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Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics Paperback – April 16, 2013
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"Ross Douthat's thoughtful, articulate, wide-ranging, sometimes contrarian and always provocative new book asks a tough question: Why has Christianity been so misunderstood, and so misused, in the past few decades? From those who (foolishly) watered down the most basic Christian beliefs, to those who (falsely) promised worldly success to the followers of Jesus, the values of orthodoxy (literally, "right belief") have often been blithely set aside. With an impressive command of both history and contemporary social trends, Douthat shows not only how we ended up with a Christianity of our own making, but also how we can reclaim an adherence to the teachings of the real Jesus--not just the convenient one."
--James Martin, SJ, author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything"""
"Not only is Ross Douthat's account of orthodox Christianity's decline provocative, but his critique of today's ascendant heresies is compelling. This volume is a sustained proof of Chesterton's thesis that when people turn from God, 'they don't believe in nothing--they believe in anything.' Everyone who is interested in why the church is faring as it is in U.S. culture today needs to get this book."
--Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City
""Bad Religion "is nothing short of prophetic. In a time of religious, political, and cultural upheaval, Ross Douthat tells the American faithful--liberals, conservatives, and everybody in between--not what we want to hear, but what we desperately need to hear. With this provocative and challenging work that no thoughtful Christian can afford to ignore, Douthat assures his place in the first rank of his generation's public intellectuals."
--Rod Dreher, author of "Crunchy Cons" and senior editor of "The American Conservative"
""Bad Religion" is superb: sharply critical of the amazing variety of American religious pathologies, but fair; blunt in diagnosis, but just; telling a dark tale, but telling it hopefully. For those trying to understand the last half-century or more of American religion, and to strive for a better future, it is an indispensable book."
--Alan Jacobs, author of "The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis"
"A brilliantly reasoned argument for orthodox Christianity and the need for vibrant faith in society. In this perceptive and timely work, Ross Douthat extolls the 'vital center' of belief while calling out the fashionable heretics among us. This is one 'Bad Religion' we can all believe in."
--Raymond Arroyo, "New York Times" bestselling author, host of EWTN's "The World Over Live"
"Mr. Douthat offers a lively, convincing argument for what kind of religion we need."--Mark Oppenheimer "New York Times "
"Bad Religion" is an important book. It brings a probing, perceptive analysis to bear on the tragic hollowing out of American Christianity. In Douthat, readers have a guide who explains how we ended up drinking at a narcissistic trough draped in spirituality that doesn't quench anybody's deepest thirst...."--G. Jeffrey MacDonald "Christian Science Monitor "
About the Author
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times op-ed page. He is the author of To Change The Church, Privilege, and Grand New Party. Before joining the Times he was a senior editor for The Atlantic. He is the film critic for National Review, and he has appeared regularly on television, including Charlie Rose, PBS Newshour, and Real Time with Bill Maher.
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Top customer reviews
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.
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.