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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A helpful/hopeful jeremiad

Written by: on March 22, 2018

“The jeremiad has been one of the most durable literary forms throughout American history. Typically, the author identifies some golden age, one just now dissolving in the rearview mirror; recounts the slippery path of declension; and then prescribes an amendment of ways in order to avert further disaster.”[1]

This is the description of Ross Douthat’s book Bad Religion in a review by a fellow New York Times writer. In some ways, this is a correct description of the book. It surveys and reviews the religious landscape of the United States, especially focused on the halcyon days of the middle of the 20th century, which are presented as a kind of high-water mark for the “center of the church” overlapping with the “center of the country”. As we read last week in Hunter, “the mythic connection between the Christian faith and America is variously understood by conservative Christians, but the link itself is not doubted.”[2]

Douthat’s view, which is widely shared, is that the 1950’s were a height from which American Christendom has slipped precipitously. But in Mark Oppenheimer’s review, he writes, “Mr. Douthat’s portrait of mid-century religiosity is too idyllic… I might have added more discussion of the churches’ capitulation to McCarthyism and worried more about their postwar abandonment of the cities.”[3]

Still, while some may quibble with Douthat’s analysis, it is purposefully written to a broad audience with the hope of reaching further than most academic pieces are capable of. As a weekly newspaper columnist, Douthat has a built in readership, but also has the ability to write in plain, compelling language.

In an interview with the Christianity Today magazine, Douthat says, “We’ve always been a nation of heretics. Heresy used to be constrained and balanced by institutional Christianity to a far greater extent than it is today.”[4] He uses this term “heretics” in his book and this interview, mostly to mean, “do-it-yourselfers”, or seeking a unique, personal, or different way to express spirituality and faith. This is not a “technical term” in the way theologians might think about it, but is a popular lament among church folks, that there seem to be so many competing “gospels” or ways that people engage in spirituality. He writes, “For millions of young Americans, Christianity suddenly felt like just one spiritual option among many—and an option tainted by its long association with white chauvinism and Western imperialism.”[5]

Indeed, many young people through the decades have rejected a version of their parent’s faith in order to find something more “authentic” or meaningful or real. And yet, this kind of wrestling is actually a part of a faith journey, and often leads to a deeper or more connected understanding of God. Douthat writes that the premises for thinking about religion in the United States today are that, “’cafeteria’ Christianity is more intellectually serious than the orthodox attempt to grapple with the entire New Testament buffet, and the only Jesus who really maters is the one you invent for yourself.”[6]

But the deeper truth that Douthat is trying to show, and what Christian institutions, churches and leaders have been committed to historically, is that Christian faith is best known by being lived. By sitting in the paradoxes and complexities of real life situations that are held by the container of faith. We are called to a “fidelity to the whole of Jesus… the goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, stream-lined and non-contradictory Jesus.”[7]

This is the impulse to smooth out the edges. To answer all the questions. To relieve the dynamic-tension about the kingdom of God, which is “already and not yet.” But to be committed to the “whole of Jesus” means that there are edges where believers today need to grow. Surely, it is more “pure” or simple to follow the “heresies” of the age, which Douthat discusses (prosperity gospel, self-help gospel, etc), but the hard work that Christians in every time and place have had to do, is “to grow up in every way, into Christ who is the head.”[8]

Part of the challenge in doing this “growing up” or maturing work for individuals and churches, is that there is a fragmentation of our culture. Douthat describes the steep decline of a certain variety of religious faith through the second half of the 20th century (namely, Mainline Protestantism and to some degree Roman Catholicism as well). But along with the quantitative, he also writes that, “the thick culture that had defined and sustained the pre-Vatican II Church—the round of confessions and novenas, pilgrimages and Stations of the Cross—dissipated like a cloud of incense in a sudden breeze.”[9]

The corresponding decline of the “thick culture” of church institutions, with the segmentation of society, means that it is harder for people to grow and mature, when there are easier options all around. And yet, this is the challenge of our era. And Ross Douthat’s writing in this book, along with his ongoing engagement as a public intellectual, is a tool in the hands of anyone who would seek to navigate a faithful path through it all.

[1] Randall Balmer, review of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat, New York Times, April 27, 2012, Book Reviews, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/books/review/bad-religion-by-ross-douthat.html (accessed March 22, 2018).

[2] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern Worlde World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 128.

[3] Mark Oppenheimer, review of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat, New York Times, April 18, 2012, Book Reviews, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/books/in-bad-religion-ross-douthat-criticizes-us-christianity.html (accessed March 22, 2018).

[4] Ross Douthat, interviewed by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, April 16, 2012. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/may/ross-douthat-bad-religion.html (accessed March 22, 2018).

[5] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 175.

[6] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 181.

[7] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 153.

[8] Ephesians 4:15

[9] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 59.

About the Author

Dave Watermulder