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

From Snake Oil to Conversation

Written by: on April 9, 2015

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.”[1] 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,”[2] 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,”[3] 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.”[4]

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.”[5]

[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Reprint ed. (New York: Free Press, 2013), 3.

[2] Ibid, 152.

[3] Ibid, 158.

[4] Ibid, 293.

[5] Ibid, 293.

About the Author


Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

15 responses to “From Snake Oil to Conversation”

  1. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Mary…My family enjoys games and we have a bunch of salesmen (that’s probably why I’m a pastor) so I’ll have to check out Snake Oil.

    Love your comment, “there is diversity within the unity of Christendom whereby conversation can lead to creative thinking, versus a shaming or negatively branded…” That’s so good and so true. Our differences are really a beautiful thing yet too often we try to get everyone to be just like us and think just like us.

    Just like you mentioned…I think it’s finding security in who I am and entering conversations with honesty and sincerity means we don’t have to convince anyone of anything. Just being ourselves is enough.

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Mary and Nick,

      The same statement resonated with me when I read this post – “there is diversity within the unity of Christendom whereby conversation can lead to creative thinking, versus a shaming or negatively branded.”

      It seems that people in our society don’t know how to just be themselves. I’m not sure if it is due to fear or that we have just forgotten how. People live behind their false identities as they struggle to find acceptance and a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, church has often become the place where differences cause the most rejection. Bad religion doesn’t allow room for diversity, creativity or innovation.

      • mm Mary Pandiani says:

        Yes, I agree with you that the church is no longer is a safe place to be yourself. Makes me sad. Seems we think we have to be saints, when in fact, we’re all sinners. That’s part of the mystery to me, as well. How can God receive us as sinners and still love us?

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      That’s what I’ve appreciate most about you – your sincerity in who you are. It’s that sincerity and honest that makes you a good pastor. As well, you and your wife are living examples of what it means to live into the diversity within unity with your family.

  2. mm Jon Spellman says:

    Mary, I was also happily surprised to find such a depth of scholarship coming from a person renewed for his observations of shallow pop-culture. I will have to add him to my list of preferred authors after this week for sure!

    I appreciated his historical progression, that was helpful. When he got into the latter part of the second half, he began to offer solutions that were purely wrapped in his opinion but given the kind of book this is (more popular than academic), opinions are perfectly acceptable. I even found myself agreeing with his solutions and, like Nick, doing a lot of head-nodding as I read.


    • Jon Spellman says:

      *renowned. Not “renewed”

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      I read a couple of negative reviews on his work – frustrated that he offered solutions too quickly. As a journalist, Douthat probably felt like he needed to wrap things up a bit. But like you said, the different types of writing allow for different approaches. It gives me cause to consider what audience I hope to reach in my own writing.

  3. mm Dave Young says:

    Hi Mary
    I appreciate your commitment to ‘mystery and paradox’ in our faith. It’s in the really difficult questions, the contradictions (some explainable, some incomprehensible) that our faith can grow. Yet all too often we want to take sides, head down the path far to the left or right – way liberal or legalistically conservative. It’s the center of biblical tension that we need to find and hold.

    I also loved the book and found his tone, scholarship and insights to be encouraging, challenging – he’s equally offensive to all extremes. 🙂

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      A comment made by my pastor often is “if we don’t offend you, we haven’t done our job.” 🙂 Guess it keeps us on our toes.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Couldn’t agree more with you statement, “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.” I think Christianity has itself in a pickle in so many statements like this. We say the bible says things it doesn’t say and then suffer the consequences as we lose credibility in our world. I saw a post on Facebook last week that was pointing out common errors we make about the Easter story. I think these false statements are primarily made because of our inability to live with mystery. Great point and glad a have you as a voice for mystery in LGP5!

    • mm Mary Pandiani says:

      Just saw Cinderella with my extended family. It reminded me of how we love happy endings, even when we know the story backwards and forwards. Something in us wants everything to wrap up nicely. Yet, it seems growth can really only happen at some sort of pain point. Mystery sometimes provides that pain point.

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      “I think these false statements are primarily made because of our inability to live with mystery.”
      Good point, Phil. I think a major source of unbiblical teaching comes from those who have to have the answer for everything. It is ok to admit that we don’t know everything about the Bible or God, but that we can still know HIM.

      • Jon Spellman says:

        Wait a minute…. Do you mean to say cleanliness is NOT next to godliness? And God doesn’t help those who help themselves? What?!

  5. mm Travis Biglow says:

    Its great that you are persistent in your endeavor live as God called you to live. It is very difficult seeing so many different ways of doing Religion! I believe that the Bible is to believed and not mention having other things to help us in society. It is a great challenge today but God is still on the thrown. No matter what may be called heretical, I think that we have our views too and we should never lose sight of our core values and beliefs. We dont have them for no reason!!!

Leave a Reply to Jon Spellman Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *