In Bad Religion, Ross Douthat manages to be exactly the kind of figure that he decries exists no longer: the public religious intellectual akin to Reinhold Niebuhr or Will Herberg. Though not a theologian proper, Douthat does offer some trenchant observations in a readable and winsome fashion.
The second half of his book focuses upon the heresies he sees infecting modern American Christianity. From Douthat’s perspective, “the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether” (145). Among these maladies are: 1) the rise of a “do-it-yourself” biblical approach in the mold of Dan Brown and the supposedly secret and revelatory Gnostic Christian texts, 2) the infectious power of money, prosperity, and the temptation to ally Christianity with success by the world’s standards, 3) the elevation of pseudo-spirituality and the “God within” in addition to the rise of largely therapeutic forms of Christianity, and 4) the heresy of American nationalism that, depending on which party is in power can manifest itself pessimistically (apocalyptic) or optimistically (messianic). His discussion of this fourth problem alone is worth the price of admission.
For Douthat, each of these heresies are ugly aberrations from the true faith that rob us of the power of orthodoxy and more. It is worth noting that heretical thinking can affect both liberals and conservatives. Hear his perspective, then, on the right place of Christian teaching:
The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post-sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.
This is wisdom for our time. While not all of our American heresies may necessarily be represented, Bad Religion does a good job laying out the scope and stakes of the problem at hand. Christianity–still a pervasive force within the United States–that does not embrace its birthright has little prophetic or helpful to say to the world at large.
In answer to the difficulties facing the Church in our society, Douthat proposes that a return to Christian orthodoxy would involve politics without partisanship, being ecumenical but still confessional, moralistic yet holistic, and inhabit the qualities of sanctity and beauty. Holding onto these tensions is important.
Though probably a longer conversation than I want to have here, a not insignificant amount of this perspective is probably derived from Douthat’s Catholicism. Protestants would be wise to listen. It is no surprise, I think, that Pope Francis may be becoming exactly the kind of prophetic figure who inhabits these qualities.
Ultimately, Bad Religion is worth reading for its thoughtful reflections on the state of American faith and culture. I cannot say I agree 100% with everything he says, but the kind of wisdom and reflection he exudes here is desperately needed in a religious society with our problems. Christians especially will benefit from his observations about the role of orthodoxy and heresy vis-a-vis the temptations of worldly wisdom.
Whether his critiques will lead to a revival of Christianity and any kind of return to a 1950s settlement is an open question (he does not guarantee it, and I have doubts on at least the latter possibility). Nevertheless, naming and analyzing such heresies are valuable, even if only for the state of our own souls. In this I am thankful for one of the final things he says in the book: “To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived, not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself” (293). What happens after this? Well, we’ll see what comes next.