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‘Bad’ has always been

Written by: on March 21, 2019

Ross Douthat writes in an op-ed style as he addresses the decline of orthodox Christianity in America. He explains his position in the introduction:

“America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christians in its place.”[1]

Douthat goes on to explain the problems he sees with left-leaning Christianity as self-centered spirituality and right-leaning Christianity as wealth-obsessed evangelicalism. The reader takes a ride through history as Douthat takes issue with the church that has been in “near terminal decline”[2] since the 1960s. He is a harsh critic, accusing the Christian church of abandoning traditional theology “in favor of religions that stroke egos and indulge or even celebrate their worst impulses.”[3] He does conclude the book with a reminder that “the story of Christianity has always featured unexpected resurrections,”[4] and challenges Christian believers to live out their faith as an end unto itself. However, by the time I reached his conclusion, I was struggling to see light through my frustration.

Clearly, Douthat’s Bad Religion was a difficult read for me. Although I can sympathize with his frustrations of the church moving further from orthodoxy; he makes it sound as if no good has come since the 1960s. He seems to imply that we all must pick an evil (right or left) and do our best to live out a lonely Christian pilgrimage back to the days when all was right with the church. He forgets to mention that many of the heresies he mentions have been rejected by leaders and groups all along the way. I appreciate what John Wilson wrote in his response to Douthat in Christianity Today:

“We are not a nation of heretics. We are a nation of sinners; we’ve been that from the beginning.”[5]

The church has always been comprised of broken people living in a broken world as witnesses of renewal. Heresy has existed from the beginning. Douthat’s highlight of these heresies has exposed how easily we accept them into our assumed “orthodoxy,” but they have always been there nonetheless. He is right when he says our life in Christ is the only real answer to church transformation. This book has made me more keenly aware of my need for daily renewal.

Even though Douthat offers a path forward at the close of his book, my response reflects a growing weariness. I understand the value of critique. However, we are living in a world that seems to be ready to lend a critical eye and offer harsh feedback at every turn. The church can do no right. In a different atmosphere, I may have more appreciation for Douthat’s observations. Today, it seems to be another voice to add to the litany of those who are eager to see the failures of the Christian faith community.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Psalm 51:10 (NKJV)

___________________________

[1] Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2013., 3

[2] Ibid., 4

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 277

[5] John Wilson, “Bad Religion,” Books and Culture, accessed March 21, 2019, https://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2012/april/badreligion.html.

About the Author

mm

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

13 responses to “‘Bad’ has always been”

  1. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Rhonda,
    Thanks so much for your honest thoughts and feelings. Isn’t it weird that I found Douthat hopeful (I wonder, if perhaps I am the weird one!)? I loved his prognosis for recovery of Christianity in America. I loved his emphasis that we in the Church all form the river of orthodoxy. I believe together we can do this, that is why I am hopeful. That is why I so appreciate passionate, capable leaders such as yourself to collaborate with and learn from. Take heart, be hopeful. Together (more than ever) we can do this. Many blessings.

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      Harry, I am glad you were able to find some hopeful insight in this week’s read. I appreciate your interpretation of unity and togetherness. Thank you for pointing us back in the right direction!

  2. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I feel your weariness Rhonda. It seems like not just the critique of Christianity, but the general way that North America approaches news, politics and entertainment as well is all negative and scandal focused. I feel like it is our job as people of faith to proclaim the good news, the hope, the possibilities that resurrection power bring. I wonder if part of the answer is to resist defending the church and instead take up again proclaiming that God is good. And clarrifying the difference between God’s goodness and worldly versions of ‘good’. What strategies might work in your context for proclaiming hope in the face of critique?

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      Great insight, Jenn. I am also tired of living in defense-mode. I do think we may spend more time defending the institutions of the church than we do spreading the message of Jesus. In my context of Christian higher ed, we are finding that the negativity surrounding the church causes anxiety for prospective students and their families in choosing ministry as a vocation. Sometimes it is hard to commit to ministry as “plan A.”

  3. mm Sean Dean says:

    Preach Rhonda! I am so tired of the America/Christianity was great back then laments. I think your post said in a much better way what I was getting at in mine. Thank you for the clarity of statement.

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Sean. I wonder if these laments simply reflect a feeling of being ill-equipped to deal with the Spirit of the Age in today’s context. Doesn’t insecurity typically breed a form of defensiveness? I want to be part of the conversation around what the church can be in the midst of the troubles of the day, rather than what it is not.

      • mm Sean Dean says:

        I agree. It’s important to remember what was, but I think at some point we need to be the Kingdom of God here and now. I’d rather look at what we could be than lament what we were.

  4. Mario Hood says:

    Thanks for the post Rhonda. I do think it good to recount the history of what was, to understand the present, and maybe give a foundation for what can be. Getting stuck in the past is a different thing and maybe Douthat gives a little too much of that in his book. In what ways do you see how orthodoxy can help shape the future in your context if any?

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      I agree, Mario. However, I think there were a few more threads to be pulled through the tapestry of church history that Douthat simply missed or ignored. In my context, there is a constant imperative to ensure the current and next generations of church leaders in our tradition are grounded in Christian orthodoxy while still open to the discovery of new methods of communicating the hope of the Gospel. It’s a high order, but one we are committed to.

  5. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    This one was a struggle for me too Rhonda. Thank you for your excellent analysis!

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Jacob. It was tough to read the opinions of a columnist as he seemed to tear apart decades of work in the church. I suppose we can learn from everyone, though, right?

  6. mm Mary Mims says:

    Rhonda, I agree with you whole heartily on your post. It is not helpful for Christians to tear down other believers. I happen to like Joel Osteen and Joyce Myers because they are encouraging and uplifting. I know Joel’s could do better with biblical interpretation, but I find myself listening to him to hear the “Good News”. I find Joyce Myers to be very practical, so at times I will listen to her. It is time to work together as Christians. Maybe then we can restore the faith.

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