Douthat’s Heretics

Ross Douthat, from NPR:

The United States ranks as the most religious country in the developed world. And New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says that despite our politics, debates and doubts, this country is as God-besotted today as ever.

But in his new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Douthat argues that religion has fallen into heresy (hence the feisty subtitle). Douthat recently spoke with NPR’s Linda Wertheimer about why he thinks American Christianity has become distorted….

On heresies

“The heresies that I write about are what flourish in the vacuum that’s left by institutional Christianity’s decline. So if the country remains religious, but the institutional churches are weaker than they used to be, what steps into the breach?”

On the heresy of The Da Vinci Code

“I start with the project to basically go back into the gospels of the early church … and to sort of fashion a Jesus who seems to fit the modern world better than the Jesus of the Nicene Creed. And this project is best embodied by Dan Brown and by The Da Vinci Code. … Brown himself is very explicit that he has a theological, philosophical message about what direction Christianity — what direction religion — should go in. And that direction is toward this alternative Jesus that he’s sketched out, who is … a much more congenial figure for a lot of Americans than the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

On the heresy of the prosperity gospel

“From there I move toward heresies that are about money, basically, and about the idea that God wants you to get rich. This is the prosperity gospel. It’s Joel Osteen. It’s the televangelist you see on TV. All of these heresies I talk about speak to aspects of contemporary life, where traditional Christianity rubs up against the way we live now, and people don’t like it. … We’re a rich country. We’re a capitalist country. We’re a country of strivers and go-getters. And the prosperity gospel says that’s what God wants. God wants you to be rich. Which is not precisely the message of the New Testament.”

On the heresy of Eat, Pray, Love

“From there I move to what I call the god within, which is the heresy of Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, of Oprah Winfrey, of Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle. … It’s less that God wants you to be rich and more that God is there to make you feel happy about yourself. And that the point of spiritual wisdom is not necessarily strenuous prayer and fasting and moral transformation. It’s more sort of blessing impulses you already have. … This ends up putting a kind of Christian stamp on narcissism, where the things we already want to do, we tell ourselves, are things that God wants us to do, too.




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  • I don’t mind the author going after questionable ideas that sprout up, but you always have to watch your backside with those who throw the heretic label around freely. Once heretic hunters start they often don’t know when to stop and it becomes concerning when they have crossed the line. Its best to lay your arguments out without the attention grabbing wording, but perhaps it won’t be overdone.

  • Peter F.

    This is pretty strenuous for a Sunday afternoon. 🙂

  • PastorM

    What about bibliolatry as a heresy?

  • Jon Altman

    I grew up in the “Christendom” which at which Douthat looks back so fondly. The Southern Baptists of Mississippi in the 1960’s, 70’s (and 80’s) did not in any way “embrace” the Civil Rights Movement led by M.L. King, Jr. Douthat’s thesis falls apart immediately. He needs to take a look at both Scot McKnight AND Diana Butler Bass.

  • Greg Drummond

    Reading this makes me think of a church that wants to get as far away from the gospel as possible and still try to itself “Christian.” There is something about that title that we don’t want to abandon, even though we are willing to abandon everything that makes the title make sense. It would be better if the title Christian were dropped and the heresies were pursued than to run after them in the name of Christ. How close are we to the condemnation of Galatians 1:6-9 by the Apostle Paul?

  • Shane

    Ross Douthat might be the best thinker-writer to come around in a long time. Look forward to this book!

  • Bad Douthat

    The précis of Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review is such a tissue of non- and half-truth, of historical misconception and ideological prejudice, that it requires an interlinear gloss to set the story straight…

  • Cal

    It’s like Luther’s horror when he saw that Germany had become anarchic, crime was rampant, morals had been thrown out and chaos reigned. Was it worth it? It seemed the people were held under the strict structuring of the Roman Catholic polity and without it, men became as they were in their hearts: rapists, murderers, thieves, liars, drunkards.

    However, the tyranny of the Medieval conscience by Rome is not excused. The same principle applies. Douthat notes serious problems but yearns the fake layer of institutional christendom. No thanks, I ask the true church (who proclaims Christ as Lord, in accordance to the Scriptures that can be bare-bones articulated in the Apostle’s Creed) to remain as such and be a loving body-politic pointing to the King and His Kingdom. Preach the gospel.

  • LaurelhurstLiberal

    It makes me a little nervous that Douthat is detecting heresy in America: on the one hand, people who aren’t Christian will find them swept up and called heretics or Christ-deniers; on the other, how long before the various Christian denominations begin calling each other out as heretics, too? The Catholics and Protestants of the 30 Years’ War didn’t see each other as brothers in Christ.

  • Reading Douthat’s comments from the original post, I don’t find a hint that he’s yearning for institutional Christianity: “The main point that I’m trying to make is that whatever happens to the institutional churches, individual Christians can try to essentially be better Christians, and honor the complications and paradoxes and tensions of this ancient faith a little better, and not just go as quickly to the easy answer.” Seems a reasonable point. As far as Douthat’s charges of heresy, how would that affect “people who aren’t Christian”? Even in the Middle Ages, people knew the difference between “heretics” and “infidels.” Really, I think Douthat has some very good points that are worth considering.

  • John Mc

    The Christian thinkers of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries developed the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds by examining generally accepted Scriptural writings and interpreting those writings in the context of Fourth and Fifth Century (late Roman Imperial) cultural, political, historical, and ecclesial circumstances. Even the impetus to formulate a Creed with a universally prescribed system of essential beliefs, arose within that context. Do we share that perceived need? Until the adoption of the Creeds, heterodoxy prevailed and, coincidentally, Christianity thrived.

    Are contemporary Christians bound to embrace 1,600 year old rules of faith, formulated in a culture and historical context so very different from our own? Just to be clear, I am not pleading for any of the ‘heretical’ belief systems critiqued by Douthat, nor am I challenging the essential beliefs set forth in the Creeds, but instead I am exploring the notion that the traditional Creeds, as we allegedly profess them today, are cultural-centric, and as such may be less relevant today than they once were.

    Is it possible that the democratization of religious belief in America, our very heterodoxy, may in part explain why religious belief thrives in America, while it is on life-support in the European heartland of Christianity.

  • I am not sure it is accurate, John Mc, to write that “heterodoxy prevailed” in the early church. Certainly there were heresies and there was diversity among the Fathers. But about what CS Lewis might call “mere Christianity” there was wide-spread unity. The creeds, after all, simply capture what the faithful say is what “all Christians everywhere have always believed and taught”. Heresy in the Church has always led to some sort of norming from God’s instituted authorities, whether it be a list of Scriptures that are considered “canonical” in response to reductionist anti-Semites, or Apostolic letters to “heterodox” Corinthian followers. The Church establishes “norms” to fence out error. Even before Constantine that is the way of it.

    Heterodoxy? Hmmm. Maybe “diversity on non-essentials” might be more accurate.

  • John Mc


    I am no church historian but I recall reading that the disputes between Athanasius and his opponents involved ‘essentials’ and so with Arius, Pelagius, and others. In fact church councils from the First Council of Nicea through the Fourth Council of Constantinople were called to resolve, by Imperially enforced decree, major disputes which threatened to fracture the church, about core issues. And the disputes weren’t between minor factions but invites involved the whole church taking up sides of an issue. Disagreement with the prevailing side meant excommunication and exile, if not death. My reading of early church history suggests that there was a great deal of disagreement about what we may think of as essentials. The notion that the Creeds accurately “capture what all Christains everywhere always believed and taught” seems to be controverted by the very history which brought about the Creeds.

  • John Mc –
    “The notion that the Creeds accurately “capture what all Christains everywhere always believed and taught” seems to be controverted by the very history which brought about the Creeds.”

    And those who did not embrace Credal statements would be considered, ipso facto, outside the Church, and therefore not Christians. Ergo, “all Christians everywhere”… (The Church, after all, and her leaders would seem to have “all authority” to “bind” and “loose” on matters of theology.)

  • Some skewed history in some of these comments. Heresy is indeed close at hand.