Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012) is a really good book. I actually was not expecting it to be as marvelous as it is. I have read Douthat’s NYT articles and have generally enjoyed them, but he really shines in this book. He is given the space to develop his ideas and ground his claims in the historical phenomena, far more than he can accomplish in an op-ed. He is fair to Reinhold Neibuhr and Karl Barth, whom he extols, while being justifiably critical of Harvey Cox and all of the other fashionable progressives who happily rode the optimistic wave of secularism, calmly and confidently assuring us of its ultimate compatibility with the iconoclasm of the Jewish and Christian faith. Oh my, how things never change.
While Douthat is a self-identified political conservative, he is rather severe in his criticisms of the religious right, whether under Reagan or Bush. This doesn’t mean that he occupies some idealist middle ground without any commitments one way or another — obviously not on life and family issues — but he recognizes the allure of political opportunism and the convenience of theological compromise under the stage lights. In this regard, he strives to be a genuine representative of the Catholic who discerns the good and the bad in all ideologies, while abjuring their utopian promises.
There is a lot that I would like to quote from the book, but I will just offer the following description of Christianity, perfectly stated:
Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peace makers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still — a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.
The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus. For the Marcionites in the second century, this meant a merciful Jesus with no connection to the vengeful Hebrew God; for their rivals the Ebionites, it meant a Jesus whose Judaism required would-be followers to become observant Jews themselves. For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology.
[Bad Religion, pp. 153-154]
Indeed, nothing has changed.