Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation Of Heretics, by Ross Douthat
This book was hard for me to finish, not because it was a bad book, but because it felt like the author was missing something. A large part of this springs from the author’s background as a Catholic, and his insistence that the post-Nicene Hellenistic Christianity represents the genuine Christianity by which to judge others as heretical. Disagreeing strongly with this worldview as I do , I find it strange as well that the author completely ignores religious developments that do not correspond to this view, even though I have to say that he judges contemporary heretical tendencies pretty accurately. As a result, my feelings on the book ended up more positive as I read the book, even if I could never entirely shake my deeper disagreement with the author’s perspective. In general, though, this is a book which has a sober and cautionary tale about the struggle of religious institutions to go against the spirit of the times, and that is a lesson that is sufficiently important that I think this book is a great read even for those whose religious beliefs do not come from various aspects of the Christian or contemporary mainstream.
The nearly three-hundred pages of this book come in two parts and eight chapters. The author begins with a prologue that looks at the contemporary United States as a nation of heretics, something that may come off as rather aggressive until one realizes that the author is being quite accurate in saying so. The first part of the book then looks at mainstream Christianity in Crisis, something I had a limited degree of sympathy for since my own religious traditions are not included in this discussion, with chapters on the lost world of mainstream Christian popularity (1), the locust years where Christianity became increasingly ridiculed by cultural elites (2), and the twin strategies of accommodation (3) and resistance (4) to cultural decadence in general society that churches could choose as a way of responding to the threats of unbelief in the larger culture. The book becomes a lot more interesting, though, when the author turns to an examination of the age of heresy (II) in which many became lost in various gnostic gospels (5), adopted various false prosperity gospels by which people might pray and grow rich (6), made heretical statements about the importance of finding the sacred god within ourselves (7) or engaged in nationalist appeals that threatened a return to tribal religious fervor (8) before concluding with an appeal to how Christianity may recover from its contemporary difficulty.
Ultimately, the author is optimistic about the future of Christianity despite its present malaise. I tend to think, belonging to a more pessimistic religious tradition, that this optimism springs from the history of Hellenistic Christianity being successful in overcoming various threats in its existence despite its struggles and despite it not being genuine biblical religion. Those whose religious beliefs have always been out of the mainstream tend to be far more pessimistic about the popularity of belief systems that require fidelity to the biblical standard when it comes to worship (Sabbath observance) or sexuality. Whether or not the author’s optimism is justified or not is not something I feel confident in predicting, but it seems quite possible that an apparent recovery of something that many people would see as Orthodox religion would be inspirational and seen as a confirmation of the author’s viewpoints, and that possibility is definitely something that may happen, as hard as it is to see that happening at present. In the meantime, this book is a worthwhile criticism of certain aspects of contemporary religious thought and practice that are particularly problematic.
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