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

What Got Us Here – Won’t Get Us There

Written by: on March 21, 2014

I was encouraged in my Focus 40 devotion for day ten leading up to Easter. It addressed, in a round-about way, the theme in much of the book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat.[1] The devotion, written by missionary Kelly Philips, faces the problem of how Christianity, which includes each of us who holds to some tribal strain of belief, can reach the present generation and pass the belief and heritage on to the next generation. The writer draws revelation and inspiration from the Old Testament story of the prophet/priest Eli and the calling of God to the young “altar boy” Samuel.[2] Eli in his old age had lost sight and hearing of/from God. Eli’s sons openly defied God in the temple and practice of covenant law. Eli attempted to minimize, ignore and otherwise cover up the debauchery, promiscuity and contempt for the law that his sons exhibited. In such a state, Eli had lost contact with any reality of faith in the true and one God of the Israelite people; God was no longer speaking to him and Eli could not relate to God’s speaking to young Samuel – the next generation.

Douthat expresses the question that has faced the church historically and reckons prominent in communities of faith today. He states;

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?”[3]

How can we be true to the propagation of the faith in contemporary times and cultures? According to Douthat, throughout history believers, theologians, philosophers and academicians have cultivated a “mix of scholarship and supposition to craft alternatives to the Christ of orthodoxy.”[4]  Phillips in Focus 40 suggests,

We have two options: step into the messy mix of different ideas and help them navigate the world of faith (and learn some-thing from them along the way) or, like Eli, step aside. God will use them whether or not we are willing to join his mission of building a new generation.[5]

Douthat is a fascinating read. He acknowledges that the writing is from an extremely pessimistic perspective; however, he notes that “pessimism should always be provisional.”[6] In other words, although he outlines the decline, confusion, and mostly “heretical” nature of Christian orthodoxy in parallel with the “spendthrift, decadent, and corrupt”[7] American society, there is still much to be thankful and hopeful about.

Douthat sees the dilemma and decline in Western culture as involving the practice and belief of religion and primarily the Christian faith. He proposes a sort-of oxymoron at the root of decline. He states that Americans have “fallen away from the faith of their fathers” and yet the decline is the result of being “excessively religious.”[8]  He encapsulates the decline as the struggle between religious positions of right and wrong, truth and error, and each side positioning themselves as “children of light” and the other side as “Children of darkness.” From this perspective he presents the pessimistic decline and irrelevancy of the Christian faith. He notes,

The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul.[9]

Of course, possibly Douthat’s most central thesis, which he develops from a historical perspective, is not too much or too little religion but rather, it is bad religion.

Douthat’s writing is particularity relevant because, after establishing a good foundation the rise and fall and shifting of Christian orthodoxy, he focuses on the years immediately following World War II. He asks. “Why did the churches have a bigger credibility problem in 1978 than in 1958? What were the proximate causes of Christianity’s decline, and why did they kick in when they did?”[10] He then presents five “catalysts” that addresses the questions fleshing out each with explicit examples. One of the ways this book is extremely relevant is detailing and reflecting on those who have impacted the current situation in Western Christianity. For instance: theologians Neibuhr, Cox and others; religious leaders such as Graham and King; influential people in religion, politics, and broadcasting such as Osteen, Winfrey and Beck; political movements including both sides of the aisle and movements in social rights and justice.

In the intervening chapters of the book, Douthat places much on the table for consideration and for reflection as we continue to strive with the on-going question, “What then?” Or, “Where do we go from here?” In the final chapter, “The Recovery of Christianity,” Douthat postulates “four potential touchstones for the recovery of Christianity.”[11] Here, he takes a turn from the pessimistic approach throughout the book and establishes a perspective that positively points to the Christian community speaking to a diverse and pluralistic society in a post-Christendom era. I found the presentation to be rejuvenating and encouraging. Douthat creates a sort-of visionary expectation when he says “…perhaps, a more robust and rigorous American Christianity is something that even non-believers should consider hoping for as well.”[12]  This is a time of great change and transition; dare we dream or have visions of what the church, Christianity, might look like on the other side!?

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

[2] See 1 Samuel 3.

[3] Douthat, 151.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Kelly Philips, “Extreme Living—Reaching for the Next Generation – Day 10,” Church of God (Anderson) Global Ministries, Extreme Living—Reaching for the Next Generation Day 10 (Accessed: Mar 21, 2014)

[6] Ibid., 278.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Ibid., 2, emphases original.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Ibid., 65.

[11] Ibid., 278.

[12] Ibid.

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