“It’s like a tightrope,” David said.
“What do you mean?” our son asked.
It was late at night, but our eight-year old boy was wrestling with deep theological issues, and rather than feeling hassled or harried by these late night forays into questions about biblical contradictions, my husband secretly enjoyed the mental exercise of trying to explain the great mysteries of our faith to a kid who had a gift of doubt and smarts beyond his years.
This particular conversation might have been around the person of Jesus—was he a human or God? Or maybe it was about faith and works. It could’ve been about the sovereignty of God vs. free will. Honestly, the boy wore me out with his intellect long before he could even spell the word “intellect” and he could sniff out fake from mile away. He liked church and all, but he wasn’t about to be taken in by a religion that just didn’t make sense.
My husband patiently elaborated on his analogy.
“A tightrope has to be anchored on two opposite sides. If either side collapses, or even just leans in a little, then the tight-rope would not be able to support the tight-rope walker. Our faith is like a tightrope, hanging tightly to two seemingly opposite ideas. If either one of those ideas collapses, then our faith no longer has anything to stand on. We can’t try to make these two things agree, we have to hold them both in tension with each other. But when we do that, then the rope can support a lot of weight…even an elephant!”
Ross Douthat, the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, agrees with my husband’s characterization of the Christian faith. In fact, he considers paradox to be one of the defining features of Christian orthodoxy. He writes, “what distinguishes orthodoxy from heresy…is a commitment to mystery and paradox.” When we start forcing either/or situations rather than accepting the both/and teaching of the Bible, we set ourselves up for heresy.
Douthat then looks closely at four of these heresies. The first heresy is one that truncates the full Gospel understanding of Christ to provide a “consistent, streamlined, and non-contradictory Jesus.” The Prosperity Gospel heresy, which is described as “skipping on to Easter…without lingering at the foot of the cross,” surrenders the theology of suffering to the promise of the abundant life. The God Within Heresy tries to reconcile “God’s immanence with His transcendence…His seemingly human attributes (love, compassion, mercy; justice, anger, vengeance) with His impassable Otherness.” And finally, the heresy of nationalism leaves the Christian faith “too weak to play the kind of positive role it has often played in our public life.”
One reviewer quipped, “Douthat could have argued for orthodoxy by telling us less about good religion’s social utility and more about its truth.” I did find myself wishing that the conclusion had been more robust, particularly in relation to the value of mystery and paradox to orthodoxy. Instead, he offers another paradox that might play a role in the recovery of Christianity in the US. He calls it “the postmodern opportunity: the possibility that the very trends that have seemingly undone institutional Christianity could ultimately renew it.” One of the movements that is capitalizing on the “postmodern opportunity” is the emergent church, which “answers the deracination of contemporary life with a faith that meets seekers where they are,” a concept that sounds a bit like what Hunter would call, “faithful presence.”
As I study missionary sustainability and effectiveness, I can’t help that notice that the heresies that have, according to Douthat “weakened” American Christianity have often been exported by missionaries. The witness and effectiveness of American missionaries has also been compromised by an unwillingness to recognize how vital mystery and paradox are to orthodoxy.
Many US missionary sending agencies are denominationally based, and they want their missionaries to work within their own denomination, even when abroad. For example, a dispensationalist church will refuse to let their missionary engage in a faith community that is charismatic. Instead of embracing the local denomination, the missionary will “import” their denomination into the country. And missionaries do this becausethey think they are protecting “orthodoxy.” They are so convinced of their own denominational biases, that they confalte orthodoxy (or dogma) with doctrine. The fail to realize that the mystery of God is not found in one denominational stream or the other, but in both.
In addition, this desire to import one’s own denomination can end up creating more problems than it solves. Good contextualization, the type that does not result in syncretism (or what Douthat identifies as “Accommodation” in the US context) requires an openness to the mystery of a God that could be seen, understood, and manifest through different means in different places. One study, about the failure of some missionary churches in Zimbabwe said, ““Those who have been responsible for the propagation of the Christian Gospel in Zimbabwe have not shown sufficient awareness of the need for an encounter between the Christian religion and the cosmology of the peoples outside of European cultures and tradition. It is the lack that has made Christianity either alien or superficial or both”
 Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, 2013. 10.
 Douthat. 153
 Douthat, Bad Religion. 204.
 Douthat. 219.
 Douthat. 274.
 Anderson, Ryan T. “The Church of What’s Happening Now.(Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics)(Book Review).” Claremont Review of Books 12, no. 4 (2012): 87.
 Douthat 278.
 Douthat. 279.
 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 David Mushayavanhu and Graham A. Duncan, “The_spiritual_weakness_of_chur.Pdf,” Verbum et Ecclesia 35, no. 1 (January 2014): 6.