American Heresies

I have blogged several times about Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. (If you want to read the earlier posts, they can be found with these links: Part One, Part Two, or Part Three.) This will be my fourth and final installment about the book. I look forward to more books from Mr. Douthat, who is now the “conservative” op/ed writer for the New York Times at age 31.

In the second half of the book, Douthat identifies and discusses four major trends in American religion that are heretical for traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity. We should remember that he is a sincere, practicing Roman Catholic, but almost everything he says will be informative to Evangelicals (like me). Again, this man amazes me as to how well-read he is. In all four of these areas he has read the primary literature that informs the heretical trend.

His first heretical trend is the one I want to look at the most, “Lost in the Gospels,” the recent impulse to elevate books that did not make it into the New Testament to a new level of authority. Most of these are Gnostic writings, and they go by many names such as the “Lost Gospels” or the “Hidden Gospels.” Some of the cable TV channels seem to be fascinated by these books. A big source of rather fresh material was added to the non-canonical gospels with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents in Egypt in 1945. These consisted of thirteen bound volumes containing fifty-two separate texts. Most of them bear the mark of Gnosticism, a heretical variation of Christianity that valued secret knowledge as the way to salvation. They bear witness to a community which had several things appealing to moderns, including women in prominent positions of leadership and the hint of female deity. Some of the tenets of these Gnostic communities were popularized in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Douthat’s analysis is that what was considered heresy in the early church has been revived in our day. He knows all the players in this: Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, Bart Ehrman, and several others. He begins his chapter by telling the scandalous story of the National Geographic Society’s promotion of “The Gospel of Judas,” a scholarly fiasco and embarrassment. Douthat does not mention it, but the National Geographic Channel on cable TV is controlled by News Corp, the empire of Rupert Murdoch and therefore sister of Fox News Channel, so the carelessness and sensationalism of “The Gospel of Judas” project is not totally surprising.

Douthat’s point in this chapter is something I have taught for many years. Most Christian heresies are christological in nature, having to do with the nature of Christ. And most of them are partial truths, an over emphasis upon one side of the picture of Jesus presented in the Bible. In many ways, Christianity is a paradoxical religion.Douthat’s powers of writing shine brightly as he expresses this:

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 deliberating 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 forgive the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers 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 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. (pp. 152-53)

Douthat chronicles many who have wanted to remove these paradoxes. Thomas Jefferson wanted to eliminate Jesus’ miracles and claims to deity. Harvey Cox wanted to secularize the church and accommodate the modern ethos. John Dominic Crossan reinvents Jesus with each book he publishes. All of these believe they have recovered the “real Jesus,” and he is not the Jesus of the New Testament or of the church.

Overall, I recommend this book. The other heresies Douthat identifies are “Pray and Grow Rich” (Health and Wealth Gospel), “The God Within” (New Age Spirituality), and “The City on the Hill” (Nationalism/Americanism as Religion). He has words of criticism for a wide range of well-known dabblers in religion: Oprah Winfrey, Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyers, Rick Warren,Elizabeth Gilbert, and (especially) Glenn Beck. He hits both George Bush and Barack Obama hard (although silent about Mitt Romney). You won’t agree with everything Douthat says, but he will make you think and you will make connections you haven’t made before.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College