What do you see in the picture above? What you see may depend on what you are looking for. Also, what you see one moment may not be there the next moment, or it might be the opposite of what you saw in the first place. Or perhaps you see two different things at the same time. So what do you see?
Reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics found me both hopeful and seething. I loved Douthat’s commentary on mid-twentieth century American Christianity; it was at this time period that the American Church was at its peak, growing, healthy, spiritual. I also loved the final chapter; it was worth the price of the book. But when I came to the section on prosperity preachers and the “name it/claim it” gang, I became livid at the memories I have experienced through the years with such outrageous movements, and I became grieved at what popular 21st century Christianity has done to the orthodox Christian faith. I am not claiming to have “the only true and pure faith myself” (God knows how roller-coasterish my own spiritual journey has been), but I do know through almost 60 years on earth that some things are truly out-of-bounds to Christian orthodoxy.
Douthat’s style is open-minded, balanced, and fair to both Protestants and Roman Catholics. I appreciate this. His book is a call to action to return to a more sane, common sense, streamlined, historically sound Christian Orthodoxy. For me, personally, of all our assigned texts this semester, this one has impacted me the most. It revived my spirit and personal theology; I was surprised by my response. Douthat expressed in writing much of what I have been thinking about for years. Several items stood out but the most outstanding was what he had to say about mystery and paradox. “What defines this consensus, above all—what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy, the central river from the delta—is a commitment to mystery and paradox. Mysteries abide at the heart of every religious faith, but the Christian tradition is uniquely comfortable preaching dogmas that can seem like riddles, offering answers that swiftly lead to further questions, and confronting believers with the possibility that the truth about God passes all our understanding.” Beautiful! I felt like I was reading Richard Rohr. Douthat continues:
Indeed, this is perhaps the greatest paradox of all—that the world’s most paradoxical religion has cultivated rationalism and scientific rigor more diligently than its rivals, making the Christian world safe for philosophy as well as fervor, for the study of nature as well as the contemplation of divinity.
But if this spirit of paradox and mystery, of both/and rather than either/or, has made Christianity extraordinarily adaptive, it has exposed the faith to a constant criticism as well. One man’s mystery is another man’s incoherence, and the paradoxes of Christian doctrine have always been a source of scandal as well as strength—not only among atheists, but also among the many honest believers to whom orthodox Christian doctrine looks like a hopeless muddle or else transparent sophistry.
Later in the text, Douthat continues his commentary on Christian paradox:
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he is fulfilling it rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship with God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-resurrection Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still—a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.
The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy. Is the kingdom he preached something to be lived out in this world or something to be expected in the next? Both. Did he offer a blueprint for moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Both. Did he mean to fulfill Judaism among the Jews, or to convert the Gentile world? Both. Was he the bloodied Man of Sorrows of Mel Gibson; the hippie, lilies-of-the field Jesus of Godspell; or the wise moralist beloved by Victorian liberals? All of them and more….
So what is the difference between orthodoxy and heresy? This is no small question! Douthat skillfully compares and contrasts these two opposing notions in his 300-page book. He not only deals with concepts, particularly with theological concepts, but he also deals with individuals and their organizations. Starting with the 1960’s in particular, the author describes the decline of religion in America. Although Americans still held to a belief in some form of God, yet their church commitments begin to wane for many reasons, not the least of which was a transformation in popular culture. Douthat suggests five major trends for American Christian decline in the 60’s and 70’s:
- Political polarization
- The sexual revolution
- Global perspective
- The religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth
I agree with Douthat’s commentary overall; the American society was changing at a frantic pace. But I would also add another factor, namely, consumeristic, technological advances. Technology, particularly the popularity of television and of its ensuing visual stimuli, particularly in pathos-ridden advertising, I believe, was another factor that contributed to orthodox Christianity’s sad decline in the American culture. Ironically, it was particularly this technology that contributed directly to one of the Christian heresies that crept into the unaware consumers’ homes, namely, Christian television programming. As with anything new, there can be both positive and negative consequences. Television allowed Billy Graham’s crusades to be aired to millions. But it also brought new heretical teachings that teased and captured the minds and souls of millions, including the “prosperity” gospel, the “God within you” gospel, and the “All-American” gospel.
Douthat does not mince words about these heresies and about the particular heretics who tout such teaching. He does a good job of connecting these “new” teachings with beliefs that have been challenging Christian orthodoxy for centuries. And although there is “nothing new under the sun,” adherence to these heresies has grown exponentially in the 20th and 21st centuries. And since America is often the pacesetter in popular culture, this unorthodox thinking has now been exported worldwide. So is there a way out of this mess? In his final chapter, Ross Douthat makes a case that there is still hope for orthodoxy. He suggests three actions for American Christians:
- Christian faith should be political without being partisan.
- Renewed Christianity should be ecumenical but also confessional.
- A renewed Christianity should be moralistic but also holistic.
Finally, Douthat sums up his thesis:
As for saints, there are, no doubt, many holy men and women in America whose sanctity is known to God alone. But Christian witness needs to be public and evangelistic as well as intimate and personal, and our highest-profile evangelists—Catholic as well as Protestant—have been far more likely to fall prey to the culture of celebrity than to follow in the footsteps of a Jonathan Edwards or of a Dorothy Day. The future of American religion depends on believers who can demonstrate, in word and deed alike, that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians, and demagogues. It depends on public examples of holiness, and public demonstrations of what the imitation of Christ can mean for a fallen world. We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonheoffer or a Solzhenitsyn. Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.
What I saw in Bad Religion is similar to what I saw when looking at the picture at the beginning of this essay. I saw one face—a young, attractive face. But after looking at the picture more closely, I saw another face—the face of an old woman. There are many interpretations for these faces that could be applied to our reading, but for me, the reading was a reminder that Christianity is paradoxical—and it must be, or it isn’t the true faith. I don’t have to understand it all (particularly its mysteries), but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe it. And what is the alternative? Peter said it best, “Lord, unto whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” Peter certainly did not understand it all, but he never stopped believing in the one, true, apostolic faith.
So, what do you see?