Each Monday I send a weekly article to subscribers who request it at ACT 3. I have been writing and archiving these 1,200 to 2,000 word articles for about eight years. Before blogging became popular, and before I stopped writing for print publication through ACT 3's quarterly journal and bi-monthly magazine, which were published until 2006, I write a more reflective and carefully edited article. Some of these have/will become more permanent in the form of books we intend to publish in the next few years. This weekly article is less personal, and more heavily footnoted and arranged, that my blogs. Further, most blogs are 300-1,000 words. Beginning today I am trying something that I've never done–I am publishing two articles (May 21 and May 28) and composing blogs that correspond to these articles at the same time. Thus I am syncing my articles and my blogs for several weeks. The reason is twofold. First, I would like readers of this blog to subscribe to the articles at ACT 3. Second, I would like readers of the articles to visit this blog site and go more indepth with the articles by this means.
New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat, the author of several books on politics and social issues, has given us a great gift in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press: New York, 2012). Rarely do I suggest that all thinking Christians, and especially all Christian leaders, should read a contemporary book. In this case I make an exception. If you read only one non-fiction book on religion, and especially on the present state of Christianity in America, let it be this one. This is a thoughtful and (often) contrarian look at how Christianity has been misunderstood and abused on both the left and the right since the 1950s. Douthat spares no church, denomination or Christian movement from his critique, thereby demonstrating Chesterton’s thesis that when people turn away from God “they don’t believe in nothing–they believe in everything.”
Who Is Ross Douthat?
Author Ross Douthat was born in San Francisco but grew up in southern Connecticut. He attended a private high school, Hamden Hall, and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 2002, where he was also elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He contributed to The Harvard Crimson and edited the Harvard Salient, a conservative magazine begun in 1981 during the Reagan era.
Douthat grew up an Episcopalian but when his family converted to Pentecostalism in his teen yaers he followed along at age 15. Douthat traveled with his parents to participate in the famous “revival” known as the Toronto Blessing. His mother, Patricia Snow, is a writer and his father, Charles Douthat, is a partner in a New Haven law firm and an award-winning poet. When they Douthats converted to Catholicism Ross followed them into the Catholic Church at the age of 17. In 2007 Douthat married Abigail Tucker, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and a writer for Smithsonian. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Little about Ross Douthat is typical. He is extremely smart and very witty in a day way. I have encountered few young writers like him. (I saw him discuss his new book on C-Span before the National Press Club, on April 17. He spoke for 45 minutes without any notes!) His ability to grasp big issues and to write about them simply, combined with an amazing gift of prose, is something I’ve rarely seen in modern writers twice his age. In this book he is critical and pessimistic. Yet he ends with a rather stirring word of hope. (I will get to this soon enough!)
Ross Gregory Douthat (pronounced dow-that) was born November 28, 1979. He was a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine and is the author of Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author of Grand New Party (Doubleday, 2008). The well-known columnist David Brooks called the latter book the "best single roadmap of where the Republican Party should and is likely to head." Douthat is also a film critic for the National Review and has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Claremont Review of Books, GQ and Slate. In April 2009, he became an online and op-ed columnist for The New York Times, replacing Bill Kristol as a conservative voice on the Times editorial page. This made him the youngest regular op-ed writer in the paper's storied history.
The Thesis of Bad Religion
Douthat’s superb book argues that American Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, has gone off the rails. He exposes the spiritual roots of our present political and economic crisis in a way that no politician, and few ministers, will either grasp or talk about. He believes our problem is not too much religion, as a significant number of prominent atheists and secularists have argued. Nor is our problem an intolerant secularism, a position that many conservative Christians advance on a daily basis. Like the memorable Charlie Brown comic strip, Douthat says, in effect, “Ive met the enemy and it is us!”
Our problem is bad religion, or heresy. He defines this as the slow motion collapse of traditional faith accompanied by the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies and encourage our worst impulses. The result is a multitude of churches, on both the left and the right, who have nothing significant to say about the real claims of historic Christianity.
Douthat begins this story in the 1950s and carries it right into the presidency of Barrack Obama. He charts the decline of institutional Christianity in America. He shows that what was once a vigorous, mainstream and bipartisan faith–a faith which acted as a “vital center” and moral force behind the civil rights movement– has been lost. Beginning with the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s right down to the polarizing debates of the present time Douthat believes we have lost the impact of orthodox faith in America. His criticism of the right ranges from Glenn Beck (whom he sees as representative of our darkest apocalyptic fears) to Joel Osteen (who promotes personal success with the best of America’s prosperity teachers). He engages the progressive left and the conservative right. He shows how the fruit of the Jesus Seminar, and numerous related heresies about the historical Jesus that are taught in many of our older seminaries, have continued the accommodationistic patterns of Harvey Cox and James Pike right down to modern liberal teachers like Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan ands the erstwhile former-evangelical Bart Ehrman. These theologians have all contributed to the massive breakdown of mainline Protestantism, which still hemorrhages dollars and members annually. At the same time, and with equal concern, he shows how evangelicals have fostered the “cult of self-esteem” to the point of making mere Christianity virtually unknown to large numbers of church goers. All the while we think everything is just fine because some mega-churches have flourished over the past few decades. (The evidence that this is now slowing is very strong!) His conclusion is that both the left and the right have contributed to a massively reduced influence of Christianity in American. While polls tell us that we are still a very religious people, especially so far as Western nations go, the reality is that the country cannot face its most pressing issues with any degree of unity because of the loss of traditional, doctrinally framed, mere Christianity.
Christianity shares in the spirit of paradox and mystery. When it is healthy it is a faith of both/and not either/or. This has made Christianity extraordinarily adaptable. But it has also exposed the Christian faith to a “constant stream of criticism as well” (Bad Religion, 11).
One man’s mystery is another man’s incoherence, and the paradoxes of Christian doctrine have always been a source of scandal as well as strength–not only among atheists, but also among the many honest believers to whom orthodox Christian doctrine looks like a hopeless muddle or else transparent sophistry (Bad Religion, 11).
Douthat rightly believes that all Christian heresies try to resolve the “knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith” (Bad Religion, 12). Heretics create division and destruction by trying to resolve tensions. When they do this their rescue attempts tend to make the faith more appealing, at least for a time, by making the faith more overtly supernatural. Gnostics, to give a prominent early church example, tried to give followers of Jesus a being of pure spirit through whom salvation could come without physical suffering. Deists and Unitarians, in early American history, went in the opposite direction. They stripped away the supernatural parts of Christianity so that we could retain confidence in a god who seemed under the assault of modern science.
But heresy has always had a vital role to play. It is “orthodoxy’s grumpy but indispensable twin” says Jonathan Wright (Bad Religion, 13). Douthat maintains that Christianity’s two thousand years of dynamism actually owes something of its vitality to both the tight grip that faith leaders have kept on the reins of central doctrines and the “bold experimentation” of scholars and leaders who have sought for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of this paradoxical faith. Without the possibility of heresy the faith can become brittle and rote, “a compendium of doctrinal technicalities with no purchase on the human soul” (Bad Religion, 13).
For much of American history the experience of holding on to a vibrant faith, while standing apart from numerous American heresies, has been at the very heart of the mission and purpose of the church. Christianity has offered America “a chance to recover the subversive power of its early centuries” (Bad Religion, 13) without the establishment of religion by the state.
But the Christianity of the twenty-first century looks more and more like it is losing its grasp on the importance of orthodoxy as withering heresies gain increasing power. Bad Religion documents the way that we came to this place with incredible insight. The end result is a book that leaves even the most optimistic Christian gasping for air. Only in the final ten pages of 293 total pages does Douthat provide reasons to be hopeful about the future. I will tell this part of his story next week.