Sunday, 10 May 2015

bad religion

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 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.   

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Great Books for Catholic Grown-Ups

After writing my last post on some of my kids' favorite books, I can't resist writing a follow-up post on some of the books I have most enjoyed lately!

1. Saint John Paul the Great: His Five Great Loves (Jason Evert) -

         Pope John Paul II is hands-down my favorite saint. Like so many other mamas, I wanted to name my first son for him. My husband, however, had his heart set on naming our first son after his own favorite saint. Since he had called dibs on naming our first son "Joseph" about two weeks after we met, I had to give in gracefully when we actually produced that male heir five years later. Rich in turn graciously let me pick the middle name. I picked "Pio" for my second favorite saint....and because it would give my first son the initials "J.P."
        Although Rich wanted to name our second son "John Paul", we couldn't agree on a nickname (JP, Johnny, Johnnyboy, John John and a long list of others were proposed by Rich and vetoed by Kelly). We opted to repeat the idea of just using the initials "J.P." So, James Patrick is unofficially "JPII" in our family. But we never actually call him that. By my orders.
        When our third boy was born last October (in the month John Paul II became Pope and in the year in which he was canonized) we both agreed it was clearly time to use The Name. We also agreed to use no nickname at all.

        I regretted it all within hours of signing off on the birth certificate. John Paul is a real mouthful. It's a big name for a tiny person. The "Paul" got dropped by every nurse and doctor on the maternity floor. Except for the ones who carelessly assumed the right to call him "JP".

       While I was wallowing in regret, Rich brought home the (long ago) aforementioned book. It's such a slim volume, I almost gave it a pass. I didn't think such a tiny book could contain anything really new about the man. I'd already read so much about him. What else could there be?

       I won't even give a hint here. It's not necessarily that Jason Evert reveals "new" things about the beloved saint. It's the beauty and simple holiness of the man that overwhelms you as you read. This book is not about facts and dates and accomplishments. It's not really about anectdotes either. It's just about the five "things" John Paul the Great loved and how he loved them.

       By the time I finished this short book (I tried to draw it out as long as possible) I wanted to love what he loved and how he loved them...and I was so grateful to have a son named after him. My new baby's name no longer seemed cumbersome and I was no longer reaching for a nickname.  And THAT was just about when Rich hit upon the nickname that has stuck on this poor child:   ZombieBaby.

2. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers (Maria Augusta Trapp)

        A while back, I let my girls & Joseph watch The Sound of Music for the first time.  Joseph became obsessed with the Nazis and the girls with the Trapp family. We spent the next few months learning everything we could about both.

     The public library carried Maria Von Trapp's autobiography, but I had trouble finding it at first because I didn't know she had dropped "Von" when she came to live in America. Because I didn't know she came to live in America.

      Once I figured out that I had to look under "T" and not under "V",  I had a real treasure in my hands. While the movie is faithful to the spirit of its main character and to some of the events she experienced, the differences revealed in this autobiography are surprising and delightful: when Maria first leaves the convent (strictly as an academic tutor, not as a governess), she thinks there will be only one child under her care; the "Baroness" is actually a Princess;  Maria does not fall in love with the Captain until after she (Maria) is his wife. These and many other discrepencies kept my pages turning rapidly. Her version of the story of their escape from the Nazis is better than Hollywood's, and her adventures in America are both funny and fascinating.

       However, what I most appreciate about this book is the truly inspiring intensity of Maria's Catholic faith. Her portrayal of WWII era Austrian Catholicism is stunning. She describes parish rituals from an age long gone, as well some beautifully holy domestic traditions which she attempted to bring with her to the States. Her efforts to raise her children as good Catholics in our culture are laudable, as is her passionate desire to do whatever necessary to keep the family unit tightly knit together. I didn't expect more from this book than to learn the "real story" behind a classic movie. I got that, indeed, and so much more.

3. Time for God (Fr Jacques Philippe)
    Quite simply, this is a teeny tiny little book brimful of wisdom on prayer. It would be beneficial to someone who has never prayed in his life. It would be helpful to someone who prays daily. It's practical and concrete, written in a simple, accessible style - not at all intimidating or complex.

4. Searching For And Maintaining Peace (also by Fr Jacques Philippe)
   I read this book five years ago. And every night since. Literally. Just a page or two each night, just enough to keep the life-changing insights of this small book always fresh in my mind. I read it for the first time when I was wrestling with depression and in danger of losing my unborn child....and I kept reading it once the baby was safely delivered, but seriously ill and enduring months of hospitalizations, medical tests and uncertainty. I can't give enough credit to this book as a conduit of God's grace for me in that difficult period (and since!)

5. one thousand gifts (Ann Voskamp)
     I loved this book. I hated this book. I can't decide if I loved it more than I hated it or not. I HAD TO own this book. I felt like I needed a support group/book club to help me work through my wide range of reactions to the book, the ideas in the book, the language in which the book is written. It's been about five months since I finished it and I still have no final verdict on it. Without delving too deeply into my interior drama over this best-seller, I will say two things by way of recommending it:

1.  The language. The way she writes. It's poetic. It's beautiful. It's annoying as hell. Then it gets worse. And then, suddenly, it stopped bothering me. I made peace with it. I wondered if secretly I had been perhaps jealous of those images Ann Voskamp conveys. Then I realized....jealous or not, there was another reason for my irritation. I just wanted to finish the book and her poetry was slowing me down and tripping me up.  (See #2.)

2. I need to slow down and stop being so task-oriented that I keep missing beauty. This idea is the main "good" that has come into my life from reading this book. Ann Voskamp began writing down the beautiful and good from her own life. She kept a running list of what was "best" in her day. Eventually, that list inspired her book. Since I read this book, I too have been keeping a list of the gifts I recognize each day. For years I've examined my conscience nightly (which essentially means that just before I officially end the day, I take a good close look at all the nastiest crap from the day and I apologize to the One most offended by it. A good pious practice - and also a bit of a downer at the end of an already discouraging day.....) It's been a wonderful addition to ALSO look gratefully on all that brought joy. I now end the day by also thanking the One most responsible for those fleeting moments of joy. This idea originated with the Jesuits, not Voskamp, but she helped me make it a reality in my daily routine. I find that I am now much more aware of how much joy there is in each day. I also find that I am more conscious of those moments as they unfold. I am more "in the moment" with them as they happen.

Although there are many things (besides the dramatic poetic style) that drove me nuts about the book, the only other one I'll mention is that it can be really off the wall to try to read it as a Catholic, for the following reasons:
1. Voskamp is not Catholic
2. She is writing a book on EUCHARISTIC living
3. She is quoting excellent Catholic authors all over the place  (Chesterton, mystics, saints, popes)
4. She is quoting Scripture on the Eucharist all over the place
and yet
5. She utterly misses the entire truth of the Eucharist.
         (and dodges any attempt to honestly grapple with the unanimous consensus that all her Catholic sources deliver on the Eucharist. And awkwardly leaves out/jumps over Scripture that would force her to grapple with it. I just found it a wee bit....maddening)

6. Divine Renovation (Fr James Mallon)
       I've not often had the pleasure of reading a book written by someone I actually know, but Rich and I met Fr Mallon while we were missionaries in New Zealand. In fact, he and Rich visited Hobbiton together. He's Canadian and had come to give the parish mission at the same church that was hosting us. That was maybe four years ago. I just read his book last week.
       This book is exciting. It's a total "outside the box" approach to parish renewal in the Catholic Church. While totally faithful to orthodox Catholicism, it proposes a host of "wow!" ideas that have real potential to create bigger, stronger parish communities filled with far more spiritually mature Catholics. These are Rich's final days teaching at our local Catholic high school. He's about to return to parish ministry, so the ideas outlined in this book are a lot more relevant to us right now than they might otherwise be. I like to think that I would have found this book insightful, inspiring and interesting even if parish ministry was not in my husband's immediate future. If nothing else, it showed me that far from having attained anything close to spiritual adulthood, I am still very much stuck in spiritual puberty. What's better: in addition to reminding me of this humbling fact, the book leaves no doubt as to what must be done to grow up. Praise be to God.

7. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Ross Douthat)

More than a year ago, Rich and I went on a date to Barnes and Noble. We each found a book and sat on a couch together reading. (We're exciting like that.)

I picked up this Bad Religion book - I think the title jumped off the shelf at me. I skimmed, I browsed, I read a paragraph here and there. We left.

For A YEAR I kept thinking about the snippets I'd read. Not all the time, just every so often. Then I started seeing the book referenced in other books or articles I was reading. Finally I checked the public library and brought it home. For the past ten days, I've drank in this book every time I sat down to nurse John Paul.

The first half of the book paints the history of Christianity in America. Interesting stuff. Really. Douthat traces the rise and fall of various Christian denominations, noting what was happening culturally and/or politically during these fluctuations of faith. He not only recounts what happened in Christianity, but he takes a stab at explaining why it happened.  It's not light reading, but I enjoy his writing style and the subject matter interests me. So I plodded happily along, not minding at all how long it took the baby to finish his meals and fall asleep.

If the first half of the book explains "how we became a nation of heretics," the second zooms in for a close look at the most popular modern "heresies". I wasn't really expecting or prepared for this close-up and it confused me a little at first.....and then, it UNconfused me. In the pages of this book, I found a great deal of insight into groups of people who generally baffle me. Douthat explains some of the popular spiritualities (and pseudo-spiritualities) of our time; he also explains (not unkindly) why they are so attractive to so many people. Some of the groups he sketches include those who adhere to the Prosperity Gospel, those who are "spiritual but not religious," and those believers whose political passions far eclipse their spiritual zeal.

I found his insights to be spot-on. He puts words around ideas I've held rather fuzzily for a long time and he raises points I have never considered before. He's Catholic, faithful and traditional in his spirituality, yet unafraid to make his Catholic reader squirm in her rocking chair.  His criticisms cross Christian denominations and partisan lines. He challenges some of the political assumptions I have long held and vindicates others. Since I began reading, I've had a sharper spiritual focus in terms of how I view politics, culture and my own behavior.

I finished this last book a few hours ago. My little nursling just woke up for another meal, but now I have no Ross Douthat to keep me company as I feed. It's late. I'm tired. I feel certain I can't bring this to an intelligent conclusion at present. I've been invited to write something much more coherent and polished about this book next week. Once I do so, I'll most likely publish it here as well.

  If anyone has read any of the books discussed here, I'd love to hear thoughts on them! And of course (at least until I wean the baby)  I'm always looking for great book recommendations.