Ross Douthat (columnist for the NY Times) has written a thoughtful guide to American Christianity in the last 100 years or so. The book title is Bad Religion. It's like a guide book you might pick up if you were traveling to some unknown region of the country. You would want to know a bit of history, climatic patterns, interesting cultural nuances and the best places to see, the best restaurants at which to eat and places to hike or bike or do whatever you wanted to. Douthat's book is like this kind of guide book. If you are not familiar with what's been going on in American Christianity for the past century, it's a good place to start. You will learn about Niebuhr and Graham and Dr.King and Civil Rights and Viet Nam and the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church. The highlights. Douthat's argument is that the Institutional Church was more effective and influential Back Then than it is Now. Today it is rife with heresies such as The Prosperity Gospel (Joel Osteen, and others), Nationalism and Political Partisanship, New Scholarship that Discredits the Gospels ( think of the so-called Gospel of Judas and popularizers like Dan Brown here) and Other Spiritualities (think Elizabeth Gilbert and Oprah here). There is a pervasive mistrust of Organized Religion and a superficiality to what Christianity is still around. Douthat, a Catholic, is pessimistic about what the future holds for Institutional,Orthodox Christianity in America. Today the Christianity he sees is politically compromised and polarized by political and cultural agendas so that it is hopelessly weak and ineffective in regard to it's mission.
It's a good tour guide. It hits the highlights. It gives you the big picture. It leaves you muddled and confused, as well. Even though at the end of his book he has half of one page that reads like an altar call - inviting the reader who may be a half - believer or non - believer to walk into a church and try it out for him or herself - it's a weak one. You may like what you find, he says, but you may not, too. This is actually the problem with the book (and I liked the book). We live in a commitment phobic age and commitment to the Church is way down, he says. His altar call is pretty weak, too. Commitment, you see. But, in the shortest chapter of the book which is the one on solutions (isn't that always the way with books that critique Christianity and are quite good pointing out the problems but are not nearly so good at suggesting solutions) Douthat does put his finger on something. He mentions something called The Benedict Option named after St Benedict of the medieval monastery movement. During the Roman Empire's slow collapse Benedict assumed Christianity must contract before it grew, with faithful believers forming communities that stand apart from the culture and inspire by example (280). What Douthat means is commitment. The most highly visible churches in America today have telegenic preachers who also write books. Their ideas are often about how to improve one's life with their ideas. But they do not ask for commitment. Churches that ask for commitment to Christ and to His Church do make a difference in their communities. But you don't necessarily see that or know that unless you join them and live with them for awhile. It's the difference between a tourist and a settler.
When you only tour the scene of American Christianity today it may be interesting but depressing. It looks fragmented, divisive, heretical and weak. It looks almost hopeless. But when you put down roots with one of those local expressions of the Body of Christ, you get another view altogether. Charles Williams wrote a book called The Descent of the Dove in which he traced the movement of the Holy Spirit in history. There were times when it seemed like the Holy Spirit was largely absent from the scene but Williams showed how the Holy Spirit was at work in other ways. The Holy Spirit is always at work Williams was saying. Today is a day like many other days in American History. If you take a tour it looks like Christianity is in retreat, compromised by secularism and stumbling over its own mistaken strategies to combat that secularism. But if you stop touring and put down your guide book and stay awhile - you might be surprised at what the Holy Spirit is doing right where you are.