Review: “Bad Religion” (Part I)

Bad-ReligionI’ve just finished reading a fascinating book assigned for one of my new classes.  It is called Bad Religion, and is written by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

In essence, the book is a look at the interplay between American Christianity and American society in modern times, with special emphasis on what he considers the rather depressed and malformed state of the former.

The subtitle of Bad Religion is this: “How We Became a Nation of Heretics.”  Borrowing Alistair McGrath’s definition of heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith,” Douthat attempts to show how American Christianity has lost its orthodox prophetic edge in the United States.

To do so, Douthat spends the first half of his book analyzing how we arrived at our current state.  Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, he looks to figures like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, BOOK-articleInlineevangelist Billy Graham, television personality and Roman Catholic bishop Fulton Sheen, and civil rights activist, pastor and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr.  For Douthat, each of these represent American Christianity at its height, exuding what he calls “confidence” (53) and an ability to transcend borders and boundaries.

Following this, he charts the decades that followed–the “locust years,” as he calls them.  During this era–beset with emerging concerns (he lists political polarization, the sexual revolution, global perspectives, the problem of wealth, and class), American Christianity began to decline and fracture.  Numbers declined in previously robust mainline and Roman Catholic churches, and with it some of the influential positions they had previously held.

In response, many mainline denominations headed down the path of liberal accommodation, finding along the way that this was not the answer to their losses.  Other churches (notably evangelical denominations and, increasingly, segments of Roman Catholicism) chose resistance to the changing times.  Though especially in evangelical circles this time period did lead to growth, the last few decades have also marred Catholics with the shameful sex abuse scandal and evangelicals with too close association with the militarism, missteps, and mistakes of the George W. Bush era.

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTSAll of this connects with the specific heresies Douthat feels we have inherited in our contemporary age.  (More on that tomorrow.)

For now, I’ll simply say that I find much to admire in Douthat’s thought, prose, and ability to synthesize and articulate a wide range of materials.  I felt as if I were reliving the entirely of my PhD candidacy (American Church History) all over again during the reading of this book…and in a good way!  It is a monograph I wish I had written myself.  Though as an historian I may question some of the claims he is making here (especially–as is often done–a temptation towards the pseudo-sanctification of the 1950s as the height of all things), his footnotes reveal that he has done his homework.

Douthat’s argument does remind us billy-graham-70that things were different in mid-century America.  Individuals with wide influence like Niebuhr, Graham, Sheen, and–especially–MLK bestrode America like Colossi.  The pervasiveness of this “consensus Christianity” was important, even as it probably covered over the differences that eventually disrupted it in the years that followed.  (Or was it perhaps–somewhat less dramatically–just simply apathy or custom that led American to be so “Christian” in the 1950s and early 1960s?)

In any case, Bad Religion‘s read of accommodation vs. resistance makes sense, and anticipates Douthat’s discussion of heresy.  The move from a  “both/and” to “either/or”  approach is one of these haunting developments, as is the emergence of optimistic utopianism…for once again, he asserts, we have confused the City of God with the City of Man.

(to be continued)

A Confession

imagesA close friend recently shared with me a rather disconcerting observation.  In their words, I am not very spiritual.

Upon hearing this accusation, my first reaction was to defend myself.  Then to provide excuses.  Then to get a little angry.  But even as I was going through the motions, I knew that there was truth in what they said.  I didn’t want to hear it, but there it was.

I have long fancied myself someone who believes (with Pascal) that “The heart has its reasons that the mind knows not of.”  And yet the habits of the spiritual heart–devotional aspects of the Christian life like regular prayer, focusing Bible reading, and spiritual reflection–have been sorely lacking from my life.  The result?  A recourse to worldly wisdom, common-sense, and associated ways of doing things rather than a reliance upon God’s leading and example.  Becoming so focused on the life of the mind that the life of the spirit suffers.  spirituality-stain-glassorig

As an ordained minister, professor at a Christian university, and mentor to future pastors, I am embarrassed.  But that isn’t all.  As a Christian–irrespective of all these other roles–it is a somewhat devastating revelation.  Here I am, someone who says they are following after Christ, and yet I am cutting myself off from the deep communion with God that I truly believe each human being needs.

I am not spiritually disciplined, and this lack of discipline has contributed to a faltering spirituality.  Without being too navel-gazing here, let me just say this: it’s a problem.

Now, I realize that being disciplined in prayer, fasting, worship, Scriptural meditation and the like do not make God love me more.  These things are not to be done so that I can “win” at the Christian life and thereby look down at others.  But they are practices that help to reorient our perspective away from ourselves and the world’s way of seeing things towards new possibilities and transcendent realities.  They remind us that we are not God.  That our God-given spirit is as much a part of existence as is our mind or body.

Because one of the few things in my life in which I have been regularly disciplined over the past few years is this blog, I’ve decided that once a week I’ll be taking a brBible%20Matthew%20Gospel_blogeak from my reflections historical, pastoral, political, theological, and otherwise to focus specifically on spiritual matters.  The tone will be different from most of my other posts–probably more similar to a blog I wrote seven or eight years ago.  It will be a chance to process through some of the reflections and experiences I will be having as I read and pray through the Gospel of Matthew this semester.  Hearing the story of Christ’s life yet again and writing about its impact upon my spirit will therefore be my task.  It isn’t the answer to all of my shortcomings as a Christian whose spiritual life has been rather dry.  But it is at least a beginning.

Dislocation, Part II

21dd905bWhile I was in New Jersey, a Pentecostal friend and I were talking about church matters.  A local mainline congregation was mentioned, and the implication was that because it was not changing with the times and had a membership consisting mostly of older people, it had failed to do its job.  My immediate though was this: perhaps it is operating from a different idea of what the Church is.

As I think about the different shapes the Church can take, I am reminded of Avery Dulles’ book Models of the Church.  Within, he provides six different pictures of what the body of Christ can and does look like in the world.  It can be: 1) Institution, 2) womanInvisible Communion, 3) Sacrament (visible sign of God’s grace) 4) Herald/Messenger, 5) Servant, and 6) Community of Disciples.  Though not each of these can be said to have the same level of biblical support, each makes sense in their own way as (at the very least) descriptors of the Church.

Roman Catholics, for instance, are big on the institutional and sacramental approach, while traditional evangelicals tend to be centered much more on proclamation and discipleship.  Other Christians might be more servant-minded and sacramental, while still others in our world seek the more radical life of full-on communal Christian Monks1_smdiscipleship.  Christian history and the world we live in are replete with examples of these models and more.

Debating about which of them is “best” misses the point at some level, because there are important aspects of each that can constitute how Christians organize their lives and actions together in the world.  Proclamation is great, but without any institutional framework this can become rather disorganized.  The Church as claiborne1sacrament needs a community of growing disciples to live most fully into that purpose.  Service without any proclamation can become disconnected from its very foundation.  Invisible communion is a powerful truth, but can lose focus and direction if not ordered.  The Church is many things, and all six of Dulles’ categories (and likely more) have their place.

While many of our individual congregations, traditions, and denominations do tend in certain directions, we must be careful to not evaluate other Christian groups by our own stated purpose/model.  Though there are objective categories by which congregations can be said to be failing or succeeding (thriving or dying), simple non-adherence to our model of what it means to be the Church might not be the best evaluative place to start.

Dislocation, Part I

pacificnorthwestcoastvacation4_s600x600It has now been nearly two and a half years since my wife and I moved cross-country for my new position as a professor at Northwest University.  On the whole it has been a good experience for us, even though we dearly miss the daily relationships forged during our lives on the East Coast.  Having recently returned from a rather extended holiday trip to visit friends and family, we were once again reminded of wonderful people, powerful memories, and the former shape of our lives.

For me, some of this old life involved serving for six years as a youth minister in a local church.  It is a period in my life I cherish.  At the same time, being in one place for so long also meant that I rarely had an opportunity to see some of the different ways church was “done,” either in my local community or the larger world.  While there was the occasional visit elsewhere or missions experience, on the whole I was rather dialed in to a very specific order and perspective.

Moving across the country and not being employed by (and thereby contractually obligated to) a specific KAZAKHSTAN_-_Union_Churchcongregation has allowed me a number of opportunities to see things differently.  Though we are members of a local church here in Washington and spend most of our Sundays there, being able to visit other houses of worship from time to time is an experience very distinct from the one I had previously.  And even if we never visited any other churches besides our own, its congregational culture is different enough from our previous church experience that it provides a clear example of how unique the body of Christ can be from place to place.

In my role as a ministry professor, I am also blessed with numerous opportunities to meet with pastors, learn about various congregations through student presentations and papers, and read a significant amount of church-related literature. Through all of it, I am impressed with the multiple ways in which church is “done.”  Meeting in movie theaters.  Having a full-out coffee stand in the foyer.  Electronic donation Clergy_and_Wanderer_Monk_in_Sarov_Monasteryapparatus.  Small groups for board games.  Addiction recovery ministries.  Casting aside a traditional Sunday morning service to partner with a World Vision feeding program.  Dressing up, dressing down.  Living the Church as community with a group of friends in a local neighborhood.  Multiple sites.  Churches merging.  The list goes on.

And to think: most of what I have seen or heard of  is only within the American Evangelical/Charismatic/Pentecostal culture.  How much more there is in the many iterations of the Church throughout history and across our world today.

As an historian, knowing that the Church looks different in varying times and places is somewhat of an axiom.  All the same, knowing it on the page does not compare with coming to understand what I have in my short time of coastal dislocation.  As I look up from the pages of history to both contemporary realities and the wide open possibilities of the future, I am encouraged.

Year in Review: 2013

joshToday is the last day of regular classes here at Northwest University, and with it comes the end of my blogging year.  I’ll be back again in January on a regular basis, but until then, here’s my ten most popular blog posts of 2013.  Thanks for reading and commenting this past year!

10.  “A Pentecostal Tension“: Concerning the prosperity gospel.

9.  “No Country for Old Men“: A pope’s resignation.

8.  “The Pentecostal as Mystic“: Reading the Bible with the Holy Spirit.

7.  “Union with God in the Everyday“: Christian living and the Spirit of God.

6.  “The Life of the College Professor“: A brief aside on serving as a happy-2013-wishes-from-2ndskiesforexjudge for a student film competition.

5.  “Concerning Megan Fox and the Holy Spirit“: Any ideas why this one was so popular?

4.  “It’s Your Funeral“: Thoughts on a theology of marriage.

3.  “The Idolatry of Family“: Can you love them too much?

2.  “Strange Fire is God’s Fire“: Contra John Piper

and my top post of the year (by far)…..

1.  “Paying the Piper“: Thinking through the controversy over Pastor Steven Furtick’s expensive house.

The Best We Can Do

K75213BERNINI 3When the word humanism is used in modern parlance, it is often with reference to what is known as “secular humanism.”  As an ideology that rejects religious claims in favor of humanity on its own, secular humanism is very much opposed to orthodox Christianity.  For what it is worth, I’m not a fan.

And yet there is another side to humanism that isn’t secular at all.  During the age of the Renaissance, what we might call Christian humanism–the recognition of the image of God in humanity and celebration of all the skill God has given us–was both religious in orientation and achieved great accomplishments.  This striving for greatness while maintaining awareness of the source of such greatness makes sense.  Though not all of this time period would have subscribed to such an approach, in the religious and philosophical climate of the era it makes some sense.

I realize that traditional Christian teaching–especially in the Reformed mode–has always sought to remind us of our finitude and depravity.  That our efforts are ashes and dust compared to the majesty of God.  I get that.  However, I also know that if we are really people into whom God has breathed God’s very Spirit, this means something too.  That’s why I’m a Christian humanist.  adam-creation-sistine-chapel-19645421

I reflected on some of this over the past summer.  My wife and I were blessed to be able to travel to Italy in July.  While there, we experienced cities like Florence and Rome–places where the Renaissance and its elevation of human abilities in art, architecture, and so much more held sway.  As we stood before some of the greatest artwork in human history or entered the St. Peter’s Basilica, (the largest church in Christendom), I became aware of one undeniable fact.  This was the best we can do.  Literally.  We often talk about better and worse, good or bad.  But not always do we have the opportunity to observe or be a part of the best.  Standing in the Sistine Chapel?  This was the best humanity has done.  Think about that.  Amazing.

shakespearebig_2278393bAnd we don’t have to travel overseas to experience all of this.  Literature can transcend geographical boundaries, and reading the best of it can be open to us so easily.  The Olympics will be before us in a few short months, elevating the abilities and potential of the human form.  Recorded music of almost any type is often near-free and readily available through the Internet.  And, though the effect is sometimes much diminished, even the visual arts and architecture can be experienced through a computer screen.

We have the opportunity to enjoy, without exaggeration, some of the greatest accomplishments in human history.

So when you get a chance, reserve some time to be a humanist.  Take a look at or read or experience some of the best we can do.  Soak it in.  And–of course–celebrate the imago Dei it represents, and remember to Whom it all points.

Give Thanks


“Thanksgiving was never meant to be shut up in a single day.”
-Robert Caspar Lintner

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, what is one reality in your life for which you are thankful?