An Excellent Book on Religion in America

20 Mar

Ross Douthat, columnist in the New York Times, has written a powerful critique of religion in America in his book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

Douthat’s premise is, contrary to the new atheists and other secularists, that orthodox Christianity is not the reason for the problems of our culture. Instead, destructive heresies, twisted Christianities, have become ascendant, contributing to societal decay. These heresies have always been present in the Church but now these heresies have taken center stage, edging out what Douthat calls, in a nod to C.S. Lewis, the stabilizing power of “mere Christianity.”

The book is organized in a simple way in two parts. The first part gives the historical background which explains how heresies came to dominate American religious life. This section is fascinating. I learned much, especially about Catholic history in America. I was more familiar with the evangelical protestant background but I still benefited from the review of the history and the way Douthat made connections from the past to the present.

Part Two, roughly the second half of the book, discusses four heresies which greatly shape our culture. The first heresy is characterized by the Jesus Seminar and the works of Dan Brown. This heresy attempts to popularize alternate approaches to Jesus that have been making the rounds in scholarly circles for years. Douthat shows the factual and theological weakness of these approaches but also the way culture has been shaped by the ways skeptics have attacked or sought to re-shape the orthodox view of Jesus.

Douthat then shows the pervasive power of the Prosperity Gospel. He shows how a backwater of Charismatic revivalism and faith healing has coalesced to become mainstream. Joel Osteen is the poster child for this movement of positive confession and faith which fills arenas and leaves many disillusioned believers in its wake.

The third heresy Douthat calls “the God Within.” Here Douthat speaks of the Oprahization of faith, the inward turn to self. This approach is summed up best by Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray,Love.” Douthat shows how the search for God within ourselves is at odds with traditional Christian teaching and leads to isolation and idolatry of the self.

Douthat’s fourth heresy is epitomized by Glenn Beck and is seen in attempts on right and left to marry nationalistic fervor to Christian faith.

Again, each of these heresies has long existed in American life. The difference today, according to Douthat, is that these heresies have become a kind of accepted orthodoxy in American life.

Douthat closes the book with a look at the way forward. He recommends a recovery of the core of Christian faith through both utilizing societal changes and being set apart from society through intentional practice of the faith.

This is an important book explaining our current excesses and the way back to a better expression of faith for America in the 21st century.

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