On Easter evening with family gathered round, we played some board games. A new one was introduced to me called Snake Oil. The goal of the game is to sell (outlandishly, mind you) the customer an item that will be necessary in his/her line of work (i.e. alien, cowboy, belly dancer, etc). Out of a choice of six cards, you choose two words that would be the very item he/she needs, at least according to the Snake Oil salesman. Each one a salesman except the customer, everyone competes by trying to sell the best choice of an item. The humor comes out when you try to sell a Glitter Timeline to a spy who needs to go back in time, for example.
Stay with me in this line of thinking, for in many ways when I first saw the title Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, I wondered how could someone put those particular words together: Bad, Religion, and Heretics. Was I being sold one person’s point of view, possibly a Snake Oil salesman, who was going to take me down a road that would do more damage than good to my faith? Thankfully, my skepticism didn’t keep me from reading. I wasn’t being sold anything. Rather, Ross Douthat articulates what I have longed to have words for in “the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.” Through the two sections, one on the history of American Christianity and the other on the various forms of heresy, Douthat distills out key concepts that I find myself repeating to those also in conversation on the state of Christianity, a conversation that offers hope rather than gloom and doom.
From notes in the margins to underlining statements, it is evident in my book that I connected to many of the points presented. However, the one that struck close to home was what I least expected. For an author who writes newspaper articles and short pithy blog posts, I did not anticipate that he would speak to “a commitment to mystery and paradox.” When he speaks of heresy, the twin to orthodoxy, he recognizes the value of opening up the conversation while staying true to who Jesus Christ is, inconsistencies and contradictions included. Because “Christianity is a paradoxical religion,” it is necessary to hold in tension the polarities, rather than grasp one side or the other. Statements like “the Bible alone” have proved to be more heretical, according to Douthat, than perhaps exploring that there are other components in addition to scripture that assist in interpreting what God is saying to us today. At the same time, the liberals aren’t off the hook either. Called “accomodationists,” folks who want to bring a “real Jesus” have instead created a Jesus of their own making, not willing to acknowledge that Jesus is not only historical, but also God-made-man. Both sides end up, while earnestly and with much scholarship, removing all mystery in our understanding of who God is.
I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to read the entire book (not always the case for other texts, but I can still talk about them, right?). The validation of encouraging me to live into the mystery, not as a heretic, but as an honest seeker strengthens my resolve to speak publicly in settings that I would otherwise remain quiet. One of the key points Douthat makes is that there is diversity within the unity of Christendom whereby conversation can lead to creative thinking, versus a shaming or negatively branded. My hope leans into Douthat’s proposal that
“…Christian orthodoxy – defend[s] its exacting moralism as a curb against worldly excess and corruption, prais[es] its paradoxes and mysteries for respecting the complexities of human affairs in ways that more streamlined theology do not, celebrat[es] the role of its institutions in assimilating immigrants, sustaining families, and forging strong communities.”
By the way, I lost at Snake Oil. It’s hard for me to convince anyone of anything. However, I find when there is honest conversation, such as Douthat offers in Bad Religion, no convincing has to take place. The purpose of recognizing the heresy taking place in America creates an environment of discernment, listening, an ongoing “Christianity [that] must be lived – not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself. Anyone who seeks a more perfect union should begin by seeking the perfection of their own soul.”
 Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Reprint ed. (New York: Free Press, 2013), 3.
 Ibid, 152.
 Ibid, 158.
 Ibid, 293.
 Ibid, 293.