Bad Religion

Bad Religion, How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat ★★★★★
Ross Douthat is coming next Saturday to speak at Faith Presbyterian Church (09NOV2013), and so I thought I’d read the book that will be the focus of his visit. Fortunately, this was loaned to me by Dr. King, who happened to have a copy. Though it is a fairly meaty book, I managed to read it in a weekend, allowing me time to cogitate and ruminate on the main points of the book. Oppenheimer has reviewed the text for the NY Times and seems to have missed some of the most salient points of the book,  though he mentions that Ross does an excellent job of attacking both the religious right and religious left in this country. Ross speaks as a Catholic and holds a strong affinity for the traditional Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II liturgy and practice of the church. Douthat’s writing style requires a bit of warm-up, and thus it is hard to connect with the book in the first few chapters. The focus of the book is on Christianity in the USA, and thus Judaism and other religions naturally are not mentioned at all, nor is Christianity in other countries mentioned. Throughout, Ross continually brings in mention of political party involvement in the religious scene, and religion in the public square.
The first four chapters attempt to present the public square of religion in a semi-historical sense, beginning with roughly the turn of the century,  the work of liberal theologians, to the semi-reforming influence of Karl Barth, and with discussions regarding a variety of topics such as the sexual revolution and the crisis of racism. The next chapter (The Locust Years) details the fall of the mainstream denominations, including the Catholic church, into liberalism. The next chapter on accommodation details how Christianity tried to make itself acceptable to the community by accommodating in morality, ethics, and liturgy to a populist approach. This was shown as a  dismal failure. The Resistance chapter then speaks of the response of Christendom, both Catholic, and Protestant, to waning church populations,  and the attempts at rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants.
In part II, titled “The Age of Heresy”,  the chapters range from discussion of the loss in Catholic and Protestant circles of a sense of the text of Scripture, demonstrating both cluelessness as to what Scriptures say (a Glenn Beck illustration is given), and a desire of those like Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels to resurrect “lost” gospels and create an alternative Christianity. Chapter six, “Pray and Grow Rich” focuses mostly on the religious right, and their prosperity gospel or mentality for such, even when (like pastor Rick Warren) they overtly deny a prosperity gospel. Conversely, chapter seven, “The God Within” shows the religious left as forming new spiritualities which abandon all sense of Christian morality, to focus on the inner self, a cross between eastern mysticism and western psychobabble. The final chapter, “A City on a Hill” bounces back to the religious right, with the inclusion of both republican and democratic parties, and attacks the mentality that views the USA as God’s last hope on earth, the sole island of faith in the world, and the sole defender of Christian value, and the exceptionalism of being American.
In a concluding chapter, Douthat gives an all-too-brief summary of a solution, which includes returning to the ancient faith, and developing an improved communication between the Catholic and Protestant conservatives. He discusses the need for Christian culture to re-engage in the arts. He also stresses the importance of being Christian rather than party-affiliated.
I have minor problems with the thesis of Douthat. While I appreciate his perspicuity at identifying the problems of public faith in America, I think that some Calvinist glasses could have given him a better insight into all that has gone wrong. Essentially, we are witnessing a rebellion against God, and re-defining our commitments to other conservative Christians and to the church is only part of the answer. The personal sin of unbelief and repentance from that sin is not mentioned in the book. Return to the idolatries of Catholicism and the counter-idolatries of traditional Protestantism will only deepen our dilemma. His focus is not on truly Biblical solutions, including resolving the economic and social conundrums that bedevil our society. Is there a Christian economy? I tend to agree with Gary North that there is. How do we as Christians publicly deal with the sins of homosexuality, intolerance which comes in the form of political correctness, a court system that is a hotbed of injustice, civil servants and politicians that are corrupt to the bone, wanton greed thrown off as free-market Capitalism, the role of the church vs. the state in providing for the poor, etc., etc., etc.? To those questions, we will never have perfect answers in our lifetime, but perhaps Douthat will address them in future writings.
In terms of a critique of the Protestant church, Douthat is an addendum to Machen, Schaeffer, and David Wells. Francis Schaeffer remains the best voice yet in offering solutions to the hard questions of Christian life in the public square. Douthat excels at giving us a little bigger and better picture of the transmogrifying public religious scene that includes the Roman Catholic presence. Thus, it is very well worth reading.
ADDENDUM: 09NOV2013 I just got back from talking with Ross Douthat and hearing him speak for 1.5 hours at Faith Presbyterian Church about his life and this book. His goals and objectives for writing the book are well accomplished. Douthat is not only articulate and quite brilliant, but very humble, soft-spoken, and caring. It is quite clear that his commitment to the orthodox Christian faith takes first place in his life. He was a joy to listen to, but also quite thought-provoking about how we present ourselves as Christians in the public square.