A Response to Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion

In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat directs his warnings concerning modern Christianity at the ordinary America, “where papal encyclicals rarely penetrate and the works of Richard Dawkins pass unread.”i Here the theological history of Christianity is most easily forgotten and thereby disregarded. Many of Douthat’s criticisms echo exactly the points emphasized by modern, secular critics, albeit Douthat admits the distinction between bad and good religion. By sifting out the bad religion, the orthodox Christianity that remains will not only be more authentically Christian but also a tougher target. Douthat proposes that “traditional Christian faith might have more to offer this country than either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.”ii His book defends this claim with a history and critique of modern Christianity, as well as suggestions for a stronger future.

In response to the massive cultural changes embraced during the 1960s and 1970s, Ross Douthat cites two responses of American Christianity. The first he calls “accommodation”, wherein religious leaders actively sought the “inclusion of the counterculture”iii in their teachings. In this spirit, guitars replaced organs in liturgy, general moral guidelines replaced particular commandments, and the philosophies of the day replaced the theology of the ages. Christian leaders nobly intended to open the doors of the faith to a society caught in the anti-authority Vietnam War era and the Sexual Revolution, but their efforts obscured Christianity’s unique identity. Soon, many religious communities became indistinguishable from secular culture. Douthat remarks that during this period, “It became hard to distinguish a religious education manual from a typical textbook for building self-esteem.”iv Fearing they could alienate a generation of believers, spiritual leaders shied away from Christianity’s peculiar particularities and, in doing so, shied away from the unique answers their religion was able to offer to perennial problems. These were the paradoxes and difficult teachings that made Christianity hard to accept; they were what made it worth accepting.

Douthat titles the second response to the ‘60s and ‘70s “resistance”, an approach that rejected both popular culture and the theological compromises embraced by accomodationists. At its best, the Resistance movement produced leaders like Pope John Paul II, who combined a concern for young people with his commitment to a strict code of sexual integrity with his Theology of the Body series.v In this same spirit, many Catholic leaders attempted to save the Vatican II reforms from those who took them too far. Leading Evangelical colleges strengthened their academic programs and attracted top students for serious study, leading to a “coterie of Evangelical scholars who could compete as equals with the best and brightest in the wider academic world.”vi These scholars loaned intellectual credibility to the central claims of Christianity. Yet, just like accomodationism, the resistance movement had its perils. Some communities isolated themselves from popular culture, to the point that certain denominations of Christianity existed within their own social and cultural circles, and did not effectively engage the non-Christian community. This has led to “the stuff of Kirk Cameron movies and Christian rock music, geared to an undemanding audience and easily dismissed by anyone outside the circle of the devout.”vii While these popular Christian resources may meet a particular demand within their communities, they can border on emotional manipulation that makes theologically faulty lessons appeal to a dedicated body of believers. Additionally, this type of inverted subculture fails to support the intellectual understanding necessary to defend Christianity.

In the void of orthodox Christianity’s decline, Ross Douthat points out that America as a whole became “more religious but less traditionally Christian; more spiritually minded but less churched.”viii New theories emerged about the character of God and the person of Christ. Alternative accounts of Jesus derived from gospels not included in the Christian Canon, which Douthat describes as “derivative in their substance, inferior in their art, and tedious in their embellishments,” took hold of popular imagination.ix The alternative gospels used to justify such changes in Christ’s character are fraught with historical inadequacies, translation issues, and sketchy sources that make their claim as authoritative texts invalid. They tend to focus on one half of a paradox about Christ—either his humanity or divinity, not both—and thereby attempt to create a “noncontradictory Jesus.”x These small deviations in the character of Jesus Christ gradually lead to a relativist perspective on God as a whole and to some of the greatest heresies of our time. Soon, God becomes so generic and lacking in specific traits that he is “an experience rather than a person,”xi or “so universal that He’s in you as you.”xii This creator no longer demands reverence or obedience from his creation, as he has been conveniently demoted to a vague being who desires nothing except the happiness of his followers.

Disintegration in the traditional person of God has supported an indifferent attitude toward morality, which descended from the Sexual Revolution. After all, “If God is beyond personality, perhaps He is beyond morality as well—and thus why should his beloved followers worry overmuch about petty questions like whom they happen to be sleeping with, or how best to dispose of their income?”xiii Under the guise of Christianity, preachers focus on only God’s love and never God’s commandments. According to Douthat, popular televangelist (and accomodationist) Joel Osteen promulgates this view, with sermons based on the idea that “God gives without demanding.”xiv While Christian theology certainly holds the supreme compassion and generosity of God, Orthodoxy also acknowledges a “hierarchy of goods and ordinary duties.”xv When these moral obligations are violated, orthodox Christianity believes there are consequences, which ultimately make the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ matter. With the popular ‘to each his own’ mentality, “men may smile at their neighbor without loving them and decline to judge their fellow citizens beliefs’ out of a broader indifference for their fate.”xvi C.S. Lewis emphasizes precisely this corrective burden of love in his essay “The Weight of Glory” when he argues that “our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment.”xvii Christianity does both its followers and society as a whole a great disservice when it fails to compassionately articulate definitive statements regarding morality, which come from the particular characteristics of God. There is no Christian forgiveness in a world of relativistic tolerance; there is no redemption through Christ where judgment is a mere matter of “intolerance.”

Adopting C.S. Lewis’ concept of love’s responsibility, Ross Douthat harshly criticizes American Christianity in hopes of encouraging a stronger future. He ends Bad Religion with suggestions for restoring Orthodox Christianity. In his view, orthodoxy has the tremendous potential to become a “radical alternative”xviii in our modern culture, like it did when Christianity first began. Perhaps Christian communities would gain more influence if they led by “example rather than engagement.”xix Though different denominations of Christianity should join together to restore a proper understanding of their shared theology, this commitment should not come at the cost of erasing theological differences. Douthat believes that American Christianity’s efforts should remain “ecumenical but also confessional”xx instead of simply embracing a Christianity of the “lowest common denominator.”xxi Douthat stands against our priests, pastors, and spiritual leaders who have disregarded the particulars of our theology in exchange for a general validation of our culture’s disordered values. The remedy to bad religion must be good theology voiced with genuine Christian love, a love that no genuine orthodox theologian ever claimed would be easy.

As a culture, hopefully we can follow in the footsteps of G.K. Chesterton’s search for the truth. In the introduction to his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton describes his efforts to create a coherent worldview separate from traditional Christianity. He concludes, “I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches on it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”xxii Likewise, perhaps our culture’s obsessive search over the past century for a new understanding of God will lead us to the bold discovery that truth lies where we left it, in Orthodoxy.

 

i. Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, (New York, Free Press, 2012) 4.

ii. Ibid. 293

iii. Ibid. 91

iv. Ibid. 100

v. Ibid. 119

vi. Ibid. 125

vii. Ibid. 139

viii. Ibid. 64

ix. Ibid. 170

x. Ibid. 153

xi. Ibid. 223

xii. Ibid. 221

xiii. Ibid. 229

xiv. Ibid. 183

xv. Ibid. 230

xvi. Ibid. 234

xvii. C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” 1942.

xviii. Douthat 279.

xix. Ibid. 280

xx. Ibid. 286

xzi. Ibid. 286

zzii. Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Simon & Brown, 2011) 9.

 

Elena Zinski ’15 is from Wheaton, Illinois. She is an Arabic major.

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