Whatever Happened to Sin?

politicianI am fascinated by a relatively new phenomenon in the public sphere: the disappearance of sin. It is not new to have brazen personalities who do whatever they please and don’t care if some see their actions as sin. But now, more and more, we are seeing public figures who have been caught in a peccadillo, retreated for a while, and now seek to regain the public trust. These folks acknowledge some sort of expectation of moral behavior from the public, but act as if they can rise above it.

What is most troubling to me, I guess, is that past problems are labelled as “mistakes” or “poor judgment.” Rarely is anything admitted to be “sin” or “moral failure.” So adultery is a mistake. It is at the same level as using your #8 iron when you should have used your #9. My bad.

My class is currently plowing through the wonderful little book of 1 John. John is a blunt dude, and I like that. He is not afraid to say stuff like:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we claim we have not sinned, we make [God] out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

John is not addressing hypotheticals here. I think there are some teachers in his churches who are claiming they have no sin. I don’t know if this means they are claiming that they never sin according to traditional standards (they have become perfect) or if they are redefining sin so that all their behaviors are good. But John will not stand for this.

In his column this week, Ross Douthat lamented the passing of the “Catholic moment” in US politics. As Douthat notes, at the time of the death of John Paul II (2005), there was great respect for many Christian moral values in our country and among our politicians. Things have changed. As the time has come for another papal transition, Douthat notes:

If this era is passing, and Catholic ideas are becoming more marginal to our politics, it’s partly because institutional Christianity is weaker overall than a generation ago, and partly because Catholicism’s leaders have done their part to hasten that de-Christianization. Any church that presides over a huge cover-up of sex abuse can hardly complain when its worldview is regarded with suspicion.

While I was ministering in Los Angeles four or five years ago, the sex scandals of the Catholics in the Dioceses of Los Angeles were beginning to become public. Some Evangelicals seemed to take a certain amount of glee in this, for they had been fighting Catholicism for years. I didn’t. I remember saying, “This will hurt us all, this will damage the church.” And it has.

All of this is related somehow. If the church brings a message of God-given, biblical moral standards that the world dislikes, the world is likely to shoot the messenger. If the messenger has already shot himself in the foot, he is an easy target. We can act like we have moved to a post-Christian, post-moral world, but that does not change the reality of sin. The one who says he has no sin in a liar, and he makes God out to be a liar, too.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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

Bad Religion: Ross Douthat’s Take on American Christianity

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been reporting on the new book by Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. In the last post about this, I gave Douthat’s heroes of “Good Religion” from the 1940s and 1950s: Reinhold Niebuhr, Fulton Sheen, Billy Graham, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this post I would like to lay out Douthat’s take on what happened to American Christianity in the 1960s and 1970s. He identifies five major factors (what he calls “catalysts”) that caused the very quick disintegration of the American Christian consensus from the immediate post-war period.

First is what Douthat labels “political polarization.” By this he means the increasing identification of certain streams of American Christianity with a certain political ideology. Eventually, this became wedded to America’s two-party system so that mainline Protestant and African American churches were aligned with the Democratic party, and conservative or evangelical churches were aligned with the Republican party. For Douthat, the culmination of this was the presidential candidacy of Christian ministers from both sides: Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Pat Robertson.

Second, are the “debates surrounding the sexual revolution.” By this, Douthat is referring to a radical shift of American sexual morés based.on the introduction of the contraceptive “pill.”. As Douthat puts it, “By separating sex from procreation more completely than any previous technology, … the birth control pill also severed the cultural connection between Christian ethics and American common sense.”

Third, Douthat tracks the rise of a “global perspective as the lens through which more and more Americans viewed their world.” What he means by this was the turning of America from a Western, European perspective to look at cultures throughout the world. This included the embrace of Eastern faiths such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Added to this was a re-examination of the implications of the Holocaust, a genocide carried out against European Jews by a supposedly Christian nation. Douthat describes this as “a persistent sense of embarrassment about Christianity itself.” This trend led to an America defined by “relativism, individualism, and pluralism,” where historic Christianity no longer had a place of privilege or honor in national affairs, or in the lives of most citizens.

Fourth, Douthat notes the inability of American Christians to deal with “the religious consequences of America’s ever-growing wealth.” Douthat quotes the observation of John Wesley, “wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion.” Collateral damage for this trend was a decline in religious vocation. As Douthat puts it, “Entering the ministry had always involved sacrifice, but the scale of that sacrifice grew considerably steeper during the 1960s and ’70s.”

Douthat’s fifth catalyst was “the element of class.” The elite of American society increasingly rejected the beliefs and moral practices of Christianity. “All Serious People understood that the only reason to pay attention to traditional Christianity was to subject it to a withering critique.” This was the in some ways the culmination of the first four catalysts:political polarization, rejection of Christian morality, spiritual globalization, and the extraordinary wealth of Americans. The elites now seemed to say, “it wasn’t just that the faith of Peter and Paul, Charlemagne and Aquinas, Luther and Erasmus, John Winthrop and George Washington suddenly seem anachronistic. It was something more devastating than this. Among the tastemakers and power brokers and intellectual agenda setters of late-twentieth century America, orthodox Christianity was completely déclassé” [fallen from a high status to a low status]. The result was a shift “away from institutional religion and toward a more do-it-yourself and consumer-oriented spirituality.” This led to the heresies of the current religious landscape in America.

I will do one more blog on this to outline what Douthat sees these current heresies to be, and then give some comments about his entire project. If you are interesting in reading more Douthat, check out his blog at ross douthat evaluations.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Bad Religion, part 2

I am still reading a fascinating new book, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. I posted on this a few blogs back, and would like to unpack the book a little more this morning. As mentioned, Douthat is the new conservative voice on the New York Times op-ed pages. For example, this morning his column appeared in the Omaha World Herald (a critique of President Obama’s current campaign strategy). I read and enjoy his columns because he is unlike most of the über-conservative columnists who start with the premise that our President is evil or an idiot, then scrounge for their daily reasons why (Krauthammer? Sowell?).

But back to the book, Bad Religion. The title itself makes me ask the question, “What is Good Religion for Douthat?” He gives a preliminary answer in his lengthy first chapter, “The Lost World.” In this section, Douthat promotes four individuals from the post-World War II era as examples of “good religion.” He is an honest evaluator, so he knows that all four had faults, weaknesses, blind spots, and personal failings. Yet the four represent societal and cultural movements that were strong in this period, and which were contributing to a resurgent Christianity.

Douthat’s first hero is the great neo-orthodox theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, Douthat celebrates his “quest to make orthodox theology relevant in the academy and in the halls of power alike.” Niebuhr is not read so much these days. I first encountered him thirty years ago while working on my master’s thesis. Niebuhr (along with Karl Barth) called for the abandonment of the idea of essential human goodness and progress, and called Christians to come to grips with the sinfulness of mankind and of society.

Douthat’s second hero is Fulton Sheen, the Roman Catholic bishop who mastered the new technology of television broadcasting to promote a “genial confidence in the underlying theological coherence of the Catholic faith.” Sheen’s straight talk, winsome style, and wide exposure were partly responsible for the possibility of electing a Roman Catholic as President (JFK), an idea that would have been unthinkable a few generations before.

Douthat’s third hero is Billy Graham, a man who almost single-handedly was responsible for creating the Evangelicalism we see today. Graham struck “a delicate balance between Evangelical rigor and openhanded ecumenism, … between warnings about God’s justice and promises of God’s all-encompassing love.” Douthat attributes Graham’s success to his great ability, but also to his willingness to work with mainline Protestants and Catholics in his revival crusades. He also points out that Graham rejected the racism of his Southern upbringing, refusing the request of the city fathers of Little Rock to hold segregated revivals in their city.

Douthat’s fourth hero is Martin Luther King, Jr. Douthat is upfront about some of King’s flaws, seeing him as “a reckless adulterer whose academic work was partially ghostwritten.” But Douthat emphatically states that “no subsequent marriage of Christian faith and political activism has come close to matching [King’s} ability to use the language of Scripture to break down ideological barriers and transcend partisan debates.” It is often forgotten today that King was an ordained Christian minister who preached in a church almost every Sunday. The current version of King has divorced him from his Christian background and principles.

Douthat is well-read and a good student of history, so his accounts are full of interesting tidbits that he uses to characterize the spirit of the 1950s for Christian America. For him, a signal event took place in 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower led a parade of choir members and religious leaders from New York City’s Riverside Church to the site of the new headquarters for the National Council of Churches. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for this nineteen story building, paid for by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The stone had been excavated from the site of ancient Corinth, making the event seem almost biblical in its significance. This building was intended to be the “Protestant Vatican” in the thriving city that served as the capital of the world with the headquarters of the United Nations not too far away. (It has recently been rechristened the “Interchurch Center.”) A few pages later, however, Douthat points out that this same Eisenhower remarked that American democracy depended on “a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

More to come on my analysis of this book as it moves to characterize and critique current trends in the church, and then to offer its look at the future.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Bad Religion and a Nation of Heretics

I have been reading the new book by Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Douthat is a rising star in the political commentator world. He became an op-ed columnist for the New York Times in 2009 at the tender age of 29. He is seen as the NYT’s replacement for William Kristol, the long-time conservative voice for the NYT editorial page.

I will blog more fully about this book at a later date, but wanted to mention what Douthat’s basic argument is. He sees the current religious situation in America as the result of the erosion of orthodox Christianity in the last fifty years. The main tenets of historic Christianity have been compromised both on the right and on the left (according to Douthat), leaving us with “bad religion,” and causing us to become a “nation of heretics.”

I have always understood Christian heresy as the overemphasis of a single doctrine (sometimes even a biblical doctrine) to override any tensions that exist in Christian theology and understanding. For example, the Gnostics had problems with the human nature of the Messiah, and overemphasized his divine nature. This was done several ways in Gnostic thought, but the end was a Jesus who really could not die because he was not fully human. This destroyed the idea of sacrificial atonement for human sins, and Gnosticism tended toward salvation through secret knowledge or enlightenment as an alternative. Heresy.

Douthat understands this in a similar way, believing that a commitment to orthodox Christianity is a commitment to both mystery and paradox.  He recognizes that there are many seemingly irreconcilable elements to Christian doctrine, and that we must be content with a certain level of mystery in their solution, meaning they are sometimes beyond human understanding or current revealed knowledge. Douthat puts it this way:

Thus orthodox Christian insist that Jesus Christ was divine and human all at once, that the Absolute is somehow Three as well as One, that God is omnipotent and omniscient and yet nonetheless leaves us free to choose between good and evil. They propose that the world is corrupted by original sin and yet somehow also essentially good, with the stamp of its Creator visible on every star and sinew. They assert that the God of the Old Testament, jealous and punitive, is somehow identical to the New Testament’s God of love and mercy. They claim that this same God sets impossible moral standards and yet forgives every sin. They insist that faith alone will save us, yet faith without works is dead. And they propose a vision of holiness that finds room in God’s Kingdom for all extremes of human life–fecund families and single-minded celibates, politicians and monastics, queens as well as beggars, soldiers and pacifists alike.

So far I like what I am reading. Douthat promises to look at such characters as Chris Hitchens, Oprah Winfrey, Joel Osteen, Glenn Beck, and Dan Brown. It sounds very intriguing.

If your are interested, you can find a long interview of Douthat by Andrew Sullivan here. It is a fascinating video, because Sullivan and Douthat share Roman Catholic roots and presuppositions, but have arrived at very different places in their spiritual odysseys.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College