Book Review – Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

I have been intending to write a long review of Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics, for about seven weeks now, but due to various obligations and, well, the NBA playoffs, that hasn’t happened. So here’s a short review: it’s an excellent book that accomplishes three basic purposes: one descriptive, one controversial, and one normative.

The descriptive section, consisting roughly of the first half of the book, is a useful, accessible account of the rise of a vibrant, frequently orthodox, Christianity following World War II, and the decline of orthodox Christianity and the institutions that undergird it over the past sixty years. Douthat is even-handed in his treatment of a wide variety of theological movements, theologians, and denominations. While most of the material will be familiar to those who pay attention to these matters closely – including many readers of this blog – it should be acknowledged that most Americans do not fall in this category. And even for those who do, Douthat’s synthesis of events, movements, and people is perceptive and sympathetic. Refreshingly, he avoids most of the exaggerated caricatures that populate popular writing on these themes. The average religion reporter for the Washington Post or the Associated Press would do well to use Bad Religion as a starting point and model for writing intelligently about religion in the contemporary U.S.

The second half of the book is straight forwardly controversial, as Douthat explores a variety of influential religious works and figures, ranging from Joel Osteen to Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) to participants in the Jesus Seminar, and criticizes the superficiality, self-absorption, and lack of scholarly rigor that characterizes Christianity-lite and Christian-influenced spirituality in much of the contemporary United States. In many respects, it reads as an update on Chesterton’s Heretics, although it must be said that none of Douthat’s targets approach the caliber of H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, or any of Chesterton’s original antagonists. To a certain extent, Douthat is shooting fish in a barrel; but at least they are the biggest fish, if book sales, packed stadiums, and cultural notoriety are any indication.

The final thread of the book, which I have labelled normative for convenience, is a straight forward argument that orthodox Christianity has served an important role in U.S. public life and that its claims are worth taking seriously on intellectual and practical grounds. At times Douthat seems to place too much emphasis on the usefulness of orthodox Christianity to the body politic rather than the truth of Christian orthodoxy. That said, given the widespread ignorance and hostility to historical Christianity among many elites in the U.S., establishing the former may be a prerequisite to winning a hearing for the latter.

Throughout the book, Chesterton’s shadow looms large. In many respects, Bad Religion reads as an extended and thoughtful reflection on the themes of two of G.K. Chesterton’s best works, Orthodoxy and Heretics, in the contemporary United States. While Douthat, like everyone else who has written English for the last eighty odd years, lacks Chesterton’s dazzling virtuosity and flair for paradox, he shares Chesterton’s sympathetic perceptiveness and charitable tone of engagement. Bad Religion is an excellent and accessible introduction to Christianity and Christian-influenced spirituality in the modern U.S., as well as a useful (and badly needed) apologetic on behalf of Christian orthodoxy.

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  1. What I heard from a secular friend of mine is that she hated eat pray love because the woman leaves her husband who seemed like a perfectly good husband, runs off with a boyfriend and than leaves him too and does speak to her husband anymore throughout the rest of the movie and the rest is “save me brown people” movie. So i find it hard to take a movie like that seriously.

  2. Never read any of Osteen’s books, but looking at the covers, all of which have a picture of the intensely well-groomed Osteen, I always got the impression, “con artist”. Might be very unfair of me to think that, but I just couldn’t get past it.

    Anyways – it is high time that we had a serious discussion of the ways in which even those who say they are Christian can be part of the problem. Far more damaging than open enemies are pretend friends.

  3. I’ve had the book for a month, although other than glancing at it when I purchased it I haven’t read it yet. My son who just finished up his sophomore year at the U of I has read it and enjoyed it.

  4. Recall that “heresy” is a Greek word (?????????) from the verb ?????, meaning to choose.

    Speaking of some of the more pernicious heresies of the past, Mgr Ronald Knox reminds us that “traditional Christianity is a balance of doctrines, and not merely of doctrines but of emphases. You must not exaggerate in either direction, or the balance is disturbed. An excellent thing to abandon yourself, without reserve, into God’s hands; … but, teach on principle that it is an infidelity to wonder whether you are saved or lost, and you have overweighted your whole devotional structure… Conversely, it is a holy thing to trust in the redeeming merits of Christ. But, put it about that such confidence is the indispensable sign of being in God’s favour, that, unless and until he is experimentally aware of it, a man is lost, and the balance has been disturbed at the opposite end;”

  5. John Henry,
    You say the NBA playoffs held you up. All I can say to that…is this…Lebron, D.Wade, Bosh versus Harden, Durant, Westbrook….historic monumentality. Tonight nine Eastern Time…Critical.
    And what’s with the lenseless nerd glasses they wear at press conferences?

  6. Example of why I love Msgr R. Knox:
    “traditional Christianity is a balance of doctrines, and not merely of doctrines but of emphases” as Michael’s quote indicate, we can sometimes put the em pha’ sis on the wrong sy lla’ ble.

    I haven’t read Doubthat’s book yet. After my daughter’s wedding Saturday and we have all quieted down around here I hope to do a lot of reading, the old fashioned way (from a book)

    I am hoping I will get e-mail notifications of new comments again like I used to..

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