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 But intellectual figures like these have disappeared from the American landscape and have been replaced by half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery, self-help books or are politically motivated.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 American Christianity. What has changed is twofold. Those on the left are more often critics first and then people of faith (if at all) who explicate their faith philosophically and theologically. On the right it is just as bad, if not worse. LIlla refers, correctly I believe, to “half-educated evangelical gurus who either publish vacant, cheery self-help books or are politically motivated.” I have seen this beast and believe the criticism is sadly true!

Adds Ross Douthat, “Lilla’s plaint is a common one: the number of religiously minded intellectuals who have pined for the days of Reinhold Niebuhr would fill a small cathedral. But what few of them seem to recognize is that Niebuhr’s greatness and influence lay in his willingness to defend Christian orthodoxy in an often-hostile world, rather than to perpetually curry favor with its cultured despisers.”

When Michael Novak was asked, in a question and answer time last week, about what thinkers had shaped his mind in the 1940 and 1950s he named Niebuhr, Murray, Maritain and Merton. I now understand why he thinks the way he does about issues, both religious and economic. The problem is that we have had an entire generation who has not been taught to think this way, if they have been taught to think at all. This is one very important reason why we buy the ideas of these “half-educated evangelical gurus” and read their “cheery, self-help books” and their Left Behind novels.

These evangelical gurus have benefited from the impact of the liberal Jesus Seminar writers on conservative churches and laity. There is a bitter irony about all of this. Douthat puts it this way:

The real-Jesus project, though intended as a rebuke to biblical literalism, has ended up vindicating modern fundamentalism twice over. One the one hand, the self-understanding of fundamentalists depends on the assumption that once you depart even an iota from a literal-factual-commonsensical reading of Scripture you’re on a slippery slope to denying basic Christian dogmas–which of course is exactly what most of the historical Jesus popularizers believe as well! (The example of a figure like Ehrman, who lost his faith completely when he went to graduate school and realized that actual human beings might have been involved in the composition of the gospels, is almost a parody of a fundamentalist cautionary tale.) At the same time, the way that many fundamentalists actually interpret the Bible–through Cyrus Scofield’s dispensationalist framework–is precisely the sort of do-it-yourself Christianity that real-Jesus “scholarship” implicitly encourages. What are the Left Behind novels if not a “new fiction that takes as its starting point the central event in the Judaeo-Christian drama and reconciles that middle with a new story that reaches beyond old beginnings and endings”? LIke Funk and Pagels and so many others, fundamentalists have fashioned a Jesus in their own image, and declared that he is good (Bad Religion, 179).

Douthat quotes from an interview by the popular talk host Glenn Beck to show just how confused some people are about the historical and orthodox Jesus. Beck tries to do a revisionist number on the Nicene Council saying that it was all like the Dead Sea Scrolls in the end. Douthat adds, “As history, this is Dan-Brown-esque stuff.” Yet if I question Glenn Beck many conservatives will grow very defensive. We’ll explore why tomorrow.


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  1. Michael Sullivan June 20, 2012 at 9:10 am

    This recent article by the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary underlines this point.

    This comment in particular I found astonishing: “At the same time, even as evangelical Christians are helpfully informed by the natural law, our mode of moral reasoning must be deeply biblical, and the Bible must be the ruling authority.”

    This is kind of a 101 level mistake when it comes to serious Christian intellectual tradition. According to the great tradition there is only one law with four parts: the eternal (mind of God), divine (Revealed, i.e. the Bible), natural (discerned by reason) and civil law (enacted by the state). There can be no conflict between the natural and the divine law as Mohler seems to think. Further, his analysis of contraception has no rooting in either solid reasoning or even biblical citation (the very standard he proposes). Mind you, this is not an example of vacuous happy preaching, but more troubling evidence of the lack of Christian intellectual coherence at the highest levels of this institution of formation. If as Christians we can not reason together and claim the intellectual inheritance of our Christian ancestors, then how can we expect to grow in unity?

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