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Did Heresy Change the World?

Written by: on March 23, 2019

Ross Douthat, an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times took an interesting faith journey through various streams of Christianity including infant baptism in the Episcopal church, attending evangelical and Pentecostal churches as a child, and converting to Catholicism after turning seventeen and becoming quite traditional in his Christian faith, has developed a passionate argument regarding the condition of American Christianity.[1]

In Douthat’s Bad Religion he puts forth that the cause for the dilution of Christianity’s influence is not secularism, but heresies that have been left “unchecked.” He claims orthodox Christianity found in the mainline, evangelical and Catholic church prior to the 1960’s and 70’s, created “a moral and theological center,” an “invisible mortar for our culture and common vocabulary for our great debates.”[2] Yet when various societal revolutions hit during the post mid-century tumultuous times, that center did not hold and the mortar crumbled. Douthat’s opinion is heretical theologies attempting to “reconcile faith with modern perspectives on a number of issues including science, sexuality, and politics” were the culprits.[3]

Edward Polson of the Christian Scholar’s Review is not convinced:

In his opening pages, Douthat takes glancing notice of several other “comprehensive” explanations of these follies. But “the most potent theories,” he promptly declares, “involve religion.” That emphasis naturally appeals to people like me and readers of this magazine. But is it justified? It is easy to see how Douthat’s popular heresies became fodder for mass entertainment, glitterati culture, and grass-roots movements. It is less easy to see how they infected the souls and minds of powerful decision makers. If there is a thread connecting the deconstruction of Scripture, the prosperity gospel, or the religion of self-esteem to the triumphs of Alan Greenspan and Dick Cheney, Douthat needs to demonstrate how that thread passed through the University of Chicago school of economists, the neoconservative think tanks, or the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard. Perhaps less of our disarray is due to heresy and more to plain old stupidity. Or even sin.

Polson’s critique has the sound of Hunter’s, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter argues that strategies for change are often ineffective, “largely because they fail to take into account the nature of culture in its complexity and the factors that give it strength and resilience over time.”[4] Hunter gives eleven propositions filled with complexity including the involvement of elites that bring about change. Douthat, on the other hand, makes a straightforward case for a renewed faith that is “political without being partisan,” “ecumenical but also confessional,” “moralistic but also holistic,” and “oriented toward sanctity and beauty” as the solution.[5]

I do not argue with Douthat’s description of the embarrassing heresies that have emerged in the last sixty years, and I resonate with his description of a renewed faith. But, I am not sure the heresies he has described are complex enough, maybe not even noticeable enough, to be the problem with America. I believe Hunter gives a much more complete view of these complex times. I appreciate Douthat’s passion to convince the reader that Christian orthodoxy has more to offer our nation than “either its flawed defenders or its fashionable enemies would lead one to believe.” His exhortation toward a “lived” Christianity is essential, but it seems his “single step” solution “over the threshold of your local church, back through the confessional door, or simply into an empty room for a moment’s silent prayer” is incomplete and somewhat idealistic.

 

[1]Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Rooting out Bad Religion: Why Ross Douthat Wants to See America Return to Its Confessional Roots.(THE CT INTERVIEW)(Interview),” Christianity Today 56, no. 5 (2012): 36.

[2] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2012), 7.

[3] Edward C. Polson, “Ross Douthat. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Christian Scholar’s Review 42, no. 2 (2013): 198.

[4] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possiblity of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 445.

[5] Douthat, 284-291.

About the Author

mm

Tammy Dunahoo

Tammy is a lover of God, her husband, children and grandchildren. She is the V.P. of U.S. Operations/General Supervisor of The Foursquare Church.

6 responses to “Did Heresy Change the World?”

  1. mm Mary Mims says:

    Great post, Tammy. You said what I wish I could have said if the book did not annoy me so much. After my post, I thought about Hunter’s book and how Douthat was trying to go back in time to another culture, one that he idealized since he was too young to live it. Thank you for your insight and being astute enough to look at things from many angles. Blessings

  2. Thank you Tammy for very good post and highlighting Hunters work that was more balanced in recognizing the failure to understand culture as a hindrance to change. I Resonate with Hunters argument but found Douthat rather pessimistic in essentially declaring that the church is in the hands of heretics, I believe as God declared that he has seven thousand in Israel that have not bowed to Baal in 1kings 19:18, the true church is strong and active though it may not be as visible as the heretics.

  3. mm Sean Dean says:

    Tammy I think you’re right that the heresies that Douthat mentions are not big enough to have cause the amount of change that he asserts they do. Thanks for yet another well written and reasoned post.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Tammy – this is excellent. Thank you for your connection back to Hunter. That was helpful for me. I did struggle with his ending and recommendations – political without being partisan; etc. I was worn out by that point and did find them idealistic. I received more from the history of the heresies. Thank you for your articulation of how idealistic isn’t necessarily wrong but that it is not enough to affect widespread change.

  5. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Tammy,
    Thanks for your challenges to Douthat’s work and comparing his work to Hunter’s. I will have to go back and compare the two as I have slept since reading Hunter. This matters to me because I plan on using Hunter as a resource while not including Douthat. Your wisdom and scholarship are helpful and inspiring, thanks again.

  6. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hi Tammy. Thanks for your insightful post. I agree that I think Douthat shows a lot of ways to blame what he feels is a “struggling church” but I don’t agree with many of his analogies. I loved your line that stated that ‘maybe our disarray is more attributable to stupidity and/or sin.’ I soooo agree! You are a talented writer, Tammy. Thanks for your review of Douthat’s book.

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