Friday, August 31, 2012

Comment on Ross Douthat's "Bad Religion"

Maybe it is the journey beginning in the Southern Baptist Church of my youth and early adulthood, progressing through middle age commitments to a couple of “mainline” churches, and recently moving to the Catholic Church, hopefully for my remaining senior years, that caused me to enjoy so much Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.  Or maybe it is just that I lived through and have some familiarity with almost everything he discusses in the book but have never knit all the pieces together in a continuous narrative, explaining the development of theological liberalism as he does.

Douthat is a magna cum laud Harvard graduate, a Pentecostal turned Catholic, and a lonely conservative columnist, the youngest ever, at the New York Times.  Don’t worry about him though, because, when it comes to the written word, he can hold his own with anybody. In Bad Religion, he has provided a well documented history of the US Christian Church from the 1940’s to today, producing a volume that should qualify as a textbook for a course in any Christian seminary and deserves a permanent place in the library of any person of faith. 

His story begins in the post WWII glory days for the Christian Church in America, attendance, membership, and giving all increasing, Protestant evangelist Billy Graham, Catholic Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., all receiving general respect and approval of the public and little criticism, except from segregationists, and none of them waffling on the traditional orthodox Apostles and Nicene Creed truths held by Christians since the early centuries of the Church.  It was a time when thirty seven mainline denominations could cooperate to establish a protestant presence in New York City, the National Council of Churches, have the cornerstone for their new nineteen story skyscraper laid by President Eisenhower, and get favorable comment and support from both the President of the United States and The New York Times.

But then the 1960’s brought the Vietnam War, the Pill and subsequent sexual revolution, increasing wealth, mobility, consumerism and suburban sprawl, globalization, theological relativism, and individualism.  And political polarization began to divide Christians and even complicate joint worship and prayer by “liberals” and “conservatives.”  Inclusion and accommodation became the bywords for mainline Protestant churches, and many formerly faithful members lost track of the reasons they had joined and worshiped there.  On the Catholic side, The American Catholic Church influence waned as Vatican II was miss-interpreted, liturgical practices suffered, and seminary discipline broke down.  And many formerly faithful Catholics and Protestants stayed home Sunday mornings and zipped up their pocketbooks.

And from that turmoil, according to Douthat, came Bad Religion, abandonment of the orthodox fundamentals of the Christian faith and adoption of heresies focusing on prosperity (Joel Osteen e.g.), narcissism and self actualization (Eat, Pray, Love e.g.), and nationalism (Glen Beck e.g.).

You may be wondering how I can, with all that bad news about the Church, claim, as I did in the first paragraph, to have enjoyed Douthat’s book. I take comfort, first of all, in the promise Jesus made that he would establish his Church and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it so I am not too stressed about the current state of affairs.  I see the Church not as a civic or social or political or self-help or even a social justice organization but a “place” of divine mystery and miracles, the embassy of Heaven on Earth, a place to be comforted and fed but also a place to be reminded that Jesus said that if we love him, we are to keep his commandments.

Douthat makes it clear at the end of his book that his objective was to make a “…case for Christian orthodoxy - defending its exacting moralism as a curb against worldly excess and corruption, praising its paradoxes and mysteries for respecting the complexities of human affairs in ways that more streamlined theologies do not, celebrating the role of its institutions in assimilating immigrants, sustaining families, and forging strong communities.” He closes by inviting his readers to Church.  I thought that was a positive note and one I can endorse and second.

Other interesting articles on Douthat's book.
Interview with him.
A critical response to Douthat's book.
A Douthat defense of the book.
Discussion and critiques of Douthat's book.
An expert commentary by Fr. Robert Barron

It is obviously a book that has stirred up considerable interest and commentary.  Get it and read it.

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