Review of Bad Religion

Review of Bad Religion

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

By: Ross Douthat
Published: 2012
324 Pages: 352
Page Numbers Source ISBN: (978-1-4391-7834-8)
Ted’s Rating: 2 of 5 Stars (read only if required)

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The author of this book (an OP-ed columnist for the New York Times) will be in Orlando for a book signing at Reformed Theological Seminary. I found this odd (I actually read this book last year when it first came out) because, having the read book, I find it coming from a strikingly Roman Catholic perspective. So why would RTS push it?

This book argues that American Christianity once enjoyed cultural influence in America. After an era where Christian ideas affected such things as the civil rights movement, education, philosophy, and civic life, liberal theology and cultural changes diminished Christian influence. The author traces the relationship between Mainline Christianity, Catholicism and Evangelicalism through these changes and suggests a new, vibrant Christianity could again rise.

For me, an Evangelical steeped in evangelicalism, Douthat’s respectable, institutional Catholicism is very evident. It feels like he wants, almost begs, Evangelicals to become more educated, button-down and, well, respectable. He is offended by the populism of an Osteen and his ilk. This I understand (hey – I am a Fuller grad so I suppose some fear of the peasant class is in order). I doubt, however, that American Christianity will rise from the ashes because of a reinvigorated Mainstream Protestant-Evangelicalism with whom the Roman Catholics can join arms.

But I do now understand why RTS would have come and speak. Not to be snarky, but there is a certain streak of Presbyterianism that similarly sees itself as the pedigreed Protestants. They are more likely to embrace the Hunter paradigm of both grassroots and institutional reform that Douthat briefly touches upon in the book.

I look forward to attending the book signing and lecture (do they sign Kindles, by the way?).

Highlighted notes:

The most potent theories [about America’s decline], though, involve religion. This is as it should be because, at the deepest level, every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them. (KL 145-47)

Against the idea that the United States has lost touch with its religious roots, a growing chorus began insisting that the United States is in decline because it’s excessively religious. (KL 162-64)

The United States remains a deeply religious country, and most Americans are still drawing some water from the Christian well. But a growing number are inventing their own versions of what Christianity means, abandoning the nuances of traditional theology in favor of religions that stroke their egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses. (KL 182-84)

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. (KL 220-21)

Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest Christian paradox of all—that the world’s most paradoxical religion [Christianity] has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than any of its rivals, making the Christian world safe for philosophy as well as fervor, for the study of nature as well as the contemplation of divinity. (KL 329-31)

Both doubters and believers will inevitably suffer from a religious culture that supplies more moral license than moral correction, more self-satisfaction than self-examination, more comfort than chastisement. (KL 420-21)

[The 1950s] was a period that saw the reemergence of Evangelical Protestantism as a significant force in American life, trading decades of self-imposed, often-paranoid isolation for cultural engagement and ecumenical revival. It was the peak, in certain ways, of the American Catholic Church, which had passed from a mistrusted immigrant faith to an institution almost unmatched in confidence and prestige, admired even by its fiercest Protestant rivals for the loyalty of its adherents and the vigor of its leaders. Most remarkably, perhaps, it was an era in which the black church, heretofore the most marginal of American Christian traditions, suddenly found itself at the center of the national story and claimed a moral authority unmatched before or since. (KL 473-80)

“In the latter years of the 1960s something remarkable happened in the United States,” ran Kelley’s opening lines. “For the first time in the nation’s history most of the major church groups stopped growing and began to shrink.” (KL 1195-97)

But even as churches gained or lost ground relative to one another, the basic pattern held. At worst, most established denominations could hope to keep up with population growth; at best, they could expect to grow much faster than the country as whole. (KL 1211-12)

The rate at which priests left [Catholic] clerical life rose twentyfold in the 1960s, peaking in 1969, when 2 percent of the American Church’s priests renounced their vows. That rate held throughout the next decade. The seminaries emptied (enrollment had fallen by two-thirds by 1980), and religious orders dwindled. (KL 1245-47)

For these reasons and more, the crisis of traditional Christianity, not the rise of the conservative churches, remains the major religious story of the 1960s and ’70s. (KL 1284-86) [Ted notes: This is, to me, a particularly Catholic viewpoint. Catholics understand Mainstream Protestantism and have a certain comfort with its institutionalism.]

In the 1960s and ’70s, though, the heretics carried the day completely. America in those years became more religious but less traditionally Christian; more supernaturally minded but less churched; more spiritual in its sentiments but less pious in its practices. (KL 1327-28)

Over the course of a decade or so, a large swath of America decided that two millennia of Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality were simply out of date. (KL 1448-49)

By separating sex from procreation more completely than any previous technology (though not nearly as completely as was initially suggested), the birth control pill also severed the cultural connection between Christian ethics and American common sense. (KL 1468-70)

Even as Western Christians were wrestling with their faith’s complicity in racism, imperialism, and anti-Semitism, actual Third Worlders were embracing exactly the kind of dogmas that their former colonial masters were suddenly desperate to be rid of. (KL 1605-6) [Ted notes: Douthat does describe, albeit briefly, the “Globalizing Theory” that many Evangelicals have come to embrace. Namely, that the ‘Third Worlders’ will be re-evangelizing the world and reclaiming the West.]

But the defining theologian of the age of accommodation, the Niebuhr (or, more properly, the anti-Niebuhr) of the 1960s, was probably the young Harvard professor Harvey Cox. (KL 1746-47)

Indeed, by the time the controversies over gay ordination and gay marriage began in earnest in the 1980s, Mainline churches had moved so far from traditional Christian sexual ethics that their approval of homosexuality often felt more inevitable than wrenching. (KL 1837-39)

The unity that [Evangelicals and Catholics Together] document promoted, though, was ultimately unity against a common threat. “In our so-called developed societies,” the document declared, “a widespread secularization increasingly descends into a moral, intellectual, and spiritual nihilism.” To combat this enemy, the cosignatories pledged themselves to spiritual witness, but also to political engagement. (KL 2302-4)

While the bigotry and bluster of Robertson and Jerry Falwell earned the headlines, many Evangelical leaders gradually moved beyond the binaries of fundamentalism toward a more sophisticated approach to politics. (KL 2486-88)

By the 1990s, one could make a strong case that Evangelicalism had displaced the Mainline as the most important force in American Protestantism. (KL 2537-38)

So Evangelicals rose, and Catholics reconsidered, and by the late 1990s their unexpected convergence was being spun by optimists in both camps into a kind of broader comeback narrative for Christianity as a whole. (KL 2616-18)

The fact that so many bishops had shuttled abusive priests from parish to parish instead of removing them from ministry was a horrific moral failing, but also an all-too-human response to an increasingly dire shortage of priests. (KL 2656-57)

Having a conservative Evangelical in the White House, it turned out, didn’t necessarily make it easier for conservative Christians to win converts or to gain ground in moral and cultural debates. (KL 2746-48)

Every argument about Christianity is at bottom an argument about the character of Christ himself, and every interpretation of Christian faith begins with an answer to the question Jesus posed to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (KL 2994-95)

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. (KL 3005-6)

The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. (KL 3017-18)

The “real Jesus” [i.e., the search for the historical Jesus] campaign has earned so much attention and won so much influence, though, because it goes much further than this. It doesn’t just argue with orthodoxy’s conclusions, it denies its premises. (KL 3235-37)

Understandably, few of the thinkers invested in the quest for a “real Jesus” want to admit that their journey backward through the Christian past dead-ends somewhere in the early second century, generations shy of Nazareth and Calvary. But this refusal has led the whole project inexorably downward—from scholarship into speculation, and from history into conspiracy theory. (KL 3384-87)

Meanwhile, the fact that Brown’s [the author of The Davinci Code] fantasies have enjoyed such wild commercial success suggests that rather than being an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise sound effort, the historical Jesus project’s tendency toward conspiracy theorizing is in fact crucial to its mass-market appeal. (KL 3481-83)

Graham’s persona was warm and inclusive, but theologically he preached a stark, stripped-down gospel—a series of alr calls, with eternity hanging in the balance and Christianity distilled to a yes or no for Christ. Osteen’s message is considerably more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next. (KL 3622-25)

As much as any trend in contemporary belief, the success of this message suggests that modernity and religious faith cannot only coexist but actually reinforce each other—so long as modernity means American capitalism, and religion means the Christian heresy that has made Joel Osteen famous, and also rich. (KL 3637-39)

Even more than the pure prosperity gospel, this turns out to be a religious path ideally suited to an upwardly mobile society. It disciplines believers against excess and folly by insisting that they always tithe, think of the poor, and keep God uppermost in their minds. (KL 3912-14)

It was American Catholicism, with its emphasis on personal asceticism and social solidarity, that long offered the most prominent alternative to the marriage of God and Mammon. (KL 3959-60)

Modern theology’s tenets can be summed up as follows:

  1. all organized religions offer only partial glimpses of the
  2. that the divinity that resides inside your very self and soul.
  3. There is no hell save the one we make for ourselves on Earth, no final separation from the Being that all our beings rest within.
  4. Heaven is on earth (paraphrased from 4294-4314)

Instead, the solipsism and narcissism that shadow God Within theology seem to be gradually overwhelming our ability to live in community with one another. (KL 4811-12)

Therapeutic theology raises expectations, and it raises self-regard. (KL 4834-35)

As modern Evangelicalism matured across the 1980s and 1990s, this “God and the Constitution” political theology was gradually eclipsed by more sophisticated understandings of American history and of the Christian role in politics. (KL 5249-51)

But with the eclipse of orthodoxy and the decline of institutional religion, it lacks a Christianity that’s capable of translating those desires into something other than just another spasm of messianism or millenarianism, or another partisan crusade. (KL 5521-23)

Christianity’s overall resilience hasn’t prevented particular Christendoms from decaying and dissolving, and Jesus never said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the United States of America. But to hope for a revival is every believer’s obligation. And perhaps, just perhaps, a more robust and rigorous American Christianity is something that even non-believers should consider hoping for as well. (KL 5560-63)

With that in mind, here are four potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity:

  1. The first might be called the postmodern opportunity: the possibility that the very trends that have seemingly undone institutional Christianity could ultimately renew it.
  2. Second, a renewed Christianity should be ecumenical but also confessional
  3. a renewed Christianity should be moralistic but also holistic
  4. Finally, a renewed Christianity should be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. (paraphrased from KL 5564 – 5821)

The future of American religion depends on believers who can demonstrate, in word and deed alike, that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians, and demagogues. (KL 5839-40)

Anyone who would save their country should first look to save themselves. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. That quest begins with a single step—over the threshold of your local church, back through the confessional door, or simply into an empty room for a moment’s silent prayer. (KL 5852-55)

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