Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Church in America...what's next on the menu?

I'm kind of surprised that there aren't more Evangelicals and evangelically minded Catholics raving about Ross Douthat's new book "Bad Religion". Maybe it's not fun to be called out by folks in your own tribe.

So anyway, right about the time America saw the realization of post-WWII consumerism and the military industrial complex enfold us like a small pox infested blanket the sexual revolution kicks in and oh boy, religion in America really takes it on the kisser. Church attendance drops off significantly and the American clergyman goes from moral authority to morally suspect or at least irrelevant, (and this was before the sex-abuse crisis within Catholicism). Of course, it's really not that simple. There are no easy scapegoats but Douthat does a really good job of marking the high point of "small o orthodoxy", (creedal, confessional religion), documenting it's decline and categorizing the various flavors of devolved Christianity and the regresses of Christendom.

Over the past 50 years or so the Church in America has struggled with various forms of cultural accommodation and engagement.

At Christianity Today, they seem pretty receptive to Douthat which I would say, is an encouraging sign for Evangelicalism. At First Things, the big criticism with Bad Religion is that Christianity's peak in America was brief and tenuous and a result of unlikely and unique circumstances. Well, Douthat seems to agree with that and marks it well as a rare anomaly that was really only an anomaly in as far as we can ignore some of the gaps in orthodoxy that are more easily glossed over in the good old mid-20th Century. As Elizabeth Scalia's assessment, also in First Things, notes, Douthat's real call is to point out to the validity of orthodoxy asserting itself in public square. In fact, Douthat's argument is that plenty of religious voices are given a platform in the public square, it's just that the heretical ones are more prominent. The new new thing, which is really a re-dressed artificial old thing, will give way to the timeless and authentic thing which, having never really been fully discovered, has been prematurely discarded.

The first book I read after converting to Catholicism was Ralph Martin's, "The Catholic Church at the End of an Age." After experiencing the elation of being received into the Church it could have felt like a bit of a downer for me. But it wasn't. It somehow buffered me for the long haul. Like Douthat, Martin documents the fact that, (in terms of demographics and sociology studies anyway), the Faith and it's adherents are in a precarious spot. Like "at the End of an Age", "Bad Religion" seems very Tolkien to me. "The quest stands upon the edge of a knife." We are confronted with an overwhelming task in which the odds are very much against us. But then, that has always been the case with orthodox Christianity, and as GK Chesterton encourages us, “There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”


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