert) is the same gospel preached by a cavalcade of contemporary gurus, teachers, and would-be holy men and women: Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho and James Redfield, Neale Donald Walsch and Marianne Williamson. It’s the insight offered by just about every spiritual authority ever given a platform in Oprah Winfrey’s media empire.” God exists, if He exists, inside our own hearts and minds and souls, a subset of Me.

Chapter Eight: The City on a Hill. Of course, it’s not just the New-Age liberals who have succumbed to heresy or to heretical tendencies. “A version of (American) exceptionalism is entirely compatible with Christian orthodoxy. . . Christianity makes room for particular loves and loyalties, but not for myths of national innocence or fantasies about building the kingdom of heaven on earth.” When Christians begin to go along with the slogan “my country, right or wrong” or worse, believe that America can do no wrong, they are in danger of placing a kingdom of this world before the kingdom of our Lord.

The final, brief section of Mr. Douthat’s book is a conclusion called The Recovery of Christianity. He suggests some possible sources and models for renewal: the emerging church movement, the neo-monastic movement, church growth in the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and societal and financial catastrophe that may vindicate and make relevant again the Christian message.

I have serious doubts that any of those four events and movements will be the catalyst that God uses for revival. However, as Mr Douthat writes, “the kind of faith that should animate such a (Christian) renaissance can be lived out Christian by Christian, congregation by congregation, day by day, without regard to whether it succeeds in changing the American way of religion as a whole.” God is responsible for revival; I am responsible to live an obedient life before Him daily.

I’ve given a broad overview of a book that has much specific food for thought, challenging, even convicting, words of warning, and a few practical ideas about “how we then should live.” Recommended for all Christians, especially those who are involved in and thinking about political and cultural engagement.

2 thoughts on “Bad Religion by Ross Douthat

  1. This sounds very thought provoking. I often wish I could hear Jesus words without such a firm cultural context in my thinking. But God has always spoken through and worked through people entrenched in their cultures.

    I just read a book that has really challenged me to think differently about my faith and my role as a Christian in this culture — ‘The Myth of a Christian Nation.’ I’ve turned right around to reread and digest it, it was so nourishing to me… It made me think a LOT about how faith and culture interact. This book sounds like it would, too.

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