DMINLGP

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

Not My Kind of Dinner Party . . .

Written by: on March 21, 2019

This was a very difficult book for me.  I have found beauty, inspiration, further faith formation, and lifelong relationships in many of the things that Douthat calls out in Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics, and if that deems me a heretic, I have been called far worse, by far better.  After doing some simple google research (aiming to learn more about the authors background to better understand his point of view, spiritual and educational background) and learning that Douthat was publically anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ as a writer for the campus newspaper at Harvard[1], he appears to have the characteristics of someone I would not invite to speak to the church I serve, New York Times columnist or not.  His unique spiritual upbringing, a marriage of both Pentecostalism and Catholicism, is full of promise and possibility; imagine the best of a spirit filled Pentecostal tradition full of energy and excitement bound together with the Catholic tradition and ritual of the centuries.  However, the way that this upbringing comes across on the page raises further issues to me, since the best of these traditions does not produce the type of mis-informed roughage we have been tasked to read.

Douthat writes romantically about the time in American history when congregations were booming and new church construction was developing.  Time is spent highlighting the day the Interchurch Center in Manhattan was consecrated, and denominational affiliation was at an all-time high.  Having lived across the street from the Interchurch Center for three years (colloquially referred to as “the God Box” due to its faith based tenants and its distinct square shape) I enjoyed these soliloquys of the bygone era.

Unfortunately, Douthat quickly begins to blame church decline on some pretty amazing people (in my view) and historical occurrences.  Douthat is not a fan of the Jesus Seminar.[2] The Seminary professor who taught me New Testament, Hal Taussig[3], was a member of the Jesus Seminar, and the way that I learned graduate level Greek Bible was through the Jesus Seminar lens.  Burton Mack and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza are critiqued for their scholarly work on the gospel of “Q” or the way that Jesus embodied a “feminist pulse” within Judaism.[4]  The study of Q  . . . or at the least a brief look at a gospel parallel . . . is riveting to this doctoral student, and only brings out the hope, joy, and promise of resurrection woven through the gospel narrative that much more distinctly.  The fact that women are mentioned in the New Testament with such a great frequency, and throughout the text are given historically stunning positions of power, only furthers the ministry of Jesus, and Schussler Fiorenza describes this with grace and skill.

Douthat is also not a fan of Elaine Pagels, mainly due to her work in the field of non-canonical gospels.[5] She has written about the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Judas, just to name a few.  What Pagels does so impeccably is to share with the popular reader the numerous ways the early Christian communities were trying to understand what Jesus’ ministry meant to their immediate context.  Similar to my comments on the work of Schussler Fiorenza and Mack, I love the additional insight and really aren’t we all still trying to do that same thing today?  The tradition of Mary riding donkey to Bethlehem does not come from any of our four canonical gospels – but from the non-canonical Infancy Gospel of James, [6] and this only further demonstrates how elements of these writings had already permeated Christian tradition before the Synod of Hippo in 393, one of the events which attempted to help order and define the sacred texts that make up the Bible.

Clearly Douthat has an amazing audience.  He has written at least three books and has a large readership in the thousands through his essays, opinion pieces and other articles.  But much of this book seemed full of judgement and privilege to this reader. If Douthat can admit that his entire concept of this ideal Christian Center is “an interpretation of an era”[7] then I can assert that my interpretation of his critique has gone astray.  If the spirit of “paradox and mystery” is what has made Christianity so “extraordinarily adaptable”[8] what better place to turn than to the first few generations attempts to wrestle with that mystery for further inspiration and understanding?

 

 

[1] “NY Times Columnist Ross Douthat Defended Murderous Dictator Pinochet in His Harvard Days,” The Real News Network, last modified December 19, 2018,   https://therealnews.com/columns/ny-times-columnist-ross-douthat-defended-murderous-dictator-pinochet-in-his-harvard-days.

[2] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics, (New York: Free Press, 2012), 160-162.

[3] “Hal Taussig,” The Westar Institute, last modified March 20, 2019, https://www.westarinstitute.org/membership/westar-fellows/fellows-directory/hal-taussig/

[4] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, 161.

[5] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, 151.

[6] “The Infancy Gospel of James,” in The Other Bible, ed. Willis Barnstone (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1984) 390.

[7] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, 51.

[8] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion, 11.

About the Author

mm

Rev Jacob Bolton

7 responses to “Not My Kind of Dinner Party . . .”

  1. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Jacob,
    I am trying something different this blog cycle, to read those who have gone before me first! I so appreciate your scholarly support for your somewhat dismay at Douthat’s critique. Not having your experience and frame of reference, I am intrigued how what Douthat has criticized has in fact been inspiring and compelling for you as a developing doctor of the church and pastor of your local church. Without the sophisticated palate to appreciate your well presented nuances, I actually appreciated Douthat explaining my value to the church as a Pentecostal/Third Wave Charismatic “heresy” adherent who needs the historic orthodoxy of the church (including you and your stream). I came away settled and affirmed why I so appreciate this formative journey of discovery with you and the other members of our cohort family.

  2. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I think that one of the aspects of his version of the idealized era that he fails to lean into is the coming together of multiple streams of faith to work together, even when not on the same page about everything. A number of the areas you highlight that he leans into as heresy are not contraindicated in the historic creeds of the faith (says the female clergy who holds to them). While I don’t agree with some of his conclusions, others were more compelling. My difficulty is trying to be cautious about critiquing a book that is a critique of a culture that I am not a part of. I’m hesitant to agree with him, lest I’m condemning a culture I am not a part of; and I’m hesitant to disagree with him, suggesting I know his culture better than he does (I don’t). So while I differed in details of why, I could get on board with a recognition that renewal and revival would be good things. And then I imagined that it would likely lean back into those creeds that don’t even address his heresies and the deep engagement with scripture that can take us to very inclusive places when we strip away our defense of our own culture. So here’s the question, do you agree with Douthat that America needs a renewal/revival? If so, what would that look like? If not, what is healthy about the current American church that the rest of the world should imitate? Thanks Jacob. I really appreciate your thoughts and healthy critique.

    • mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

      As a Presbyterian I believe that the church is “always being reformed” . . . . and I certainly welcome that!

      My hunch is that the same logic could go into saying the church is always “being revived” but I am not sure that Douthat would agree.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Super job Jmoney ( has anyone ever called you that before)? Anyway, I was finding myself walking through college days when all these heresies controversies were happening and sadly I would have fallen on Douthat’s side at the time. I have since grown to understand that everyone has a different experience in life and how each can bring great value, even if you still deem them wrong. In your research how does this book help you in shaping what you will write or does it?

  4. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Great question Mario. Here is an example.

    Pierre Teilhard de Chardin a cosmic thinker and early green Catholic theologian, was constantly harassed by the higher ups in the Catholic church, was demoted and removed from different positions throughout the church, and ended up dying after the Diocese of Rome ordered a termination on the sale of his books. He died in 1955, the era that Douthat waxes so poetically about.

    60 years after Teilhard’s death, Pope Francis praised his scholarly work in his earth care encyclical, Laudato si.

    The way American Christianity looked at our relationship with the earth was not all that awesome during Douthat’s preferred era. Luckily, the Pope has recognized that it is a new day, and my prayer is that American Christianity comes to that realization soon as well.

    And no, I have never been referred to as J-Money before. It is an incomparable honor!

  5. mm Mary Mims says:

    Jacob, I have not read those other authors that you mentioned, but I do see how Douthat slights or is dismissive to those he is not in agreement with. As a former Catholic, I do not understand how he can be so critical given the history of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. I think he needs to figure out how the Catholic Church can do better first before he looks at other streams of faith.

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