Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ Martin Luther King.
For the last few weeks we have been discussing ways to change our culture. If we accept that “To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private,” then how do we go about it? And what is it that we are trying to change?
In his book, “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics”, Ross Douthat explains that it is “because America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place.”
Douthat begins the book by recounting the history of how America changed from a nation of people who had a strong stake in orthodox religion to one where “choose your own Jesus” prevails.
After World War II a hopeful attitude characterized most Americans. There was a strong belief that Christians should be “the salt of the earth, a light to the nations,” This conviction ended in the sixties and seventies when Christians became more supernaturally minded, but less churched. Orthodoxy was dismissed as completely ‘declasse’. There were two reactions to this departure from orthodoxy by churches.
Some sought accommodation to the culture. This approach failed; it turns out that people want justification for devotion and self-sacrifice to any institution. If there is no distinctive Orthodoxy, then why not go somewhere else?
Other church groups tried to resist the changes. Some formed previously unheard of coalitions in order to resist what they saw as a common threat. The Catholics and the Protestants agreed to work together to make their presence felt. But they limited themselves to certain arenas. They failed to make a strong presence in the media, the academy, the arts, and other areas in the culture. As Christian orthodoxy waned Christian heresy filled the gap.
A major heresy was the “Quest for the historical Jesus”. This is important because it set the tone for the religious intelligentsia and the broader religious culture as well. Indeed, Douthat’s thought is so strong on this that he quips, “And if there is a purgatory, the members of the Jesus Seminar will probably spend their sojourn there listening to this monologue (Glenn Beck) on an endless loop.”
The stage was set for the heresy of ‘pray and grow rich’ preached by Joel Osteen and a whole host of televangelists. The ‘name it and claim it’ Gospel fit right in with Americans’ desire to justify their consumerism.
Another heresy in the culture is a desire to retain God, but not a God that they have to answer to so they redefined Him. Elizabeth Gilbert and others assure us that we can still worship God – but His new name is ‘me’. Along with this came a whole host of psychology and self-help books along with “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”. One main failure of the God within is that selfish people lose their ability to live in community with one another. Therapeutic religion promises contentment but leaves us alone in the universe with our God within.
Another heresy (bringing Benedict Anderson to mind) is the heresy of ‘nationalism’. Americans have embraced two strains of this heresy – Messianism (America will fulfill God’s purposes on earth) and/or the apocalyptic version – doomsday stories. Apocalyptism looks for villains to blame America’s problems on (the ‘ressentiment’ described by Hunter). But the co-option of Christian faith especially by political corruption has left the faith too weak to play a positive role in changing the culture.
What can we do as Christians? Douthat reminds us that “history has an Author and that the destiny of both their country and their creed is in God’s hands.” Douthat believes that Christianity can be recovered and describes 4 touchstones for the recovery – ‘postmodern opportunity’ (Christians have confronted problems before and can do so again), the ‘Benedict option’ (mustard seed strategy; “Sometimes cultural crises lead to reassessments and renewals” (some Garner here!)), being holistic as well as moralistic, and being ‘oriented toward sanctity and beauty’. Christianity must be lived. Sanctity can make the case for faith; sanctity can redeem the world.
- What am I trying to change in culture? I don’t think I’m going to change the whole world; I’d be happy to change the low view of women that is prevalent in my Church. I believe that our witness for Jesus is discredited by the world when they see our behavior. At this point I can only show by example; I pray that God will help me be a faithful servant.
- How does this book speak to that? A recovery of orthodox Christianity includes the recovery of the real truth about Jesus. The Jesus Who is ‘a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. … He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. …He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, … extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners.” This Jesus began to change His culture when he turned the rules about how to treat women upside down.
- How will I now go about being an agent for Christ? Above all, I will try to be humble. I want to see my culture change but Christ’s example is one of humility all the way to the cross. If I am going to try and change the world I must first look to save myself. My efforts begin with a single step outside of my door after time in prayer. I hope that my ‘faithful presence’ will make a difference to others that leads to change for the better.
 James Davison Hunter. To change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 4.
 Ross Douthat. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press), 3.
 Ross Douthat. 54.
 Ross Douthat. 180.
 Ross Douthat. 278.
 Ross Douthat. 284.
 Ross Douthat. 152-153.