I had noticed that TS of Video, meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor had been reading through Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat and quoting passages from it. The title and subtitle intrigued me as does the author and so I added it to my wish list and finally got around to buying and reading it.
This book is sort of a history and critique of Christianity as practiced by Americans especially in the last seventy or so years. His critique is that we are a nation of heretics and that really we have always been a nation of heretics from the foundation of the country. What has changed is the amount of orthodoxy as practiced by the various strains of American Christianity. His use of the word heretics is the more general term of use and not a precise canonical one.
As a critique the history provided is of the major trends and personalities involved along with snapshots of data to help you put it all into context. We see how these religious trends often intersected with societal ones and how more and more they took on political tones. These movements within Christianity as practiced in America paralleled movements of thought from Europe resulting in very American formulations of it along with negative reactions to this. He breaks up these movements into two basic areas of accommodation and resistance and reviews both the Protestant and Catholic sides of it. Accommodation being the various forms predominate in a more liberal Christianity along with resistance like the neo-Orthodox movement. This makes up the first half of the book and provides a very readable summary of this history along with exploring the philosophies and personalities behind it.
The second half of the book looks at the various heresies that are predominant now. The culture and the media’s fascination with some of the so-called lost gospels and other gnostic writings used to beat Christianity shows the old adage about “any stick will do.” From the inept translation of the Gospel of Judas as headed by the National Geographic to so much nonsense that has made it to the History Channel we see how that stick is used. They will call the Catholic Church anti-women while promoting the “Gospel” of Thomas where you have to become a man to go to Heaven.
He also explores those who promote a materialistic prosperity gospel of “Name it and claim it” the Word of Faith movement. I find it no surprise that this movement developed in the U.S. and also not a surprise that it runs parallels to the New Age teaching of the “the law of attraction” as espoused in so many books Oprah promoted. Strains of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale “The Power of Positive Thinking” have taken some strange paths.
New Age emphasis on the “God within” has also made many inroads and entries into not only the popular culture, but also the retreat house. It is almost despairing when books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray. Love” which exhibit a toxic selfishness not only becomes a best seller, but a movie also. But when the god is within you than sin is dispelled and whatever you happen to be doing is of course part of the will of the god within for you. Mystical pantheism dressed up in radical selfishness.
I found especially interesting the last chapter “The City on the Hill” which looks in part at the various religious/political intersections and how they have played out in our history. The alternations between messianic and apocalyptic views which more and more are existing in parallel. These intersections were to the good in the Civil Rights movements where we had both sides of the political divide along with the parallel elements in various churches. Ross Douthat analysis of this success of this only highlights the failure of modern religious and political partisanship. This is certainly not a simple “liberal bad, conservatives good” book as I think he gives a fair analysis regarding both sides. I certainly did not agree with all of his analysis, but when I didn’t I was more apt to look at my own ideas and see if perhaps I was mistaken or needed to reevaluate something. The conclusion of the book reflects both his “spirit of pessimism” and a hopeful optimism.
This book has been written in a spirit of pessimism, but for both Americans and Christians, pessimism should always be provisional. Even in an era of disarray, Americans can draw confidence from our nation’s remarkable past, with its stories of expectations confounded, obstacles overcome, declines reversed, and better futures attained. Christians have an even stronger source of confidence: the belief that history has an Author and that the destiny of both their country and their creed is in God’s hands.
Ross Douthat as a Catholic knows that the promise concerning the Church’s protection from the Gates of Hell does not mean a protection of American Christianity as he points out. He does not pretend to predict how this ebbs and flows of Christianity within the context of the United States will play out, but he also knows that there have been many predicted ends for it.
As a writer Ross Douthat is really a joy to read and I especially liked the precision in what he wrote. Some people will use their large vocabulary as a spotlight to show how bright they are. I don’t think that was the case here, but I am glad I read the ebook version where a dictionary definition was only a finger press away. When he did use unfamiliar words I found they were perfected fitted to what he was saying.