Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Review: "Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics," by Ross Douthat

While socially conservative voters lament the lack of religion in the public square, and secular liberals decry the excess of the same, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues that both miss the point.  The problem, Mr. Douthat claims, lies not in the quantity of religion in American life, but in the quality.  Over the last half century American religion has gone bad, and both the religious and irreligious should be concerned about the trend.  In Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics, he argues that "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." 

Mr. Douthat looks at the years following the second world war and finds a golden age of religion that encompassed a broad swath of American Christianity.  The neo-orthodoxy championed by theologians such as Reinhold Niebuhr swept the mainline Protestant churches in a direction that was more orthodox than the liberal views that preceded this period, and the churches thrived. Meanwhile, theologians such as Carl F.H. Henry (misidentified, perhaps tellingly, as "Carl F.W. Henry" through the book and in the index) and the evangelist Billy Graham led the movement of evangelicalism out of the fundamentalist ghetto into a more biblically reasonable and culturally mainstream direction.  Catholicism, as seen in the popularity of Bishop Fulton Sheen, also thrived and was generally viewed quite favorably in pop culture.  Finally, the author points to the successes of the Rev. Martin Luther King, who, with other black religious leaders, united an essentially conservative theological base with progressive politics to effectuate the successes of the civil rights movement.

While Bad Religion is not a work of scholarship, it is well researched, and Mr. Douthat shows how each of these sectors of the institutional church lost its way beginning, as so many jeremiads do, in the 1960's.  Given the cultural challenges faced at that time, he argues that the church faced the choices of accomodation -- rejecting orthodox theological and moral foundations in order to find agreement with the emerging intellectual and sexual mores -- or resistance -- identifying Christianity with cultural conservatism.  Both of these roads have led to tragic consequences.

Mr. Douthat identifies four streams of heresy that have resulted from either accomodation or resistence, and for the sake of of clarity he outlines each stream in terms of popular writers that have impacted those with religious or spiritual concerns both within and outside the institutional church.  Thus, the forsaking of the biblical texts, based largely on questionable scholarship, in favor of those later works known collectively as "gnostic gospels" has resulted in the sort of orthodoxy rejecting spirituality associated with those who read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Codes as though it is a work of non-fiction (the discussion of Brown's own religious motivations and the result is excellent).  In the chapter entitled "Pray and Grow Rich," the author describes how the sort of "name it and claim it" theology once associated with the fringes has become more mainstream with ministers such as the schmaltzy Joel Osteen.  The third type of heresy is the self-absorbed narcissistic "god within" teaching that is personified in books such as the popular Eat, Pray, Love.  Finally, Mr. Douthat takes on the religious nationalism increasingly associated with radio and tv personality Glenn Beck, showing Mr. Beck to be the truly disturbing figure (for the future of American Christianity) that he really is.

While this is an important book that deserves a wide reading, it is not without its problems.  While the title of the book indicates that he is concerned about orthodoxy and heresy, Mr. Douthat never quite defines these terms, and at times it seems almost as though orthodoxy is more about cultural hegemony and sexual mores than what is found in, say, the Apostle's Creed.  He also fails to offer a clear definition of evangelicalism.  While that term has always been a bit nebulous, it was easier to define at Mr. Douthat's beginning point in the 1950's than it is now.  While the author is correct in associating fundamentalism with dispensationalism and a belief in inerrancy, he doesn't seem to understand fully what differentiated those who self-identified as fundamentalists and those who did so as evangelicals.  His identification of Kenneth Hagin as an evangelical is anachronistic (Pentecostals such as Hagin sometimes are considered in that camp now, but were not during his hey day).  Mr. Douthat's handling of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in which he expresses surprise at J.I. Packer's nuanced explanations of inerrancy, is clumsy, at best.

The book also suffers from Mr. Douthat's lack of critical evaluation of neo-orthodoxy, which he champions as an ideal.  Certainly, he is correct that neo-orthodoxy is more true to the historic faith than either the liberalism that preceded it or the views that have dominated mainline churches over the last half century, but he glosses over the weaknesses of that theological movement.  Thus, he notes that Mr. Niebuhr could pen hundreds of pages of Christian theology without referencing the resurrection, but he seems to dismiss this as a weakness, rather than seeing it as a fatal flaw to orthodoxy's concerns.  Indeed, while neo-orthodoxy's philosophical return to biblical categories of thinking was welcome in light of what had prevailed in mainline Protestantism prior to World War II, its indifference to the historicity of Christianity's core events virtually assured that it would not stand in the face of its intellectual challengers.

While genuinely concerned about doctrinal orthodoxy, Mr. Douthat largely views these problems through political and sociological lenses, thus somewhat limiting his range of viable solutions.  That being said, this is a book that I would highly recommend as a perceptive take on America's religious landscape.

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