On "Bad Religion"

(This post is written at 11pm, so it might not be coherent.)

Bad Religion is an important book that should be read by anyone with interest not just in religion in the American 20th century but by the trends that animate contemporary society and the thinking of our contemporaries.

The first part of the book is a fascinating history of American religion and theology in the 20th century. The second part of the book is an illumination of some of the most pervasive cultural memes that undergird many social trends today.

And the conclusion, which I don’t want to say is the most valuable part of the book but is certainly the one I enjoyed the most, is a very smart and useful clarion call for a renewed Christianity in the West, which as soon as I’m done typing this I will go staple to the foreheads of many people, whether turgid ecclesiastics or la-di-da churchgoers.

It’s an important work that straddles theology, history, sociology, politics and more. Ross borrows some phrases from himself, but they’re good ones.

That’s the sales pitch. If you’re at all interested by any of the stuff we talk about here, go buy the book and read it. Really.

I said to David on Twitter that I’m not sure I would make a good reviewer for the book, as I basically found myself nodding in agreement at every page. But I’ll give my best effort.

One thing I found striking was the parallel with Ross’s previous book, Grand New Party. Both books follow the same structure: they’re basically two books in one, the first part about the past, and the second about the present.

In both, the first part is an intelligent and illuminating reexamination of (what the reader thought was) well-understood 20th century history that it casts in a new and convincing light.

But while in Grand New Party the second part was about how the world could or should be, in Bad Religion the second part is about how the country’s gone to the dogs.

This makes for less bracing reading, but it shouldn’t discourage you from reading it. The heresies that Ross eviscerates are much in need of eviscerating, and he does it not just using the tools of theology, but also uses history, sociology and cultural criticism to analyze these heresies and show their nefarious influences. This makes these examinations valuable even (especially) for non-believers, who either might think that the Gospel According to Oprah (or Joel Osteen) is a footnote in our Weltanschauung instead of important trends, or who might have trouble finding the right framework for understanding and critiquing that contemporary worldview.

(The NYT review faults Ross for spending too much time debunking the lost Gospels industry, but he wrote a very useful primer and crucially, the idea that “the real Jesus” is up for grabs undergirds all the following heresies, and it’s worth understanding the origins—and limits—of that view.)

In particular, as a European Catholic who thinks his Church would do a lot of good in the world if it embraced more libertarian economics, I found that Ross strikes a perfect balance in his critique of the prosperity gospel, showing how orthodox Christianity can and should be highly suspicious of Mammon while remaining compatible with the free markets I hold dear. (My Political Views on Facebook: “John Paul II + Milton Friedman”)

And the chapter on “The God Within” was just a joy, a perfect perforation of perhaps the most pernicious postmodern virus.

One criticism: I wonder if in his rush to highlight the heresies he condemns, Ross didn’t give short thrift to potential inklings of, if not an orthodox revival, then certainly orthodox vitality. I was surprised that someone like Rick Warren only gets passing mentions. Warren may be a Hawaiian shirt-wearing megachurch pastor, but he is, in today’s America, very mainstream for an orthodox Christian, let alone an Evangelical.

While much of evangelicalism seems to have responded to the general culture’s disdain with either political belligerency or withdrawal into a subculture bubble, some evangelicals are trying and not doing too badly at building a sort of proto-neo-orthodoxy. (Indeed, Warren often gets called “the new Billy Graham.”)

If there’s a key to Warren’s success beyond his skills as an ecclesiastical entrepreneur, one which might point a way to a successful 21st century orthodoxy, it’s that he has co-opted the most successful aspects of the heresies Ross denounces—the things that makes them resonate with so many of our contemporaries—, and used them to promote orthodoxy. Like the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the title of his best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life” hints at a self-help message from a therapeutic God Within, but the book delivers an unambiguously orthodox message, right from the famous first sentence “It’s not about you.” Warren is morally conservative but inclusive and nonpartisan. He likes capitalism and his sermons are friendly to the aspirations of the upwardly-mobile but (as Ross notes) he straightforwardly rejects the prosperity gospel.

Maybe Ross thinks this path and the efforts of Rick Warren and others like him are doomed to fail, and he’d probably have a good case, but I wish he’d made it. (Ross believes, and I agree, that the renewal of orthodoxy must also be aesthetic, and that seems highly unlikely to come from the megachurches…)

That criticism lodged, as I said, the conclusion is the part I enjoyed the most.

While reading the book’s most pessimistic moments, one of my first instinctive responses was that, as a dweller of grey Europe, I’d rather have a nation of heretics than a thoroughly secularized one. I was then planning on writing the following critique: are we doomed? Or might not Bad Religion seem irrelevant in a few years? Aren’t there inklings of a 21st century orthodoxy somewhere? More importantly, what is it that a 21st century orthodoxy could and should look like?

Before I could put fingers to keyboard though, Ross answered all of these questions in his conclusion, which by itself is worth twice the price of admission. He paints a portrait of a 21st century Christianity which (and I hope that’s not the only reason why I love it) matches up with most of my frustrations and aspirations for contemporary Christianity. One which is renewed spiritually and aesthetically, in the world but not of it, equally eager, as Jesus was, to preach eternal truths and to wash the feet of sinners.

As important and worthwhile as the first two parts of the book are, I really hope—and pray—that the conclusion will be read very widely and will prove to have the most lasting influence.