DMINLGP

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

Bad vs Badass – I know what I want

Written by: on March 22, 2019

Ok, Bad Religion is a book of rhetoric.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.”[4] 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’.[5] 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[6] 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.”[7] 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. 🙂

 

Notes:

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

[2] Ross Douthat, To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, 1st Edition ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019). 200

[3] 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.

[4] Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”. 294

[5] Jennifer Garvey-Berger and Keith Johnston. Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), Kindle Edition 37

[6] Douthat, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”. 141ff

[7] Ibid. 181

Bibliography

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.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

9 responses to “Bad vs Badass – I know what I want”

  1. Mario Hood says:

    Can’t believe you didn’t love this book… what is happening to you!

    In all seriousness, do you think that by “cafe” style Christianity he was referring to picking and choosing who you want Jesus to be (as in a commodity) rather than He being able to be, as you wrote, “prophet, healer, teacher, lover, grace maker, friend and on occasion, enemy”. For me one is controlling Jesus in my life, while the other is allowing him to be the I Am.

  2. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    You are a celebrity Christian to me Digby!

    Great critique . . . I also was not a fan.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Awww shucks. I might start a new Facebook group for Digby’s Celebrity fan club. You can be the first. If I get 5 more I’ll have enough for pall bearers at my funeral. If not, you’ll be towing me out of the church on your own.

  3. mm Sean Dean says:

    I wondered why we were reading such a egregiously American book. I was a little embarrassed by it. That being said, I think he took a big swing and completely missed on nearly all points. I appreciate the view of a non-American person such as yourself to confirm my feelings. Thanks.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Sean, what surprised me initially was my enjoyment of his rhetoric. There’s nothing like a good lunge at the entire institution of Christianity because you’ve met a few pillocks with large annoying voices. After a chapter or two, I decided to check out Douthat’s credentials and realised the book was pretty much a bit of opinionated journalism to sell a book. I am sure there are plenty of annoying American Christians, but I imagine there are millions who aren’t. What bothers me is that plenty of people will pick this book up and evaluate Christianity on a set of foundationless opinions.

  4. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Ridiculous! That is the only response to anyone comparing Trump to the Pope. Anyway, it seems we are pretty much all in agreement about this read. At least it pulled out our critical thinking.

  5. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Digby! I am learning a great deal reading everyone’s responses to Douthat. I did gain from a few sections and appreciated some of the things he pushed on. But I so resonate with what you shared about the truth of how many are already living Christian lives – ‘ordinary folk who are living their Christian faith in the most fragile of ways.’ Beautiful.

    Grateful to be on this journey with some non-Americans.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Andrea. I didn’t disagree with everything Douthat wrote, I just didn’t much like the way he wrote it. It is a very American take on certain aspects of American Faith, but knowing quite a few Americans, I have found them to be quite the opposite of the caricatures found in his book. I count you as one of them! Perhaps I have just been saved from the others. Certainly, in New Zealand, we have a few wealth and prosperity types hankering for a more nationalistic Christianity, but they are religated to the fringes of society.

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