The formal review, as promised in yesterday's post..... (I wrote this for our parish bulletin, which will explain some of the otherwise curious references I make to "our parish", etc....)
Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012) speaks to anyone who suspects that a decline in religious faith is responsible for the vast majority of our country's problems. It also addresses itself to anyone who believes that the root of our nation's woes is too much religion. Douthat posits that both positions are correct: bad religion is undermining America. Religion done well, he argues, is our sole hope for national health.
Douthat (who is Catholic) begins by tracing the history of religion in America. After a brief sketch of the religious convictions of the pilgrims, colonists and Founding Fathers, he skims the fluctuations of Christianity in the US through the 1950's. He identifies the 50's as the seeming Golden Age of American Christianity, but notes that collapse was imminent and delves deeply into the question of why? What pre-existing conditions, what cultural undercurrents, what political events set off fifty years of religious decline in a country that appeared so robustly pious?
The subject matter does not make for light reading, but it's a particularly interesting and important topic, given our parish's recent commitment to renewal. "If it's not broken, don't fix it".... But, if "it" is broken.... find out why; find out what has been done to attempt repair; find out which repair attempts met with some success and why each ultimately failed. This book provides much of that necessary information.
Douthat touches on the Civil Rights movement, the emergence of the megachurch, Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, the sexual revolution and the sex abuse crisis, parish shopping and organic eating. His scope is broad, peppered with insights sure to challenge some of the political and cultural assumptions each reader holds, while vindicating others. He is especially preoccupied (and unimpressed) with "accommodationist" Christianity, by which he refers to fifty-plus years of attempts to adapt worship and creed to make both more appealing to lukewarm Christians of each decade. (This censure gave me pause. Isn't that what we are attempting at Epiphany? As I continued reading, I was able to confidently answer that fear with a resounding "No").
Douthat identifies four major "heresies" on our current cultural landscape. He takes pains to plumb the depths of these popular modern spiritualities and pseudo-spiritualities, explaining (not unkindly) why they are attractive to so many people. These fascinating pages scrutinize figures such as Joel Osteen, Oprah Winfrey and Glenn Beck; they also explore cultural phenomena like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Douthat sounds the alarm over a shift towards "the steady conflation of religious belief and partisan politics, to the detriment of both." But perhaps most importantly, he does a solid expose of the "God Within" trend: the fashion of being "spiritual, but not religious" which is so attractive to young people (as well as many of their parents). We would do well to understand the appeal of this "heresy" and Douthat's book is good resource. The concept of God as Light, Being, Creation, the Universe, or the individual's own Highest Thought has been identified by Richard Dawkins himself as "a sexed up atheism," and it is crucial for us, for the sake of our young people, to understand the seduction of this spirituality. Rather than dismiss it as foolish fluff, it behooves serious believers to penetrate more fully into the mindset of those who enshrine "niceness [as] the highest ethical standard". We are speaking of persons who espouse tolerance and embody narcissism, who possess an ever-increasing ability to communicate on social media and a frighteningly diminishing ability to live in community, who have more freedom and less happiness than any previous generation....in a word, this heresy touches nearly all of us - to some extent or another. This is the heresy perhaps most responsible for emptying our pews and breaking parents' hearts. If I want to protect my child from losing her faith and help my neighbor rediscover his, I must have a well-trained ear to notice the (often surprisingly subtle) voices peddling this loose spirituality and I ought to become fluent in my ability to counter its errors.
Douthat's short conclusion contains his evaluation of possible and popular sources of religious renewal, as well as his descriptions of what renewal ought and ought not look like. He recounts G.K. Chesterton's brilliant insight that time and again "the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs [yet always] it was the dog that died." While Douthat encourages the reader in the virtue of hope, reminding us that America has come through worse times than these and Christianity through much worse, he also cautions "that it would be heresy and hubris to assume that a renewal of either is inevitable." With a touch of humor and a thump of solemnity, he insists, "Jesus never said that the gates of hell would not prevail against the United States of America." Implied is that it is up to each of us, in our own adherence to authentic religion, to ensure that the gates of hell do not continue encroaching upon that goal.