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67 of 69 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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This review is from: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Kindle Edition)
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 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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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 9, 2012 6:22:17 AM PST
Thank you for an excellent review. I was just looking this up again, because I recommended it to a friend and wanted to see what others had said about it. As I was recalling the book to my friend, I was thinking back exactly to the same passage in p.152 because it captures the essence of the challenges and paradoxes that Jesus presents us with, doesn't shy away from the difficulties of understanding who He is, and reminds us of what makes Christianity such a great faith to embrace.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 16, 2012 8:49:10 AM PST
Thanks Michael. I agree. This is definitely a good book to recommend.

Posted on Mar 14, 2013 8:05:43 AM PDT


I see no such thing, having been born in 1943. I do see that the superficial Christian & biblicist veneer that the USA had in the 1950's has declined. When I was a boy, in public school the Bible was read every day by state law (students picking their passage going around the room day by day). There was a kind of Christian consensus consistent with the the 1950's revision of the Pledge of Allegiance to include "under God." That superficial Christian consensus had declined and been replaced largely by secular humanism's politically correct imperatives.

But genuine Christianity has flourished. When I was a boy, I recall very few Christian radio stations, no supposedly Christian TV networks. Contemporary Christian music has arisen. There was not this great abundance of praise music that we now have. I see no decline of born-again Christianity at all. I see the wheat & tares both growing together. It is only the superficial Christian veneer that has declined; phony go-to-church mainline denominationalism has declined as permeated by heretics.


It is hardly possible to follow "the whole of Jesus." The Lord Jesus came to Israel & ministered under the law. He largely limited his ministry to Israel (with some attention to half-breed Samaritans). He endorsed the Law of Moses. He participated in temple activities. He never "went to church." He went to synagogue. He proclaimed the imminent Kingdom of God to Israel: "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand." John the Baptist proclaimed the same. The 12 Apostles were sent forth with the same message (Matthew 10) with peculiar rules for missionary work, which hardly anyone would follow today. Israel was offered her Messiah and the fulfillment of Kingdom blessings. Israel wanted the physical blessings, but would not repent. So Israel did not get her Kingdom, but crucified her Messiah at the hands of Romans.

The Lord Jesus fulfilled the law and ended the law at the cross. Then He began a different group (the Church) with different rules from that of Israel. We do not live in the age of the presentation of the Kingdom to Israel, nor are we under the law of Moses. Trying to follow the "whole of Jesus" is impossible and not what the Church is called to do. We are to take the gospel to all the nations. The scripture particularly addressed to the Church is largely a group of letters (not the Law of Moses).

An example of the change from Imminent Kingdom to Church, is found in the sort of non-resistance that the Lord Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as compared with his later teaching to buy a sword. Another is in the change from his teaching not to go to the Gentiles to the Great Commission at the end of His earthly life: proclaim the gospel to all nations.

American is not a fault for failing to follow "the whole of Jesus." It is at fault for rejecting the abundant proclamation of "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved." It is at fault for rejecting the Bible as the standard of truth and inventing its own religion.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 15, 2013 8:40:16 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 15, 2013 8:42:11 AM PDT
Good points, Enoch, thanks for chiming in. Have you read Bad Religion? You'd have to compare what you say with what he's saying in the book.

As far as following "the whole of Jesus," Douthat is referring to the times we isolate one snippet of Jesus and wave that banner to the exclusion of all his other teachings. Take his teaching on lust, for instance, from the Sermon on the Mount. We're ready to crucify people for lusting while turning a blind eye to social justice (Par. of Good Samaritan) or to being/becoming a generous person ("don't let your left hand know what your right hand is giving") or even a blind eye to anger (Ser. on the Mt.).

Your last paragraph is practically what Douthat is arguing throughout his book - America has invented its own religion taken from the pieces of Jesus it wants to follow as opposed to following the entire Jesus. Our problem is that we take the Bible at face value without doing the gnitty-gritty research to see what those stories meant to their first century listeners and we apply what we think it means (i.e. "pray and grow rich") as opposed to discovering that it may mean something completely different (i.e. the way of the cross).

Also, how can you not see the decline of American Christianity while also saying America is at fault for inventing its own religion? That seems to be the same thing and exactly what Douthat writes about.
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