DMINLGP

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

Tennis, the Real Thing and …

Written by: on March 21, 2014

Heresy is a word that seems to be thrown about with too much ease, almost like a ball tossed in the air for a tennis serve.  Struck with passion and force it is upon its opponent quickly resulting in a defensive response. A noticeable similarity between tennis and heresy is in the volley.  Yet surprisingly heresy is not present just in volleys. Heresy is often not even confined to the orthodox doctrines of Christian faith but includes the subtle inner linear postures of faith.  Ross Douthat asserts in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics that while America remains a religious country Americans are creating their own spiritual flavors which are more and more “distortions of traditional Christianity, not the real thing.”[1]  (Cue the Coca Cola music).  Thus making it much more difficult to distinguish and discern. Douthat utilizing Alister McGrath’s definition of heresy emphasizes this point.

 “A Christian heresy is ‘best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith. Both this process of destabilization and the identification of its threat may be spread out over an extended period of time.”[2]

It seems that McGrath (and Douthat) implies the possibility that heresy evolves or in the very least might be more akin to a virus, one that gradually is revealed over a period of time and by the time it is, the damage is done.  This definition fits perfectly with the major focus and purpose found in Bad Religion. The book is both an important and critical look at American Christian culture and a book that leaves the tenants of orthodox Christianity somewhat muddled. The “muddling” is actually an acknowledgement that this book, as with any book, has limitations.  One of those limitations is found in the sheer breath, likening orthodoxy to a river with tributaries sourced in the “shared theological commitments that have defined the parameters of Christianity since the early Church.”[3]  An important reference point in his discussion is this, “Every argument about Christianity is at bottom an argument about the character of Christ himself, and every interpretation of Christian faith begins with an answer to the question Jesus posed to his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’”[4]  While narrowing the playing field Douthat acknowledges and embraces the paradox of both/and reflecting adaptability that has been part of orthodoxy.[5]   Telling the history and the subsequent impact upon the American Christian Church means categorizing denominations and affiliations to some degree; it is at best, daunting.  Douthat reflects on the Catholic Church, Mainline Protestant denominations, conservative and evangelical denominations and non-denominational churches.[6] Douthat’s approach is both nuanced and direct, exploring a religious culture that has both accommodated and resisted.  The failure of accommodation is that real belief is missing, as are devotion and fidelity.[7]  How the Bible is interpreted was to become a key aspect of resisting Christianity’s “slide” in accommodation. Maintaining the concept of inerrancy, a consensus (of some fashion) developed affirming that truths could be expressed through factual and figurative and allegorical language.[8]  It was a huge shift.

According to Douthat looking back is essential to truly understand how bad religion is heretical.  In exploring where we have come from we can recognize the other side of the coin, the consequences and in truth the collateral damage for each step of progress.  Key words surface in this process:  confidence, compare, contrast and confessional.  Christianity in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s was brimming with confidence.  Billy Graham’s crusade and ecumenical approach, Martin Luther King Jr. prophetic inspiration of political activism in the civil rights movement were crucial contributions.  This confidence seems to have been tangible, almost one that could be felt because faith in what one believed bolstered Christian faith itself, “a sense that after decades of marginalization and division, orthodox Christians might actually be on the winning side of history.” [9]  Why does this matter?  Because in the ensuing decades that confidence has eroded, the positional security has departed and Christianity has become obsessed with stemming the tide.

Douthat’s concern is not in maintaining faith in Christian faith, he is concerned that traditional Christianity is in crisis because of the subtle (and not so subtle) but every growing advent of the consumer, I can pick my own, do it myself spirituality.[10]  He thankfully calls out some of America’s most recognized religious figures (Who are often published by well known Christian publishing houses, although Douthat refrains from making that association).  This is now an infiltrated Christianity; lines blurred with an upward mobile mentality that associates God’s blessing with success and productive retirement.

It is not much of a leap to a spirituality that morphs the classical life of spiritual progression to resolve God’s immanence with God’s transcendence.[11]  Rather than embrace the both/and, the God Within theology resolves the tension.  Which, of course makes perfect sense because this is a way of life that responds to the quest for purpose and meaning therapeutically.  The answers are within us after all.

Resolve the tension is in fact one of the hallmarks as Douthat examines the contrasts and comparisons among the three heresies.  It is almost as if they draw from one another and take one truth nuance it, make it an either/or so that if finally, inevitably turns in on itself.  Everything is so friendly.  The final heresy is one that hits so close to home, perhaps it is the most polarizing and the most visible. It concerns politics steeped in religious tradition, America’s mission in the world, reflecting both our national identity seen through a Christian mission.  The yen and yang:  A messianic complex in which we are the world’s savior looking to be led by our messiah or we have visions of apocalyptic despair, America will be ruined.  As we know all too well this is an equal political party opportunity, which is yen and who is yang depends on which political party is in the White House.

The challenge is that the lines in these heresies are blurred, two in particular, the prosperity gospel and the city on the hill are deeply embedded in Christianity – Mainline Protestant and Evangelicalism.  The God Within influence comes clearly through our desire for purpose and meaning enforced by our consumer culture. Where does Douthat leave us?  His call is for a more robust Christianity, a confessional faith that stands for something.[12]  Of course this will not be easy.  But it also brings into question for what purpose?  Is it to maintain American society or is it concerned with Christ’s witness and revelation?  If the answer is both then maybe the challenge is even greater than we might have envisioned.

 


[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York, NY: Free Press, 2012), 4.

            [2] Ibid., 9. Douthat quotes Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth  (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009), 11-12.

            [3] Ibid., 6.

            [4] Ibid., 152.

            [5] Ibid., 11.

            [6] Ibid., 60-62.  Douthat references the decline in Mainline Protestant denominations as well as the health of America’s many denominations.

            [7] Ibid., 108.

            [8] Ibid., 125.

            [9] Ibid., 53.

[10] Ibid., 62.

            [11] Ibid., 219.

[12] Ibid., 287.

About the Author

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Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

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