Book Review – Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

I have been intending to write a long review of Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics, for about seven weeks now, but due to various obligations and, well, the NBA playoffs, that hasn’t happened. So here’s a short review: it’s an excellent book that accomplishes three basic purposes: one descriptive, one controversial, and one normative.

The descriptive section, consisting roughly of the first half of the book, is a useful, accessible account of the rise of a vibrant, frequently orthodox, Christianity following World War II, and the decline of orthodox Christianity and the institutions that undergird it over the past sixty years. Douthat is even-handed in his treatment of a wide variety of theological movements, theologians, and denominations. While most of the material will be familiar to those who pay attention to these matters closely – including many readers of this blog – it should be acknowledged that most Americans do not fall in this category. And even for those who do, Douthat’s synthesis of events, movements, and people is perceptive and sympathetic. Refreshingly, he avoids most of the exaggerated caricatures that populate popular writing on these themes. The average religion reporter for the Washington Post or the Associated Press would do well to use Bad Religion as a starting point and model for writing intelligently about religion in the contemporary U.S.

The second half of the book is straight forwardly controversial, as Douthat explores a variety of influential religious works and figures, ranging from Joel Osteen to Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) to participants in the Jesus Seminar, and criticizes the superficiality, self-absorption, and lack of scholarly rigor that characterizes Christianity-lite and Christian-influenced spirituality in much of the contemporary United States. In many respects, it reads as an update on Chesterton’s Heretics, although it must be said that none of Douthat’s targets approach the caliber of H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, or any of Chesterton’s original antagonists. To a certain extent, Douthat is shooting fish in a barrel; but at least they are the biggest fish, if book sales, packed stadiums, and cultural notoriety are any indication.

The final thread of the book, which I have labelled normative for convenience, is a straight forward argument that orthodox Christianity has served an important role in U.S. public life and that its claims are worth taking seriously on intellectual and practical grounds. At times Douthat seems to place too much emphasis on the usefulness of orthodox Christianity to the body politic rather than the truth of Christian orthodoxy. That said, given the widespread ignorance and hostility to historical Christianity among many elites in the U.S., establishing the former may be a prerequisite to winning a hearing for the latter.

Throughout the book, Chesterton’s shadow looms large. In many respects, Bad Religion reads as an extended and thoughtful reflection on the themes of two of G.K. Chesterton’s best works, Orthodoxy and Heretics, in the contemporary United States. While Douthat, like everyone else who has written English for the last eighty odd years, lacks Chesterton’s dazzling virtuosity and flair for paradox, he shares Chesterton’s sympathetic perceptiveness and charitable tone of engagement. Bad Religion is an excellent and accessible introduction to Christianity and Christian-influenced spirituality in the modern U.S., as well as a useful (and badly needed) apologetic on behalf of Christian orthodoxy.