Book Reviews – Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

Douthat, Ross. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times and a Roman Catholic of the Great Tradition (see below), offers an analysis of religion in the United States from the post-World Wars “boom” years of Christianity, through the rapid collapse of the influence of mainline churches in the 60s and 70s (the “locust years” as Douthat labels them), and then into the current maze and muddle of Christianity redefined by every conceivable spirit of the age. It’s an ambitious project, but one that is carried out very well and in a very
readable fashion.

Douthat’s thesis is that one of the geniuses of Christianity according to the Great Tradition (that is, Christianity understood through the canonical books of the Bible understood through the ecumenical creeds of the early church) is its commitment not only to the truths of divine revelation but also its commitment to mystery and paradox. Christian teaching holds on to both poles of God as “other” (Creator) and God as immanent with his creation, of humanity as fallen and as the crown of God’s work, of God as just and merciful, as holy and gracious, of Jesus as divine and human, as mighty and humble, as Lord and friend of sinners, of salvation by grace through faith alone and that faith is never alone but active in works, etc.

Heresy, in contrast, holds to one pole of a paradox while effectively rejecting the other, leading to Unitarianism, synergism, perfectionism, moralism, etc. Where heresy sought to resolve the surface “contradictions” of Christian proclamation, the Great Tradition preserved both sides of the paradox in a synthesis that allowed God to hold all things together in Christ Jesus. Douthat seeks to help the reader understand where we are in the contemporary religious scene. He argues that the current problem is not a deficit of religion (as some on the Christian right would suggest) nor an excess of religion (as some from the secular camp would propose), but the problem is bad religion, “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (p. 3). His proposed solution is for the church to be aware of how we got to where we are and then present genuine Christianity in terms of its biblical and creedal content along with an effective and meaningful presence in society.

Chapters 1 and 2 trace the history of the church’s boom and bust in the 50s and 60s. Douthat does a good job of describing the intellectual vigor of Reinhold Niebuhr’s neo-orthodoxy that enabled a vital presence for Christianity in the academy, in culture, and politics in the vacuum that followed the collapse of modernist optimism about humanity. He recounts the huge influence culturally and morally of the church through Bishop Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham, among others. Douthat then traces the rapid secularization of the age, the causes of which were both external (political polarization, sexual revolution, rise of technology) and internal (the approach of elite seminaries and divinity schools to make Christianity relevant to a modern age, such as Harvey Cox’s The Secular City).

Chapters 3 and 4 cover two responses to that rapid change. One response is to accommodate to the changing age. On the intellectual side of things, accommodationism in the church down-played or even eliminated the role of the mysterious, the divine, the miraculous because it felt such things were no longer meaningful to a secular, materialistic view of reality. In terms of morals and practice, accommodationists revised church teaching to be morally flexible (especially in the realm of sexuality), to be more pluralistic, to accept a modern approach toward materialistic definitions of what is “good” and what “success” life means. In the mainline denominations Douthat shows how this approach proved disastrous as the foundation for the faith was whittled away to nothing, giving people no reason to adhere to a set of teachings virtually indistinguishable from the culture at large. From a non-denominational perspective, Douthat demonstrates how accommodating to the Zeitgeist has resulted in approaches to Christianity that are so influenced by prosperity and the therapeutic as to have very little connection to Christianity’s creedal past.

A second response is resistance, a sort of “Christ against culture” approach that easily morphs to a fundamentalism or a judgmentalism that can exist only within its own echo-chamber and is unable to engage the world around it in meaningful ways. Douthat shows how such an approach was adopted by some strands of Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism (especially following Vatican II).

Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 each take up descriptions of “bad religion.” Chapter 5 critiques the approach of redefining Jesus to make him more palatable to the post-modern world. Douthat takes the reader through the various quests for the real Jesus, as well as the conspiracy theory approach to explain how the real Jesus was masked by the orthodox church Jesus (Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown). These approaches to Jesus abandon the divine nature in favor of humanizing Jesus, but in the end they turn Jesus into at best a moral model and not a Redeemer.

Chapter 6 critiques the prosperity Gospel approach of Joel Osteen and others, where Jesus “seems less like a savior than like a college buddy with really good stock tips” (p. 189). In this approach, the “good” of the gifts of creation is exalted to such a degree that the deceit and snare of wealth (a pervasive theme in Scripture) is relegated to a concern only for the hyper-rich.

Chapter 7 critiques the God Within, seeing God as so immanent that His voice is merged with each person’s inner voice. In the popular approaches of Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Oprah Winfrey, the voice of God Within is always affirming, never challenging, ever accepting you and your desires exactly the way you are. Such an approach clings so steadfastly to the “good” of the human creature that it ignores the impact of the fall into sin. It is enormously seductive as a way for people to claim to be spiritual but not religious (with religious representing claims upon a person from without, such as those pesky self-limiting Commandments).

Chapter 8 critiques various approaches to nationalism as a substitute for Christianity, a phenomenon that can find expression both from the left and the right of the political spectrum. The heresy here is merging the claims of Christianity to one’s own nation or political theory. Douthat ably shows how in our day a certain messianism can be found when one sees a current party or candidate as the solution to a fallen world, and when the other party or candidate wins, then a certain apocalypticism comes to the fore, that the end of the age is upon us as a result of the ballot box or the latest poll results, God’s lordship notwithstanding.

While Bad Religion could be seen as one-sidedly negative and pessimistic, it is not. As Douthat recounts modern heresies, they serve also to highlight the much more fruitful and engaging teachings of the Great Tradition of biblical and creedal Christianity, how the truth claims therein address a much fuller range of experiences of the human condition, and thus provide for the Church an opportunity to engage with the world in more substantial ways—if the contemporary Church is willing to do so instead of falling into accommodationism on the one hand or isolation/resistance on the other.

Douthat is well-read and adept at making connections between an external occurrence of a phenomenon and finding its roots in a particular theological framework or construct. The book is a “who’s who” of players in religious discourse over the last six or seven decades (Niebuhr, Sheen, Graham, Cox, James Pike, Elaine Pagels, Ehrman, John Paul II, Joseph Razinger, Gilbert, Oprah, Glenn Beck, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and others).

This book would be an excellent volume for every pastor, principal, dce, and board/committee chair to read as they take up the task of seeking to engage their communities with the truth claims of Christianity. Douthat does a fine job in showing how easy it is to let go of one or more poles in multiple paradoxes of Christian teaching in an attempt to be relevant, successful, sustainable, etc. Douthat is too smart to offer a “one size fits all” approach to how the church should carry out its ministry (p. 277), but his overview of “bad religion” does serve as a caution to every church leader to keep a grip on both poles of every paradoxical element in creedal Christianity lest we become a caricature of the Gospel and of ourselves.

Here’s a taste of Douthat to whet the appetite: “The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post-sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well” (p. 178).

Toward the end of “doing religion” well in the fullness of Gospel ministry, Bad Religion helps us to identify the heretical among us and understand how it can come about even in our attempts to serve God.

Rev. Dr. Charles Blanco

Associate Professor of Theology
Concordia University, Nebraska

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