Monthly Archives: June 2012


We Must Begin Again

I often wonder if a growing number of dedicated and well-taught Christians began to live a love-directed life with their neighbors what would happen to the churches of our land? America just may not see another great awakening. (I’ve been around revival movements for four decades-plus and I have to say we seem further from anything like true revival than ever.) Let’s face it, this republic may collapse much as ancient Rome did. But what would the City of God look like in the midst of such a major historical change? That is the question that ought to stir us as Christians, just as it did the famous Augustine of Hippo when he wrote about it in his time.

Having read Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion, and having commented on it here for several weeks now, I conclude today with his three positive prescriptions for what we can and should do to renew orthodox Christian faith and practice in America’s churches.

1. A renewed Christianity should be political but non-partisan. 

This means that we should avoid the nationalist tendencies of Americanism that I wrote about yesterday. We should also

The Heresy of Nationalism

Ross Douthat, in his much-discussed survey of American religion, exposes one of our most persistent and complex heresies in his final chapter, which bears the appropriate title: “The City on the Hill.” This particular heresy, which has reached across the entire social-political spectrum, is “the heresy of American nationalism” (Bad Religion, 244). Noting that “universal faiths are a relative novelty in human history” he correctly observes that there has rarely been anything like a separation between religion and politics in human history, at least until the formation of the United States of America. On one end of the spectrum societies have deified their rulers while on the other they have identified their unique practices and ideological beliefs with a tribal god. But local gods will go away when the cults and rituals associated with such a deity go away. History demonstrates this point.

The strange revelation, at the very heart of the Old Testament, is that the universal God actually entered into human history and became the champion of a particular race and people. And this universal God, in the Christian understanding, sent his one and only

Therapeutic Religion and the Sexual Revolution

In James Frey’s book The Final Testament of the Holy Bible (Gagosian Gallery, 2011) the controversial best-selling author gives us one of most revolutionary readings of the gospels I’ve encountered in any form of modern writing. describes the author and his book with these words:

James Frey isn’t like other writers. He’s been called a liar. A cheat. A con man. He’s been called a savior. A revolutionary. A genius. He’s been sued by readers. Dropped by publishers because of his controversies. Berated by TV talk-show hosts and condemned by the media. He’s been exiled from America, and driven into hiding. He’s also a bestselling phenomenon. Published in 38 languages, and beloved by readers around the world. What scares people about Frey is that he plays with truth; that fine line between fact and fiction. Now he has written his greatest work, his most revolutionary, his most controversial. The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. What would you do if you discovered the Messiah were alive today? Living in New York. Sleeping with men. Impregnating young women. Euthanizing the dying, and healing the sick.

The God Within Emphasis in Modern Religion

The God Within emphasis of so much modern religion is a serious challenge to orthodox Christian faith. By removing the tensions that exist between true faith and reason the distinction between the Creator and the creation is routinely denied, both subtly and intentionally. Devotees often feel complete freedom to obey their “inner promptings of Supreme Self or Highest Thought” (229). In Bad Religion, journalist Ross Douthat perceptively observes:

One thinks here of Orwell’s famous admonition that saints should be judged guilty until they are proven innocent. To be sure, often they are innocent: Christian orthodoxy doesn’t exclude the possibility that God might call someone to abandon what can seem like their immediate moral responsibilities. Certainly nothing in the literature of the God Within is as radical as this Gospel admonition: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (229).

Orthodoxy can embrace mysticism but it when it does it always places a hierarchy of goods and ordinary duties on the followers

How Gnostic Is the God-Within Movement?

Ross Douthat, as I stated last Friday, believes that modern American Christianity has been co-opted by ancient Gnostic ideas. But his argument is actually better developed than that of many pop-evangelical apologists who make the same claim but with very little clear distinction.

Douthat writes:

The cult of the God Within owes a debt to the ancient Gnostics, clearly, but it takes their impulse in a more democratic and optimistic direction, shedding both the spiritual elitism woven into texts like the Gospel of Judas and the idea that the physical universe itself is corrupt and needs to be escaped. It accepts the Gnostic premise that we should seek after our divine spark, but it locates this spark both inside and outside the self. The human soul has God within it, but so does the entirety of the natural world as well (Bad Religion, 221).

I find myself in agreement with Douthat when he says that from Emerson to Elizabeth Gilbert, American God Within theology “blurs naturally into a kind of pantheism” (Bad Religion, 222). The appeal of this conception of God Within is sharpened by both materialism

The God Within

“The God Within” is the title of chapter seven in Bad Religion, New York Times columnist and Catholic author Ross Douthat’s important new book. Douthat suggests that if there is a representative religious pilgrim for our time it is magazine writer-turned-memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert. If you don’t know much about Gilbert you have missed a story that is, in so many ways, ‘the spiritual odyssey” of our time.

In 2001, at the age of 32, Gilbert had three books published. She had also won a National Book Award. (She is a great writer!) She had a rewarding day job as a travel writer, an apartment in Manhattan, and a big house in the gorgeous Hudson Valley. She even had a devoted husband and intended to begin a family with him. But after only five years she traded her marriage and houses “for a globe-trotting spiritual quest.” The result was a publishing phenomenon titled: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. This book was a New York Times bestseller for an amazing

Think and Grow Rich

The most influential book of popular theology published in the 21st century has had an amazing impact around the world. It has touched Christians in many languages and cultures and stands alone as the religious book of the decade. It has a glossy cover and a whole slew of celebrity endorsements. The book’s title: Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The author is Houston’s mega-church pastor Joel Osteen.

Osteen has the highest-rated television show in America, a trio of #1 New York Times bestsellers, and an 18,000 seat home for his immense local congregation. Douthat adds, “Osteen comes as close to Billy Graham’s level of popularity and influence as any contemporary evangelist–and his cultural empire is arguably larger than Graham’s ever was.” But the similarities between Graham and Osteen are limited to popularity, not message. Graham preached a simple, basic gospel message of sin, forgiveness and new life. Osteen’s message is considerably “more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this

Half-Educated Evangelical Gurus

Mark Lilla, a lapsed Catholic and one of America’s leading scholars of religion, writes an interesting lamentation about what has happened in America. The shift that Lilla describes is a major theme of Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion.

A half-century ago, an American Christian seeking assistance could have turned to the popularizing works of serious religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, John Courtney Murray, Thomas Merton, Jacques Maritain and even Martin Buber and Will Herberg. Those writers were steeped in philosophy and the theological traditions of their faiths, which they brought to bear on the vital spiritual concerns of ordinary believers. . . . But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery, self-help books or are politically motivated.

When I reread this quotation a few days ago, after hearing the famous Catholic public thinker, Michael Novak, speak on this very subject last week at Acton University, I was stunned by how accurate and discouraging this development really is for

The Empty Claims of Liberal Religion

Ross Douthat titles part two of his critique of American religion: “The Age of Heresy.” He opens with a description of the work of Professors Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, the latter a once-upon-a-time evangelical who graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College seen in photo on the left, on the “lost gospels.” He refers to the two of them as the “prominent popularizers of early Christianity’s . . . revisionist story.” So they are. The blitz which followed the release of the Lost Gospel of Judas in 2006 provides the perfect contemporary narrative to show how far the radical denial of the orthodox account of Jesus of Nazareth had taken some scholars. Within six months of the dramatic release of this material Rice University professor April DeConick found that “several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field.” This, adds, Douthat, is an academic way for saying the National Geographic team had “botched their work.” The Gnostic heresy was once again at work

Sharing Life with Catholics at Acton University

I love the Acton Institute. I especially love to see over 800 people, from over 75 countries, that gather each year for Acton University in Grand Rapids. Last week was another exceptional Acton University meeting. I hope some of you will try to come in June, 2013.

One of the most valuable parts of an Acton experience is to be with Christians from every part of the world and from every church tradition; i.e. Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. You sit with people from these backgrounds, you share meals together and then you gather at receptions and enjoy a glass of wine and some wonderful food. All in all it is a fantastic week! Even when a presentation is not up to par, at least for my tastes, I enjoy listening to the discussion and interacting with friends, old and new. You attend 12 seminars, four plenary evening sessions and several other unique gatherings, both formal and informal. Students often are subsidized and faculty and presidents can attend on scholarship if they qualify.

During the last year I personally recruited seminary presidents and deans, seminary faculty and

By |June 18th, 2012|Categories: Uncategorized|

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