Last night I had the privilege of going to a book talk and signing by Ross Douthat (a new hero of mine), promoting his new book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. It was, more or less, a summary of the book’s primary lines of argumentation, followed by a Q&A.
The book itself (which I am only half-way through) lays out some pretty provocative ideas that are sure to ruffle the sentiments of most anyone that finds themselves securely in allegiance with either of the left-right poles of society. I have yet to find someone who sits in ambivalence concerning this book. It evokes. It calls out. It leads to introspection and reaction. You either love it, or you hate it.
This is further complicated by the times we live in. In a world of blogs, podcasts, comment boxes, and the online immediacy of opinion, there is an unspoken and unrealistic expectation of comprehensiveness in any person’s expression of thought. There was a time where an author would write a book, others would write whole books in response, and then the original author would respond with a follow-up book. This process then moved on to newspapers and magazines (the Federalist Papers come to mind).
In this world where you had to wait weeks, months, or even years between engagement amongst thinkers, there was longer consideration on the part of the responder, as well increased grace for the original work; there was a focus on the broader picture of the thesis rather than a self-imposed need to respond, leading to an over-emphasis on minutiae. We now expect an author to either anticipate and answer every one of our possible questions in their book, or else be vigilantly ready at the keyboard to write responses to our every knee-jerk blog post, review, comment, and Facebook status.
Nowadays, it seems many writers and bloggers read more to respond than to consider.
My primary inspiration for this post is a recent post at Patrol Magazine by David Sessions. I love Patrol (as I’ve said before), and I respect David a lot (see his comment on my original Douthat post). I used to write for them a couple of years ago. I consider their editors (as well as some of their former writers) to be “friends” of mine (in that unique-to-our-generation, online-only, never-met-in-person sort of way). All that being said, I felt like the post was a tad unfair and didn’t give Douthat the benefit-of-the-doubt–that I believe he has earned–to consider he has more thoughts than simply what was in the book.
And indeed, were Sessions in the room last night at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I believe he would have had some of his lingering quibbles satiated.
First, the most common criticism of the book is Douthat’s account of American religious life post-World War II. In the talk, he brought this up and said that the point he was trying to make was far narrower than what many reviewers thought. The primary function of that part of the book was merely to demonstrate that Christianity had a healthier influence on public life then than it does now. Not the healthiest it could be; not some Christian ideal; just a better model than what he have now.
Second, I regurgitated to Douthat what I thought was the most powerful critique of Sessions’ piece: many of the social “problems” Douthat raises seem to find better results and answers in other nations where they apply increased secularization, not less. Rather than fit the mold Sessions’ would seem to put him in–a closeted neo-fundamentalist whose only reason for not accepting these secular solutions is his religious preferences that have no foundation in reality or pragmatism–Douthat instead questioned the premise itself.
He pointed out that the American situation is indeed much different than those other nations (and not in the “American exceptionalism” sort of way of which the Patrol piece accuses him). Our history, our size, our diversity, and our immigrant population all lend themselves to difficulty in making ready one-to-one comparisons with, say, Canada or Norway (or even England).
Indeed, the most growth in abortions is occurring among Hispanics in America, not our segments of the population that would seem more comparable to Europe . He also went on to point out that you can already find microcosms and case studies of these ideas in American itself. The American Northeast is fairly secular, and yet New York (Sessions’ home) has a 40% rate of abortions among all children conceived in the city.
So yes, there are less total abortions–but there’s more contraceptive use (and less adoptions); yes, there are less teen pregnancies–but there is a greater percentage of abortions-per-child-conceived; yes, there are less divorces–but there are also far less marriages in the first place.
Next, Sessions seems to believe that what Douthat is calling us back to is “a revival of conservative religion”. Now, like I said, I haven’t finished the book, so I might completely be mis-characterizing here, but this doesn’t sound like what Douthat is saying at all. I have heard several interviews, read many articles by him and others concerning the book, and heard him speak last night on it. It appears that Sessions may be conflating “orthodox” with “conservative”, and “historic” with “fundamentalist”.
What Douthat is calling us to is a radical re-embrace of a small number of core Christian doctrines. This is hardly “conservatism” as it is seen today. Further, he predicts that the best way to do this is by embracing confessional and credal traditions.
And this is where the true irony of Sessions’ piece begins.
First, this return to a more liturgical, confessional, and creedal Christianity as a source of sustenance, intellect, and beauty is precisely what more thoughtful religious twenty-somethings are doing in America. In fact, Douthat’s proposed path is the precise one taken by Patrol’s-own editor and several of the authors that Patrol seems to admire (and still others). The first post I ever wrote for Patrol had this same thesis, as well as other posts of mine which they published.
This is also a very different type of faith and spirituality than the Rick Warrens and Mark Driscolls of the world tend to cultivate (as I’ve said), and so to criticize Douthat’s supposed ignoring of their “living out” his ideas is to fundamentally misunderstand what he’s saying. Last week, I heard him in an interview (audio) say that he is promoting a Christianity that relies less on individual personalities upon which entire denominations stand and fall. He wants the core message to be the focus, not the person up-front.
Second, a clarion call to return to confessions and creeds by definition is a call to systems of belief and doctrine that have nothing to do with Douthat’s thoughts on the sexual revolution–seemingly Sessions’ greatest problem with him.
Yes, I disagree with Douthat (and the Catholic Church) on the issues of birth control, women’s ordination, gay marriage, and priestly celibacy, but I don’t know that he would say that I (as an urban twenty-something going to credal/confessional a Dutch Reformed Church in the middle of the city) am not living out his hope for the direction of American Christianity–even as we disagree on these points. In fact, as he signed my book last night, I told him my ecclesial affiliation, and he seemed to love it.
To be “credal”, “confessional”, and “historically orthodox” means that you hold primary those few essentials found in the creeds, and allow disagreement on all those other things. This is the most it seems Douthat is proposing; not a wholesale acceptance of every religious opinion he and the Catholic Church have.
Further, I don’t know that he is promoting legislative change in response to the sexual revolution (admittedly, he is advocating legislative conservatism with gay marriage, but he seems to struggle greatly with this). I think his hope is that as Christians would gather around historic, stable truth and beauty, it might cause them to see the greater value of those things that the sexual revolution has inherently de-valued: children, marriage, and the sanctity of our bodies and sexualities. He wants a change of culture; he doesn’t want to reject, as Sessions puts it, “the advancement of women”.
And lastly, it is my opinion that Sessions, in his reactive frustration over this book, has resorted to the very fundamentalism of which he accuses Douthat: an “ideology that is unable to see past its own particular politico-cultural moment.” He believes that Douthat has created a thesis that has built-in “anti-contraceptivism” so deeply into it that if you take that away, his argument falls apart.
But in his seeming unwillingness to see much of anything past this sexual piece (and to also see the points in the book where Douthat speaks quite sympathetically of married couples who use contraceptive thoughtfully), Sessions turns to the same all-or-nothing stance where (to slightly change his phrasing towards Douthat) “his ideology is total; if you reject any part of it–say, that contraceptive is [anything but good]–the entire thing collapses”.
Reading the piece, images of babies and bathwater come to mind.
And so, in the end, Douthat’s thesis remains, and is indeed proven, by Sessions’ piece: we are all dogmatic and religious, even if our dogma is secularism and our religion is “progress”. Douthat only wishes that we could found these things in that which has been shown throughout history–outside of our immediate context–to be most true, essential, and beautiful.
I have no doubt that Sessions will read this and respond with a blistering, comprehensive, and well-written defense of his Douthat criticisms (and no, I’m not being sarcastic). I look forward to reading it and I will post a link to it whenever it pops up.