Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Lamenting the Loss Of the Heretics

Written by: on April 10, 2015

Heretic – “A person holding an opinion at odds with what is generally accepted” (Google).  Ross Douthat forwards the position that we (Americans) have become a collection of heretics.  While I generally agree with the observations found in the book, and find myself often lamenting (all of us in this class have really…) the condition of the church in America, a deeper examination of the word “heretic” unearths some interesting things to consider.  So, can I nitpick just a little?

In order for a bunch of heretics to be identified, there would first need to be a generally accepted norm.  It could be argued that American society since the 1960s has strayed so far from Orthodoxy (be it Catholic, Orthodox OR Protestant) that a single, widely accepted norm is no longer discernible.  Without a discernible norm, there can be no heretic.  As Douthat himself points out, “[y]ou can’t have fringes without a center, iconoclasts without icons, revolutionaries without institutions to rebel against.”1  In much the same way that organizational norms are required in order for a deviant to be identified and either vilified (in the case of Destructive Deviance) or lionized (in the case of Constructive Deviance), so must there be a central spiritual norm in order for heretics to emerge.  In America, we have no center, no singular icon, no core religious institution.

Much like ancient Rome where one of the elements required to be considered truly “Roman” was to embrace lots of different religious systems on par with each other, the prevailing thought (even among “Christians” it would seem) is “I’ll get there my way, you get there your way and when we all get there eventually, we’ll have a party!”  This is a sobering reality.  And the relative speed at which “the river of Orthodoxy has gradually been drying up”2 is cause for alarm for those comfortable swimming there.

In a mere 50 years, essentially 2000 years of firmness and stability (some might say “intractability”?) has been erased, replaced with the squishy relativism of liquid modernity.  In the course of roughly two generations, we rocketed from generally accepted and widely held beliefs to rebelling against those beliefs, to a collective amnesia that these beliefs ever actually were embraced!  How is this possible?  There had to be some deeper, grander, more sinister work being undertaken behind the curtains of the human theater leading up to this moment in time, right?  This MUST be a bad thing, RIGHT???  Like Douthat suggests, we HAVE to, like Auden, find our way among the (metaphorically speaking) shuttered churches of 1930s Spain and be driven to our knees and a “more rigorous and humble form of Christian faith.”3  Right?  RIGHT???  To hold a different view would be unchristian…

Or maybe it was just time for the old to be replaced with the new, the intractable with the malleable…  Maybe what we are seeing is a return to a more pure version of church, one that is more comfortable in the Agora than the cathedral.  My question for the author is, why can’t “‘[p]arachurch’ efforts and ‘emergent’ communities… replace institutional church.”4?  Why not?  It is unfair to posit such a statement without supporting it with research.  His position that these are the locus of the “lowest common denominator” borders on insulting.  What if these more closely resemble the ecclesia envisioned and prophesied by Jesus himself than the institutional church ever could?  A close reading of institutional church history reveals it to be the main perpetrator of violence against Jesus’ original vision of his church.  The organizational instinct of institutions is to faction and fraction, thus leading us headlong into this mess we are in today with a glaring absence of a single, unifying figure.  In America, we have lots of spiritual people but decreasing numbers of Jesus-followers.  I agree with the author on this point, I believe it is bad religion.


1. Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2012 Kindle Edition) 6.

2. Ibid. 8

3.Ibid. 283

4. Ibid. 286

About the Author

Jon Spellman

Jon is a husband, father, coach, author, missional-thinker, and most of all, a follower of Jesus.

10 responses to “Lamenting the Loss Of the Heretics”

  1. Dave Young says:

    The Ecclesia envisioned by Jesus was more of a movement then an institution. More of an organism then organization and in that I appreciate your critique. ‘Church’ is a word adapted from the Goths (Kirshe), they used it to describe a lord’s house. It epitomizes the bad theology of thinking of the ‘church’ as an institution or a physical place instead of a gathering of Jesus’ followers. There has been much abuse associated with such bad theology, and there has been a general weakening of what the church could be. A vibrant movement.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Jon, I agree. “While I generally agree with the observations found in the book, and find myself often lamenting (all of us in this class have really…) the condition of the church in America.” I think this is a very personal statement for each of us. I really feel my faith is being tested in the furnace as a learn more about social theory, capitalism, and the Church in our world. I find myself loosing track of a picture for my own life that is the story I am called to live out and the will be voice in our world. I am not discouraged, but it doesn’t seem radically burdensome. I believe Bonhoffer said something like, “When you life does not match your faith, you will soon be in trouble.” (Very loose quote) I think we are all rebuilding our faith on the fly as we read and write on such and greater, deeper world that we are discovering, that it is outrageously challenging. Do you think this is fair? Do you think we are all in a positive sense, in a bit of a faith crisis???

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Phil and Jon – is that not the part of the purpose of our exploration through the DMin program? If we weren’t having a crisis of faith, that means we have it all figured out. I think the push back, the questions, and the choosing of words provide a platform to reevaluate what we hold onto. I use metaphors to understand things – in this case, I feel like it’s the centrifugal force of a salad spinner, throwing off the stuff/fluff that’s unnecessary for the core of our beliefs, in order to know what remains. Then our dissertation provides the centripetal force to synthesis what we learn from our three years together. But then, you guys probably already know this. I’m just now figuring it out 🙂

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Phil, when you say “I am not discouraged but it doesn’t seem radically burdensome” are you finding yourself feeling like you really should be burdened a bit more? Is that part of the angst we may be wrestling through? I recall one of Nicks posts or replies or something where he discussed the tendency to really be on top of things one day and then the next to just take the easy road. In all of these studies, we are still on the outside looking in. I mean none of us are really feeling the results if abject poverty or structural injustice or predatory capitalism…

      So we’re on the outside looking in to a certain degree. Does that minimize the effect of our work?

  3. Brian Yost says:

    “In America, we have lots of spiritual people but decreasing numbers of Jesus-followers.  I agree with the author on this point, I believe it is bad religion.”

    That really hits the nail on the head. As religious people, we have a tendency to either find a theology that fits us or create one that is tailor made. When we choose to follow Jesus, we are called to a life in which we are changed to comform to Christ rather than Christ being conformed to us.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      So Brian, wild you say that in a culture where syncretism is not only allowed but it is expected, we really can just pick and choose what works for us as individuals? Dear Lord…

  4. Mary Pandiani says:

    I love the way you mix it all up. It’s like we’re all in a sandbox together, and you, Jon, break down the castles we’ve built in order to show that there’s something even more to build. I really do love the way you force us/me to think in a more discerning and critical manner.
    As for the “icon” for America and thus her religion – I would say we have one, and it’s “I Did It My Way” by Frank Sinatra.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Oooooohhh Mary! “I did it my way” is an apt theme song for us I think. But now, we look around and discover that our way may not be quite as grand as we had imagined!

      Thanks for the kind words

  5. Travis Biglow says:


    Sobering dialogue. What is the accepted norm? North American religion? And if so which one in North American Christianity because there are so many beliefs and denominations. This is really something serious i think Chrisitanity faces. But i try to stay as much in the Bible and really obey it so i dont get lost in translation!

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