Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I first saw Ross Douthat on Bill Moyers’ TV program Moyers & Company.  I flicked the TV on in the middle of their dialog as they discussed his new book, but was intrigued with what I heard.  Douthat came across as a traditional Christian and a political conservative, but was able to hold his own with the great liberal interviewer.  I was impressed with his remarks and felt I had to read his book.  I had barely begun reading it when I saw an interview with him in Christianity Today, May 2012, which impressed me even more.

His book is Bad Religion:  How we Became a Nation of Heretics.  Douthat is a New York Times columnist and converted Roman Catholic.  From reading the book it was pretty easy to ascertain that his Catholicism leans toward traditionalism and his economics leans toward Republicanism, though his thinking is broad and well-informed.

Douthat claims that “For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is:  not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics” (page 6).  This seems to be his thesis.

America, in his view, does not suffer from a lack of religion, as many wring their hands over.  Nor does it suffer from too much religion, as others wring their hands over.   “…America’s problem,” he tells us “isn’t too much religion, or too little of it.  It’s bad religion:  the slow motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (page 3).

Douthat sees orthodoxy and heresy as sort of like conjoined twins (my analogy) each of whom needs the other to stay alive.  Orthodoxy needs heresy to maintain its balance, to keep it from becoming “rote and brittle.”  And heresy needs orthodoxy as its standard; one can’t deviate unless one has something from which to deviate.

But something has happened in America.  Orthodoxy has become weaker and weaker while its evil twin has become dominant.

The greater part of Douthat’s book is devoted to a tour of America’s religious history over the years since World War II.  As one who has been an observer and student of this same history, I found it extremely interesting.  Much of the data presented is familiar and I found very little new information.  But what is striking is how Douthat ties it all together to make his point.  And it seems that he has shown a continual trend toward heresy’s dominance.

Douthat sees Christianity as full of, almost consisting of, paradoxes:  God is both transcendent and immanent; faith plus works are required; Christ is both fully human and fully divine; the Scriptures are both human and divine.  We could list many more.  Heresy, in a sense, begins with an inability to live with these paradoxes, and most of the heresies Douthat writes of are overemphases on one aspect of the paradox, to the forfeiture of the other.

In the first half of his book, which he entitles “Christianity in Crisis,” Douthat traces the decline of American Christianity.  But he begins by describing what he sees as a religious revival following WWII.  Great spokesmen were emerging:  Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen and others.  There were Christian intellectuals speaking to us as well as a great amount of literature, even the movies.  During this period Mainline Protestantism was enjoying growth in numbers and in influence, although Douthat refers to it as a “twilight glow.”  The National Council of Churches was at its zenith.  Evangelicalism was escaping from its fundamentalist cocoon.  Catholicism was experiencing a “golden age” with an “unparalleled” influence both culturally and politically.  The African-American church was becoming emboldened with the movement toward Civil Rights.

In the 60s and 70s two major trends are noted:  the growth of conservative (i.e. evangelical) churches and denominations and the decline of Mainline and organized Christianity, the latter being seen as “the major religious story.”  Douthat devotes a long chapter to dealing with the crises, political and otherwise, of this period:  Vietnam, Civil Rights, the sexual revolution, prosperity.  All of these affected and were affected by American Christianity.

The third chapter begins by telling us, “Amid such sweeping challenges to the faith, there were two obvious paths that the Christian church could take:  accommodation or resistance.”  He devotes a chapter to each, both of which are still with us today.  In the chapter entitled  “Accommodation,” he describes how much of Mainline Christianity attempted to unite liberal theology with secular trends.  Offensive doctrines were discarded along with restrictive sexual mores, until mainline denominations seemed to be in the vanguard of secular thinking, while their members were bailing out in droves.

The resistance to the accommodation took many forms, all of which are seen as in some ways ineffective:  conservative political backlash, the inerrancy debate and others.  The trend toward secularization seemed to be slowing.  “But” Douthat tells us, “the fact that America wasn’t rapidly secularizing didn’t mean that it was returning to Christian orthodoxy.  Like the accommodationists before them, the resistance project assumed that Christianity’s chief peril was growing unbelief, when the greater peril was really the rival religious beliefs – pseudo-Christian and heretical …” (page 131).  Interestingly he sees the trend to identifying evangelicalism with partisan politics as having a negative effect on evangelicalism, both as to principles and reputation.  Ultimately this period left us with a growing number of “nones” and “unchurched Christians,” which “provided crucial constituencies for the alternative theologies that we will take up in Part II” (page 145).  “So the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether (page 145).

The second half of the book entitled, “The Age of Heresy” was to me the most entertaining, perhaps because Douthat seems to see what most others in his field do not:  that the religious fads that are cheerfully reported in the news media (whether right or left, religious or secular) are more than simply interesting trends; they are heresies.

In the chapter entitled, “Lost in the Gospels,” Douthat deals with the various alternate views of who Jesus himself is.  As he points out, “Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character” (page 152).  Beside the fact that Jesus is perfectly (100%) human and completely divine, there are all the other pictures of Him presented in the gospels:  ascetic, miracle worker, prophet, ethicist, etc.  The creeds of orthodoxy accept all of these views – “the whole of Jesus.”  The “great heresies” want “a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus”(page 153).  And so it is today.  Most of the modern head-line grabbing heresies are just new wrappings on the old, presenting a Jesus who is merely human, or in some cases a mystical quasi-divine character, but never the complete God-man of the Gospels.

He also deals in these chapters with the health and wealth gospels, the “god within” gurus, and the political “messiahs” of our day.  It seems that no one is spared:  Joel Osteen, Oprah, Deepak Chopra, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck.  We have arrived at the point where theological orthodoxy is so weak, that anything goes.  The evil twin has prevailed!

The book is a fascinating tour of the histories and heresies of modern American Christianity over the past 65 years.  Douthat has shown where we’ve come from and where we are at present.  The book is well worth reading, even if merely for all the data it presents.  And the thesis is well argued.  I’m convinced!  The author has done a great job in identifying the problem.

The last chapter is entitled “The Recovery of Christianity” and contains the author’s thoughts on what to do.  As with many books, the solutions presented are the weakest part of the book.  As Douthat himself says, “This book has been written in a spirit of pessimism, but for both Americans and Christians, pessimism should always be provisional” (page 278).  He discusses the options available to us – the possibility of “withdrawal, consolidation and purification” (page 280) but concludes that this itself could lead to negative consequences.  He admits that “The deeper trends that might inspire a Christian renaissance are beyond any individual believer’s control” (page 284).  But he then goes on to make some suggestions as to what kind of faith the Christian should live out “without regard as to whether it succeeds in changing the American way of religion as a whole.”
·        “…such a faith should be political without being partisan … avoiding nationalist temptations” (page 284).
·        “…should be ecumenical but also confessional” (page 286).  There needs to be a quest for unity without sacrificing denominational distinctives.
·        “…should be moralistic but also holistic” (page 288).  Our morality should be more that “thou shalt nots.”  He especially emphasizes this in our attitudes toward gay sex.
·        “Finally … (it should be oriented toward sanctity and beauty” (page 291).

His final paragraphs contain some profound insights.  “It is not enough for Americans to respect orthodox Christianity a bit more than they do at present.  To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived – not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself” (page 293).

This is one of the few books I can actually say that I wish I would have written (except that I’m glad that I didn’t have to do all the research).  Much of what Mr. Douthat wrote has been in agreement with my own thoughts, even though as a biblical literalist my definition of orthodoxy is a bit tighter than his.  I have even attempted to put into practice some of the principles he listed long before he wrote them.

Of course, I would add a few things.  I believe that what is really necessary is a return to the Scriptures.  Though I have been a member (and sometimes pastor) of Bible churches, I realize that we too have traditions, rituals, confessions and a creed (though we are in denial).  And just as I would remind my Roman Catholic and Mainline brothers, I need to remember this myself: we must constantly re-evaluate our confessions in the light of the Word.  And we must recognize that the center of it all is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

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