Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat

I’m happy to review this book, since I’m related to the author. It’s a bit difficult, however, because the book’s subject matter encompasses some very weighty material, and as well as generating praise and attention, it has also garnered some dismissive, out-of-hand evaluations from reviewers. (But I can, thankfully, offer some summation and pointers without having to settle all such controversies.)

Douthat deliberates that the decline in membership of Protestant mainline and Catholic churches in America is not from simple disenchantment with old fashioned rituals, but instead represents a shift in our allegiance from Christianity to other religions.  These religions may call themselves Christian but they have actually mixed and matched strands of self, power, and nationalism.  Tea party politics are singled out, as is Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, and Joel Osteen’s prosperity preaching. 

Douthat faults many Protestant and Catholic leaders for being too accommodating to modern sensibilities, softening Jesus’ hard core teaching with regard to sacrifice, morality, pain and suffering.  Implicit in these alternative religions, or heresies, is that happiness, material comfort, self actualization, an end to the separation of church and state - whatever is promoted, is what we were meant to have
.  In today’s world, an admonition to “pick up your cross” can sound like giving in to difficulties instead of actually looking for new life and meaning in painful situations.

Some critics argue that rather than there being a rise in alternative spiritual beliefs, that heresies exist in every age.  Douthat does not dispute that, but he instead notes how gradually our culture and our sensibilities have become immersed in these concepts.  He mentions the mystical “Force” in Star Wars, among other examples. That made me think of the instance of Professor Dumbledore suggesting to Harry Potter that if their post-Earthly encounter was just happening inside Harry’s head, that it could still be “real”.

In reading this book, it’s a good idea to have a dictionary close by, or better yet, reading on a device that gives you a word’s meaning at the touch of a finger.  I found the book slow going, whether from Douthat’s complex reasoning or simply from the depth of the issues presented.  Maybe that’s more evidence of what Douthat calls ‘accommodation’ in today’s world, where ease and ready access are so highly prized.   But whatever the reason, the extra effort involved was worth it for me, and I recommend our readers to take up that challenge.

To see the book in our catalog, click here

1 comment:

jjares said...

Dear Rebecca,

Thanks for a quick synopsis of this rather heavy book. Frankly, I don't know how you did it. Ross Douthat has a fabulous vocabulary ... and knows how to use it.

I think the "Force" is an incredibly valid example of modern religion. Students who tell me they do not follow a formal religion, almost always believe in the "Force" from Star Wars. If you think there are just a few of these, head over to a Star Wars Convention!

Religion today seems to walk on tippie-toes -- don't alienate anyone ... do what you know is right (with all the unchurched folks, how do they know what is right?) ... and be happy/prosperous. Where was all this "feel-good religion" when I was a kid?

I think the youth of today are being cheated. How do they handle things when the "feel good" just isn't there?

I doubt that people who survive a tsunami or the 9/11 bombings got much emotional support from a "just feel good" religion.

This book, as you state, is a challenge to read. However, Ross Douthat offered so many "ah-ha" moments that I felt my labor was worth the prizes (insights).

What is Ross writing next?

Jerry Jares