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Provisional Pessimism

Written by: on March 21, 2019

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics ends with some positive possibilities for the future of the church in America but the author admits writing from a pessimistic framework. It was a very interesting and disheartening read. I worked through Douthat’s account of Christianity in the twentieth century in America to the Church’s responses of accommodation and resistance the last several decades, and I finally rounded the bend to chapters six and seven – ‘Pray and Grow Rich’ and ‘The God Within’.

Aha.

Although I consider myself orthodox, I am amazed at how much I have heard, absorbed, observed of these heresies. I paused several times to self-reflect on where I stand with these messages.

I am aware of the transactional hustle message. Work hard enough and you too can get rich. God wants this for you. You do your part and God has to come through on His end by blessing you in this life. And our semester’s reading of Polayni and Weber have furthered my unease about our American myth of the self-made man or woman. Douthat presents evidence of just how early on in American history this existed.

I am also aware of the message that all God wants is my personal happiness. I understand better the foothold Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has in American culture. Douthat quotes Smith and Denton with the following definition:

‘…God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist; he is always on call, takes care of any problem that arises, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves.’[1]

Personal happiness, comfort and fulfillment is the end and goal, not God. God becomes a convenient means to this end. We become the users and the exploiters. In my research, I had never previously considered the idea of how we use God. Is it a stretch to consider that God knows what it is like to be used and exploited?

When culture becomes consumed with self, then no longer is God at the center but we are. And while I am grateful for authors that have encouraged my self-esteem and personal development, there is a limit to these messages. But it is no wonder we are obsessed with productivity and self-help Christian books.

While reading Bad Religion this week, I have also read a few articles this week about Rachel Hollis’ new book Girl, Stop Apologizing. And while I hesitate to mention someone’s work in this way, it has made me wonder a great deal this week. She is beautiful, young and wildly successful. Her first book, Girl, Wash Your Face was on New York Times best-seller list for 46 weeks. It sold 800,000 copies its first six months[2]. She does talk about her faith some but has said her goal is to be the female Tony Robbins. I do not know enough if this is an example of Hunter’s ‘faithful presence’ or one of Douthat’s heresies.

My sister-in-law text me during this same time a picture of Girl, Stop Apologizing at Target asking me what I knew and if she should get it. Since I have been encouraging her for years to apologize less, she was sure I would approve she said. I was hesitant. Who am I to judge? How do I know? All I have done is read a few scathing articles in an age where everyone gets blasted for something. And then, I think, what is one more reader, one more purchase, when there are 800,000+ involved?

Sure, I answered her. It probably will help you with your incessant, mindless apologizing for all things. But please think carefully about what is Gospel-centric and what is not in it. Just because something can inspire you to quit poor habits does not mean it is worthy to build your life upon – only Jesus Christ offers that kind of foundation.

I am not sure this was my most theologically rigorous response to Douthat, Hollis and my sister’s question, but this is where I am at right now.

 


[1]Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics, New York: Free Press, 2012, 233.

[2]https://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2019/march/girl-stop-apologizing-rachel-hollis-get-some-footnotes.html

About the Author

Andrea Lathrop

I am a grateful believer in Jesus Christ, a wife, mom and student. I live in West Palm Beach, Florida and I have been an executive pastor for the last 8+ years. I drink more coffee than I probably should every day.

7 responses to “Provisional Pessimism”

  1. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Andrea,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I think your post was compelling as you shared your wonderings, your reflections, your questions. Thanks for connecting your research with your musings in your post. I think you are right, God certainly knows what it feels like to be used and exploited by his people. You are an amazing leader and will bless the Church with your research. For my research I have been reading Tod Bolsinger’s Canoeing the Mountains. I feel prompted to encourage you with a construct he listed for leading in uncharted territory, “Start with conviction, stay calm, stay connected, and stay the course.” Many blessings on you and yours as you wrestle with your questions. Thanks again for your creative thoughts and leadership.

  2. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I really like where you landed this Andrea, that “just because something can inspire you to quit poor habits does not mean it is. worthy to build your life upon.” Perhaps it is useful to remember ideas don’t have to fit into either the ‘holy or heretical’ box. Recognize what needs to be foundational—Christ alone—and then let’s not feel the need to be highly critical of things that can be helpful. I think there were places where Douthat could have benefited from your insight. For example, one could find Oprah’s thoughts helpful without compromising foundational faith. Only I f one relies on Oprah as foundational do her thoughts take us into the heretical. And thus the problem is less about the culture and more about a failure to ground ourselves in Christ. So what would you offer as our best strategies to help equip people to know how to use ‘helpful’ resources well and when they needed to turn away from those resources? (It has me thinking back to Digital minimalism.)

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great post. I like this, “Personal happiness, comfort, and fulfillment is the end and goal, not God”, and it reminds me of another form of commodification. I think in the circles we run in, we see a lot of personal happiness message mixed with a little Jesus and it “sells”. I’m not sure if you’re seeing this but we are noticing the tide is coming in as people are finding out this doesn’t work for them. Wondering if the answer might be more theologically rich teachings for the modern age.

    • mm Rhonda Davis says:

      This is very interesting, Mario. I share your concern here. I encounter students daily who desire to learn and practice the deeper things of God but are so concerned with “personal brand” that they are less willing to engage Christian orthodoxy publicly. Rather, they are very willing to discuss, write and post engagement with what “sells,” as you describe. I am not willing to say this is all bad. Perhaps if we do this right, richer teachings can be the new “disruptors”…everything comes full circle, right?

  4. mm Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Love where you are at Andrea. I won’t list them all here but I have some of those same “ponderings” about a handful of things regarding my role as a pastor in America. Lifelong reflections!

  5. mm Mary Mims says:

    Andrea, I do think self-reflection is important and the get God to get money idea is still here in America. However, I do think many have adjusted and should be commended for it. I hope we can all start building up the Body of Christ, and not tear it down.

  6. mm Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Thanks for sharing your insightful blog, Andrea. I loved your analogy that ‘when culture becomes consumed with self, then no longer is God at the center but we are.’ This is a perfect example of where the church may be missing the mark. It is crucial that the church continues to teach who we are in and through Christ. It is not through our ‘begging’ to God that our blessings flow, but only through His grace. Thanks for your enlightening post, Andrea.

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