Ok, Bad Religion is a book of rhetoric. Moreover, I love it, but not for the right reasons; it is pessimistic and cynical – my favourite words. However, and it’s a big, however, those words do not always twin with wisdom and insight. Inasmuch as Ross Douthat comes across as somewhat prophetic, he draws a long bow without substance. Looking carefully at his endnotes, we see that there are very few, and where they do appear, it is at the end of a long paragraph with multiple accusations with the endnote merely applying the last grand statement. This isn’t new though. In his more recent journalistic account, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, Douthat, with a hefty degree of Journalistic license, compared Pope Francis to Donald Trump; not one of his best ill-thought-through literary devices.
[….]in the context of existing Catholic doctrine and discipline and norms, the pope has turned out to be far more Trumpian than most of the cardinals who elected him ever anticipated. Rome under Francis is much like Washington under Trump — a paranoid and jumpy place, full of ferment and uncertainty. Francis’s opponents, like Trump’s, feel that they’re resisting an abnormal leader, a man who does not respect the rules that are supposed to bind his office. Meanwhile, to his supporters, as to many of Trump’s, all these discontents are vindication, evidence that he’s bringing about the changed required to Make Catholicism Great Again.
In response, one particularly disaffected Catholic wrote,
No, Mr. Douthat, the Holy Father is not a vulgar, misogynistic narcissist with little learning and a short attention span. The Holy Father does not gratuitously insult poor and desperate refugees and migrants. The Holy Father does not revel in his power or gild the buildings he owns with his own name.
Such Fun. At the end of the day, Ross Douthat is a journalist (take that to mean what you will).
So, why did I enjoy the book for all the wrong reasons? Because it articulates some of my less than reflective feelings about a very small portion of the global church – the mega churches, politically powerful Christian groups, consumer theology and celebrity Christians (I really want to be the latter, but it’s rapidly slipping from my aging fingers).
Why didn’t I like the book? It’s very American and not easily applicable globally. There is also the strong sense of the ongoing loss of Christendom and the fight to retain it. But perhaps the most glaring omission is the truth that most American, English, Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian churches are nothing like the caricatures found in this book. Behind the streets of the Mega churches and the facades of christio-political greatness are small churches of faithful believers, hundreds of millions of them. They are oridnary people serving their communities, worshipping in simple contexts, living with simple faith and practicing the life of Christ in some of the harshest place on earth. That’s Jesus version of, ‘badass’ religion. Douthat’s, Bad Religion has nary a mention of them. In his closing comment Douthat suggests, “It is not enough for Americans to respect orthodox Christianity a bit more than they do at present. To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived—not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself.” My claim is, they already do. When we strip away the apparent voices that drive Christian faith, in most cases we are left with ordinary folk who are living their Christian faith in the most fragile of ways. And they do so with pastors and priests who guide these small communities of people among whom the Spirit of God works, weeps and sings with joy.
As I read, I felt like Douthat was somewhat guilty of Berger’s ‘retrospective coherence’. American Christianity is in decline, under threat, and facing the possibility it may not be God’s Own anymore; so a story is needed to give meaning to the current state of affairs. But there are too many data points missing in his journalistic thesis. What he offers is a long list of quotes from so many different people writing form wildly different contexts that I felt like a tennis ball bouncing from one part of world history to another; from Emerson to Gandhi to Chesterton. Likewise the use of the Gospel of Judas as a story of orthodox protectionism missed the point that cultural and linguistic adaptation through story is a human narrative that spans history. We have a long record of over-seeing and over-avoiding documents that either fit or don’t fit our present narrative. With the age of internet communications and documentary availability, we must to get used to the complex array of debate and thought that comes our way – recognising that the nature of the debate tells us something more important than the object of the debate.
His final statement, for me, sums up perhaps the overarching weakness of the book, “[…]cafeteria Christianity is more intellectually serious than the orthodox attempt to grapple with the entire New Testament buffet, and the only Jesus who really matters is the one you invent for yourself.” Though intended polemically, I think it’s an honest observation of reality. The cafeteria is indeed the new seminary, and, psychologically at least, Jesus will always be who each of us need him to be: prophet, healer, teacher, lover, grace maker, friend and on occasion, enemy.
Sorry, none of the above has been assembled very well. You can complain on Monday. 🙂
 Ross Douthat. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), Kindle Edition
 Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, 1st Edition ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019). 200
 Michael Sean Winters, Douthat’s Francis Book is Poorly Sourced, Inadequate Journalism National Catholic Report, March 21, 2018), 2019-03-23, https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/distinctly-catholic/douthats-francis-book-poorly-sourced-inadequate-journalism.
 Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”. 294
 Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), Kindle Edition 37
 Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”. 141ff
 Ibid. 181
Douthat, Ross. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. Kindle Edition
———. To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism. 1st Edition ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019.
Garvey-Berger, Jennifer, and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. Kindle Edition
Winters, Michael Sean, Douthat’s Francis Book is Poorly Sourced, Inadequate Journalism. National Catholic Report, 2018. Accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/distinctly-catholic/douthats-francis-book-poorly-sourced-inadequate-journalism.