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185 of 196 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Look at American Religion, Culture and Politics
Although the title sounds polemical, Ross Douthat's book is actually a thorough, thoughtful and scholarly study of the ways in which the orthodox tenets of Christianity are losing ground to the many popular heresies of the day and the ways in which this phenomenon affects the church and the social and political culture of the country.

My IPad version of the...
Published 23 months ago by Jody Harrington

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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars provocative and gets you thinking
Having heard this book's author interviewed on NPR, I thought this book might be thought provoking. I was right. I am not sure I agree with the author, but his thesis is fascinating. For the most part it is easy to read, but keep a dictionary handy, since there are a bunch of "new" words in there that none of us use in everyday life. I look forward to discussing the...
Published 21 months ago by Sunshine


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185 of 196 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Look at American Religion, Culture and Politics, April 30, 2012
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Although the title sounds polemical, Ross Douthat's book is actually a thorough, thoughtful and scholarly study of the ways in which the orthodox tenets of Christianity are losing ground to the many popular heresies of the day and the ways in which this phenomenon affects the church and the social and political culture of the country.

My IPad version of the book is covered with yellow highlighting and notes. This is not a quick and easy read because it is so thought-provoking that I often put it away for a while in order to digest a new insight.

Beginning with the fundamentalist-modernist conflicts of the early twentieth century in the mainline Protestant denomination, Douthat sets the stage for his thesis that

"America's problem isn't too much religion or too little of it. It's bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place."

These pseudo-Christianities include accomodationism, the embrace of Gnosticism, solipsism, messianism, utopianism, apocalypticism, nationalism and the prosperity gospel. As Douthat trenchantly observes in the prologue, heresies have always sought to simplify and eliminate the paradoxical and difficult teachings of Jesus into something that better fits the spirit of the culture and the age.

Historically, orthodox Christianity has been strengthened when it is forced to defining its beliefs against the popular heresies of the day. As Douthat says "Pushing Christianity to one extreme or another is what Americans have aways done. We've been making idols of our country, our pocketbooks and our sacred selves for hundreds of years. What's changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response."

As a Protestant I was unaware of the extent to which the cultural conflicts which roil the mainline denominations also affected the Catholic church in America until I read this book. Douthat makes a persuasive case connecting the decline of orthodox belief in all denominations to the rise of the hyper-partisan gridlock in our government that threatens the future of the country.

Douthat is even-handed in his criticism. Readers will nod in agreement over some passages and then squirm uncomfortably as their own presuppositions are questioned.

The concluding chapter notes that Christianity through the ages has weathered other eras of decline and revived itself with reformation and offers four opportunities for its recovery in the present age which would make great discussion for study and book groups.

Bad Religion is an excellent book. I highly recommend it to readers interested in the intersection of Christianity with American culture and politics.
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87 of 92 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The how, when and why of heresy, May 8, 2012
As part of the generation just emerging from college, I've always been curious about the emergence of the dominant current forms of Christianity. There are churches galore, but few seats in the pews. Nearly everyone says they're a Christian, but few can give an accounting of what that means. The media is obsessed with Christianity, but usually to mock it. And there was the memorable line a guy shouted in my philosophy class, unrelated to the discussion at hand: "I hate organized religion!" The fact is, while the thought behind the line may have been surprising to me - a Christian whose education up until that point was a private Christian one - it was seemingly pretty normal among my college peers.

Ross Douthat charts a compelling narrative through the ideological landscape of the 50's and 60's to the present day. First, he takes us through the high water point of Christianity, when the horrors of World War II had disabused most everyone of the notion of continual human progress. This was the high point of institutional Christianity, when it could be theologically rigorous, intellectually respected and civil rights oriented, while being less politically polarized than it is today. Alas, the sexual revolution, a global outlook, materialism and class issues drove Christians into the two competing camps of the accommodators and resisters. The second part of the book looks at the current state of American Christianity. Douthat believes secularists and orthodox Christians alike have little to be pleased about, as a narcissistic, materialistic and nationalistic spirituality has carried the day. While Douthat supports his narrative with evidence, his strength is that he does consider competing hypotheses. He doesn't believe in a Christian "golden age", and qualifies many of the statements he makes. He manages to state and support how he believes society evolved and how Christianity was taken along for the ride, while not being dogmatic about his interpretation.

As a Christian, I'm intrigued by Douthat's book and the challenges it outlines. It's scope is both wide and deep, and packs plenty to think about in less than 300 pages. For the thinking Christian, it's an informed rejoinder to the political essence that envelops both sides of the aisle. However, I also hope the secular humanists also takes a look, as Douthat makes a strong argument that a strong institutional Christianity will do much more for the poor and helpless than alternative spiritualities. I consider it a must read and hope it finds a vast readership.
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58 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well-written, fun to read, thought-provoking, inspiring., June 9, 2012
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I came across this book while watching late night TV one night and being completely glued to a speech he was giving on C-SPAN. I had to read the book after that - in fact, I ordered it on my Kindle as soon as the TV program ended. By the time I finished this book, I was ready and inspired to take the mantle of Christianity more seriously than I had been. I read the Kindle edition which tracks that I made 263 notes & marks - which I'm now ready to go back and re-read.

His research is solid, robust and exhaustive. He describes the decline of American Christianity and does so by giving a good history of American Christianity. He is a brainiac of brainacs whose writing is still eminently readable and likable. He critiques the more common heresies we see in Christianity today, particularly accomodationism (which tries to keep Christianity relevant but at the expense of some of Christianity's core beliefs) and American exceptionalism (which sees America as a new kind of "chosen nation" thus giving America the right to evangelize the world with its thoughts, beliefs, and culture).

Consider some of these quotes:

"The result is a country where religion actively encourages the sort of recklessness that produced our current economic meltdown, rahter than serving as a brake on materialism and a rebuke to avarice," (p. 5).

He calls America "a nation of heretics...Yet heresy without room for orthodoxy turns out to be dangerous as well. Many of the orverlapping crises in American life, from our foreign policy disasters to the housing bubble to the rate of out-of-wedlock births, can be traced to the impulse to emphasize one particular element of traditional Christianity...at the expense of all the others...Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme...What's changed today, though, is the weakness of the orthodox response," (p.5 , 8).

His critiques include both Protestantism and Catholicism without ignoring the likes of Oprah, Joel Osteen, the New Atheist movement, Bart Ehrman, the Jesus Seminar, Dan Brown, Glenn Beck and many others.

He makes great points that American Christianity has suffered from second rate witnesses as seen in the televangelists and in Christian art/music. Many times, as a Christian myself, I have seen these same witnesses and thought that if this is what Christianity really is - big poofy hair, fake smiles dripping with manipulation, silly songs (though not of the VeggieTales variety!), gimicky church services - then no thanks. To this, Douthat says - "Worse, many Christians are either indifferent to beauty or suspicious of its snares, content to worship in tacky churches and amuse themselves with cultural products that are well-meaning but distinctly second-rate," (p. 292).

As a student in seminary, having read a lot of theological books both for school, for ministry, and for personal growth, I can say that chapter 5 "Lost in the Gospels" was incredible and almost Schweitzer-ian in its critique of the modern quest for the historical Jesus. "The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creed, 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...The goal of the great heresies, on the other other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus, (p. 153). This is exactly what many current Jesus-questers do when they extract or re-interpret the miraculous element in the gospels, or try to re-constitute Jesus as a cynic or non-divine teacher. Jesus gets oversimplified. Douthat's further critique of this is just plain fun to read.

In one instance, he even sounds Spurgeoun-esque. On p. 152, he begins an artful section that is almost worthy of memorizing in its entirety. Here's just a snippit of it: "Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament's Jesus...He (Jesus) makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness...He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners."

He has so much to say - from critiquing the health and wealth, prosperity gospel (Ch. 6 - "Pray and Grow Rich") to describing the heresy of Nationalism and the heresy of Apocolyptism. He uses Thomas Jefferson, Basil the Great, Abraham Lincoln, John Winthrop and many, many others as sources of heresy and orthodoxy.

What a tremendous and thought-provoking read.
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79 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Argument for Orthodoxy, April 26, 2012
By 
Tom Duffy (Haworth, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
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Bad Religion contains a number of points that make it worth reading, whatever your religious or political persuasion. I find that Douthat:
1. Provides an excellent overview of Protestant thought and outlook since the founding of the United States. Deism, revivalism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, mainline Protestant thought, etc. Growing up as a parochial Catholic, disinterested in things Protestant, I found this to be a great introduction to those religious traditions that I am not familiar with but obviously have a crucial role in present day politics.
2. Is not afraid to use the word heretic. The "gospel of prosperity" isn't remotely Christian and I'm glad he's willing to call a spade a spade.
3. Is very critical of accommodation. Watered down Christianity isn't Christianity. The Nicene Creed isn't a Chinese menu where you just pick the ones you want.
4. Presents his arguments in a reasonable and nuanced way. I'm not sure Douthat is blames Vatican II for the problems with the state of Catholicism today, rather, he's critical of some of the excesses following Vatican II. He is certainly not an apologist for Novak and points out that Church teaching is traditionally suspicious of capitalism.
Finally, he warns about the downside of tying your religious beliefs and your political affiliation. Which political party, for example, represents a socially progressive orthodox Catholic who is pro life and anti-death penalty? None of the above, I suppose.
Reading the reviews and the references to reviews in other publications about the book, it seems obvious that some Amazon reviewers are bringing a lot of baggage with them as they read the book. I haven't read enough of Douthat's Times columns to know if the criticism is justified, but the book itself is a reasonable call to return conservative orthodoxy. Categorizing myself as a "liberal" Catholic, I'm sure that Douthat and I could disagree on a lot, but I'm equally sure that we could say the creed together and both mean every word. I highly recommend this book.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars provocative and gets you thinking, July 3, 2012
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Having heard this book's author interviewed on NPR, I thought this book might be thought provoking. I was right. I am not sure I agree with the author, but his thesis is fascinating. For the most part it is easy to read, but keep a dictionary handy, since there are a bunch of "new" words in there that none of us use in everyday life. I look forward to discussing the author's thesis with our (Episcopal) priest. I strongly encourage anyone who is a member of a shrinking denomination, a member of a megachurch, or a "fallen away" church-goer to get this book, give it a critical read, and then begin a conversation!
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bad Religion is a Good Book!, June 15, 2012
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This review also appears on my blog at [...]

Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is a triumph. It describes in great detail how the center of American cultural and political life was pulled apart by the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the sexual 'revolution,' and a weakening of orthodox Christian practice and belief. Douthat, the youngest conservative voice on the editorial staff at the New York Times, is a convert to Catholicism.

The book is broad. It has much to say about the intellectual antecedents of what Douthat calls accomodationism, the efforts to make Christianity fit in with American culture. He looks too at the strengths and limitations of the resistance to secularization, for example in Fr. Richard John Neuhaus' First Things journal and the attempt to bring prolife Evangelicals and Catholics together.

What I admire about this book is the insights into the necessity of maintaining the tension of Gospel messages. Reading the chapter 'Lost in the Gospels' is most eye-opening. Douthat examines the long history of struggles with the temptation to resolve the disquieting and unsettling messages of the Gospel. I've seen evidence of succumbing to this temptation. Some Facebook pages announce unabashedly that 'Jesus was a socialist.' Other people seem to think Jesus is that that big ATM in the sky, or maybe just the best fitness guru ever. There is much in Mr. Douthat's book for social justice Catholics to think about. There is also much for free market advocates like me to reflect on. The passages on the prosperity gospel delusion are very helpful. There's a world of difference between approaching Jesus as life coach slash stock broker, and worshiping Him as the Lord of History and Savior of All Mankind. In an age very adept at diminishing Christ to the status of any other Facebook 'friend," Douthat's book is perhaps a call to anchor faith in scripture, dogma, ritual, and community.

Douthat offers four touchstones for a renewal of Christianity in America. It is a hope, not a blueprint. 1.) There's a post modern opportunity for Christianity to be political without being partisan. There's no such thing as a political 'home' for orthodox Christians. 2.) Renewed Christianity needs to be ecumenical and confessional. Avoid the 'deeds not creeds' copout. 3.) Renewal of faith needs to be both moralistic and holistic. Yes, affirm the traditional teachings on human sexuality, but do not ignore the extraordinary loneliness that characterizes our age. 4.) A renewed Christianity needs to be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. Douthat expresses this effectively with the words of Joseph Ratzinger, just before Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI: "The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb."

The takeaway of this book for me is to be vigilant and humble. Don't cut ecclesiastical corners. The passion for social justice among my fellow Catholics is not without merit, and is not necessarily a condemnation of supply and demand, or at least shouldn't be. Confront the challenges of the Gospels. Reflect on them. Live them. Avoid the temptation to remake Jesus in my own image and likeness. It is Jesus who chose me, not me who chose Him. He doesn't need to come to me; I need to come to Him.

Reviewer: Acathanus Education President, Stephen Haessler
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cautionary Tale of Christianity in America in the Last Century, June 6, 2012
By 
Melinda the Bibliophile (Somewhere Outside Austin, Tx) - See all my reviews
To have a book about Christianity be engrossing, riveting, and amazingly educational, all at the same time is ludicrous - but Douthat has done just that! He writes well-researched, well-thought out material and not only that, but he is a passionate author. That passion for his subject matter shows in the way that each page seems to scream " America has lost her moral center and must get it back!" His message is as compelling as his arguments that there is a place for Christian Orthodoxy in America and America needs it. I've got to say that after reading the book, I whole heartedly agree, which was not my position before I read it.

The book is a cautionary tale of a country in changing times and the churches within that country that try to minister to their flock the best ways that they can. The country is America, the churches are Christian, including Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Baptist, Mormon, LDS, etc. After the church renaissance of the '40s and '50s brought on by the harsh realities of WWII and the Great Depression, Orthodox Christianity reached it's zenith. Then came the '60s, with free love, the pill, the hippie counterculture, drugs and all bets were off for America.

In his book Dothat talks about not only what happened during the renaissance, but what the churches did in response to the free-wheeling '60s and '70s. It was definitely a time of crises for Christianity. Their response didn't really help themselves or their parishioners. I remember that time vividly. It was no piece of cake for anyone.

In the money-making and self-help '80s there were a whole new set of problems for Christianity to contend with. Baby Boomers, once hippies, were now doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, businessman and entrepreneurs. How do God and Mammon coexist? And what about all that psychobabble - shouldn't they be talking to a priest/father/pastor instead? Douthat answers these questions in some detail.

When we look to the '90s and the turn of the century, we're looking at the age of media. Dothat explains fully the impact of media on Christianity, all the way back to Billy Graham's Revival Tour in '40s and keeps on to the present day. Including the impact of such things as facebook and MySpace. He really leaves nothing out.

In the present day, we are presented with statistics about the up coming generation that are rather depressing to say the least. Nationalism - whether messianic or apocalyptic is on the agenda for the country. But all hope is not lost. Douthat provides a 4 point plan to regain America it's moral center and get people back to some form of Orthodox Christianity as soon as possible. And to make an honest assessment of his plea, I am one of the people who is just one step away from the Christian Orthodoxy of my childhood - whose rules I've lived by and taught my children without thinking about where they came from. Just one step away...

I would recommend this book to everyone living in America. You need to read this! If you read one book this year, then you've just found that book. It is essential for every American to understand the will of the Founding Father's of a Christian Nation, and the history of Christianity within that nation. How else can you be an informed American? I learned so much from this book that it was startling, even though I lived through half the years it covers, I never had the bigger picture. Just buy this book right now!
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book for thought and discussion, May 11, 2012
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Rather than write a summary of the book, the thrust of the book is that if the difference between orthodox belief and heretical belief is in McGrath's words, "... a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of the Christian faith" than what passes for Christianity today in some circles is heretical. Douthat points to specific examples - those who challenge the veracity of the New Testament gospels, those who connect the gospel to prosperity and health, those who see the gospel as purely therapeutic, and those who connect the gospel to a political agenda. All of these, at least in the short run, offer a less than compelling picture of Christian belief.

I would suggest reading two other books that dovetail well with Douthat's writings - Christian Smith's "Soul Searching" and his idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and James Davidson Hunter's book, "To Change the World" that challenges the models Christians have supported to change the world.

One can take issue with the broadness of how Douthat uses the word "heretic". The word by itself conjures up so many different meanings for modern people that it can lead a person to a given bias even before they read the book. That being said, I think the value of the book is for discussion. Whether you end up agreeing with Douthat on every point, it's a valuable read to spur discussion. In that sense, I think the word "heretic" in the title does exactly what the books sets out not to do... to keep discussion about Christianity confined to only a small group of people who see "aberrant" views as less than orthodoxy and heretical by their standards.

Of particular value are Douthat's thoughts on the Christian treatment of sexuality. With so much in the press about homosexuality, the timing of Douthat's thoughts is excellent. Again, whether you agree with him or not, that's not what I want to argue. The fact that we have discussions about this in person is critical.

This is not the kind of book that you speed read through. It's thoughtful with a coherent trajectory of reasoning. I would hunker down, underline, jot down notes. This is a seriously good read.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We *do* live in a nation of heretics, June 10, 2012
By 
Mark Cole (West Chester, PA) - See all my reviews
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We *do* live in a nation of heretics.

This well researched book says that too much religion (as secular liberals are claiming) or not enough religion (as moral conservatives claim) is not the problem. The problem is bad religion - and to narrow it down a little bit more - 21st century Christians believing in deceptive lies that Christians in the 1950-1970 era would never have fallen for. These lies are the (1) the prosperity gospel, "Pray and grow rich" (2) "God within" which means that God is us and we determine for ourselves what is right and wrong, particularly about sex, (3) Confusing Christianity with Americanism and both Democrats and Republicans do this in different ways. The poster children for these 3 false teachings are Joel Olsteen, Elizabeth Gilbert (who wrote Eat Pray Love) and Glenn Beck respectively.

I thought Ross Douthat's conclusion was a little disappointing compared to the great premise. The solution did not seem to me to solve the fundamental problem and does not seem like the solution that the author (a successful New York Times newspaper columnist who is probably rich, right, and politically influental who works at the best American liberal newspaper) has actually chosen. Ross Douthat approaches the problem historically, explaining how Christians have solved previous times of spiritual regression during its 2000+ year history.

The solution is personal. It is the solution that Solomon made when God offered him anything he wanted - riches, spiritual power, political power - and Solomon rejected all of these options. The only thing Solomon wanted was discernment or wisdom. This choice pleased God immensely - so much so that God gave him all the other stuff as well.
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24 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The basis of American Christianity, April 27, 2012
Ross Doathat, a New York Times columnist, among other things, hits the proverbial keyboard at full throttle and doesn't slow down until the end of his book Bad Religion. From the beginning he sets the tone "The US needs to recognize...it is not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics." And from this jumping off spot he launches into a reportorial review of American religion from the native American through Puritans to present day. It is not the existence of heretics that concerns the author but the intolerance of heretics for orthodox Christians and the "weakness of the orthodox response." Heretics is not necessarily a bad thing according to the author as long as orthodoxy prevails.

He tells us, "Today's heretics are all eminently American, the heirs of Jefferson and Joseph Smith, Emerson and Eddy,...." And he names names in a true reportorial style as well as religions and cults that have sprung up here and none escape his blazing pen. Much is covered on Catholicism from the runaway affects on America from the Vatican II council and the charm of Pope John Paul to the horrors of priestly sex abuse in the 2003 period. He also uses the example of that little nun in India, Mother Teresa in practicing true Christianity, over American Christianity.

What is the basis of this heretical American attitude? The author says it is from a choose your on "Jesus mentality by ...encouraging spiritual seekers to screen out discomfiting parts of the New Testament and focus only on whichever Christ they find most congenial." And defines American heresy as setting out "to be simple and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme."

He goes into the affects of American religion of foreign persons and entities such as the 14th Dalai Lama's writings and Eastern faiths especially on meditation and spiritual awakening. The American Christianity has embraced much from Zen and Buddhism even to the point of how to make more sales.

He leaves the reader with the hope of recovery of true Christianity but not without a lot of struggle. He sights a report that in 2005 97% of the teenagers studied professed some sort of a divine; but the other side of the coin was that there was no evidence of a recognizable orthodox Christian Faith among them.

This book is full of gems and quotable sayings regarding American religion whether orthodox or heretical. One needs to be prepared to take one's time and mine these gems in order to be part of the recovery of American Christianity and not part of its demise. It is truly an eye opener and the reader will find him/herself nodding acknowledgement of these discoveries.
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Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics
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