“America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in it’s place.”
This introductory remark encapsulates the main theme in Ross Douthat’s book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” that the undermining of Christianity in America today is due to a deep chasm of cafeteria spirituality left over by mainline churches in decades past.
This thesis comes through two sections:
- Christianity in Crisis
- The Age of Heresy.
Introducing the first section, the New York Times columnist prepares a rather exciting taste of the Church’s glory days through the beginning of the twenty-first century before issuing a scathing diagnosis on mainline churches for botching everything up. Douthat argues that the church typically wavered between accommodation and resistance when faced with cultural difficulties. A single, albeit notorious, example of this were the tired arguments over biological evolution and the book of Genesis which helped excuse the church to the margins of the scientific community. Conservatives and Evangelicals came out swinging on a variety of similar issues, but left a lot to be desired. In the end, the fundamentalism that emerged from the fight was “an anchor pulling American Evangelicals downward and backward” (125).
Churches soon stopped fighting, and accommodated culture attempting to win back those people they originally demonized, but lost even more for their cowardice on issues of truth and doctrine. To borrow another saying: if you’re for everything, you’re for nothing at all. Douthat opines that the “endless civil wars of fundamentalism” caused Billy Graham to preach “a more stripped-down gospel,” appealing to the lowest common denominator and downplaying secondary matters (139). This, he writes, marked an era where the spiritually malnourished were left hungry, unable to discern between good teachers and the charismatic circus acts that filled the void. The church lost their long-held cultural influence and left an empty space in their place that led hungry people to search elsewhere and charlatans of every nuance to supply whatever America desired. So in light of American’s constant spiritual cravings, “the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether” (145).
In the second section, Douthat explains the particular brands of “bad religion” that emerge from the chaos. Surprisingly, it all starts with Bart Ehrman, the renown New Testament text critic and author of Misquoting Jesus, where he attempts to explain that the text of the Bible is irretrievably corrupted. If you haven’t heard of Ehrman, you’ve probably heard of Joel Esteen’s prosperity “gospel,” Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now,” or Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” According to Douthat, these pseudo-Christianities grew out of the religious bacteria left by Ehrman’s deconstruction of the Bible. Ehrman’s popular books have since been solidly rebutted by his peers, but it didn’t matter. Once the credibility of Scripture got scrutinized on a popular level, the possibilities for privatized, individualistic religions were endless. Douthat’s report is riveting. The first 276 pages are a breathtaking tour of America’s spiritual depravity.
Douthat’s solution’s are perhaps a little sloppy. First he calls Christians to “shed the baggage of a vanished Christendom and speak the language of this age” (279). Assuming that is correct, how does one go about it? Among his suggested starting points are politics (284), homeschooling (281), moralism (288), and confessionalism (286). I will stand by the last one—a more robust theology and catechized church members can only be a good thing—but politics, homeschooling, and moralism are how we “speak the language of this age?” Fighting in public seats of power while removing children from public seats of learning…a little simplistic maybe? If the spiritual trajectory of a nation is as bleak as he so eloquently proposed, then surely the solution is more complex and arduous than merely homeschooling everyone. It’s not that his suggestions are bad; they are just a bit anti-climactic after such a poignant diagnosis.
That diagnosis is so good that I have to give this book a hearty four stars and an accompanying “must read,” for Douthat is gifted at using his pen against the rather sloppy religion of the West, and says all of the things we wish we knew how to say. For most of us, we’ll have to say those things as we read this book under our breath.
Purchase here: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
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