"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, July 5, 2013

Ross Douthat on Bad Religion

I recently finished reading Ross Douthat's book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), 352pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
As the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. In Bad Religion he offers a masterful and hard-hitting account of how American Christianity has gone off the rails—and why it threatens to take American society with it.Writing for an era dominated by recession, gridlock, and fears of American decline, Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of the nation’s political and economic crises. He argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
These faiths speak from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”—and many of their preachers claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity—not the real thing. Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, Douthat argues, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption.
In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, he brilliantly charts institutional Christianity’s decline from a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith—which acted as a “vital center” and the moral force behind the civil rights movement—through the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s to the polarizing debates of the present day. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Barack Obama, Eat Pray Love to Joel Osteen, and Oprah Winfrey to The Da Vinci Code, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel’s mantra of “pray and grow rich,” a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach, and the warring political religions of left and right have crippled the country’s ability to confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline. His urgent call for a revival of traditional Christianity is sure to generate controversy, and it will be vital reading for all those concerned about the imperiled American future.
This is a well-written and smoothly edited book with whose arguments I generally agree. Douthat shows in some, but not overwhelming, detail how most versions of Christianity in America--by which he means Protestantism and Catholicism: Orthodoxy is basically invisible in this book--have been corrupted--perhaps unconsciously in a few cases--by various ideas to greater or lesser degrees originating in the singularity of American culture and history. That history and culture have given birth to some entire sui generis faiths, in fact, which are in significant ways simply Christian grotesques: Mormonism, of course, is the clearest example of this. But Mormonism, at least directly, remains strange enough to most that it is not nearly the threat that the "prosperity gospel" poses.

This "gospel" has gone a very long way not only to give cover to all those repellent preachers on TV hawking "water from the Jordan" or "sand from the Holy Land" or but has also, I think, made serious inroads into Orthodoxy and Catholicism in North America, both of which have moved a long way from the faith of immigrants, peasants, and workers to being much more "mainstream" and "respectable" in some ways. That process, for understandable and often commendable socioeconomic reasons, has not come without some cost--what I would, as a kind of short-hand, refer to as the "bourgeoisification" of Christianity in North America--how very middle class it is in mores and much else. The clearest evidence of this, to my mind, remains the fact that contemporary Orthodoxy and Catholicism have not produced--as far as I can see--any contemporary "holy fools" of a truly outstanding and outrageous nature. Perhaps, given their propensity for "hiding" their holiness, there are many fools among us, but I should like them to have a more public presence if they are indeed around. Christians need to be reminded, often, that Christianity should not neatly coincide with middle-class notions of respectability and comfort. As I put it to my students earlier this year when looking at the holy fool in the movie Ostrov, if your faith does not make you seem at least a little strange to people around you, you are probably not doing it right.

When he was here in 2008, I well recall Pope Benedict raising the question that perhaps, in the often understandable rush from various "ghettos" in which pre-war Catholics lived for the prosperous and diffuse suburbs, something had been lost that needed to be reconsidered. A fortiori this seems true to me when considering the material prosperity of Christians on this continent. There is nothing wrong with being middle class, and much that is good for which we should be grateful. But I think there is an invidious corruption of orthodox Christianity that too often accompanies material prosperity--we become soft, unwilling to sacrifice, complacent in all kinds of practices, especially ascetical ones. (Eastern Christians must check temptations to pride here: while we have, in theory, retained, e.g., far more fasting days than Western Christians, how many of us actually practice them with some rigor? How many of us--as others have commented--restrain the impulse for ostentatious trips to Whole Foods to get "just the right kind" of hummus during Great Lent, or to make sure the recipe for lentils and shrimp goes well with the Gewürztraminer we have selected for those days on which, by some mystery, wine is allowed?)

The problem with the so-called prosperity gospel, at least in the survey Douthat provides of many of its pamphleteers and propagators (of whom the oleaginous Joel Osteen is probably reigning champion today), is that it conflates spiritual and material blessings, and it seems not only totally ignorant of, but positively immune to, any of the ascetical practices that have marked Christianity from the beginning: fasting, abstinence, and other forms of self-renunciation. It also seems to traffic in--to use Eric Voegelin's famous phrase--an immanentization of the eschaton, seeming to promise people that all the limitations, problems, and sufferings of a fallen world can be largely if not entirely overcome if we pray the right prayers the right way and just "hope" enough.

This needs to be challenged more than it is, but Douthat's main brief is that a lot more needs to be challenged as well: preachers and hierarchs need to be more vigorous in "rightly imparting the word of your truth," as we pray in the Chrysostom anaphora. Douthat is not calling on bishops to become scolds or moralizers, but simply to be more vigilant than many have been hitherto in checking egregious departures from apostolic Christianity. Of course, this leaves unanswered the age-old question: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Douthat does not address this question, and he leaves other important questions unasked, but his book does give us clear and sober insights into the kind of Weltanschauung many Christians have today, and there is much to be learned here.

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