April 26, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Charles P. Pierce:
Ross Douthat is a very sincere young man who writes a column for the New York Times, and someone who, alas, usually makes David Brooks read like Richard Brautigan, albeit with one memorable exception. Like many people who were born too late to have lived through the sixties, young master Douthat pretty much blames that decade for fashioning the handbasket in which his beloved America is currently en route to Hell. This is usually an occasion for a screed about drugs, and Beatles music, and sexytime outside of clerically-approved limits, and long hair, and George McGovern, and bra-burning, and the New Black Panthers and the assorted other denizens of the unruly — and largely imaginary — menagerie that offend the modern conservative intellect. However, Ross has a new book in which he describes yet another American institution that went bad at about half-past Pet Sounds — the Christian religion.
In Bad Religion, Douthat breaks a great deal of rock to come around to the unremarkable conclusion that American Christianity would have been infinitely better off if somebody had stopped the banjo Mass in its tracks. He gives the game away right at the outset when he decides that American religious history will begin in or around 1950, which Douthat sees as the high-water mark of mainstream Christian consensus in America and of its (largely beneficial) influence on the country. This enables the assumption that American religious history had always been moving toward that consensus. This is how we can have a book that purports to be about the relationship between Christianity and America that mentions James Madison once, and there in the context of John Courtney Murray’s writings on religious liberty, which, along with their author, were suppressed by church authorities — but not, as Michael Sean Winters points out in his evisceration of the book, in the way that Douthat maintains they were.
Otherwise, Douthat is all over the lot. He cites the Didache — an ancient Christian catechism — in order to trace Christianity’s opposition to abortion back to the founding of the religion, but then goes on to insist that the Dead Sea Scrolls “turned out to have little connection with early Christianity.” (He is a bit bughouse on both the Scrolls and on the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, as we shall see.) Unfortunately, the Didache itself is shot through with the influence of the Essenes, who wrote the Scrolls, most notably in its first section in which it talks about the Two Ways. And if you’re going to argue, as Douthat does, over and over again, that the canonical gospels are the most authentic accounts we have of the life of Jesus, then you’re obligated to mention that the Didache was repeatedly denied canonical status by the early Church Fathers, particularly by St. Athanasius, who thought it merely instructive, and placed it on par with the other apocryphal texts for which Douthat otherwise has little use. The Didache comes up because Douthat is opposed to abortion. Period.
Too much of the book is simply a culture-war text gussied up in a chasuble. Douthat is extremely bothered by people who claim to seek enlightenment from a “God Within,” and outside the framework of preferred ecclesiastical constructs. (In this, he risibly cites Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert — and Oprah Winfrey! — as somehow being American religious figures.) Can you find spiritual enlightenment outside of a formalized religious structure and, having found it, can you still be a Catholic, or a Jew, or a Presbyterian? An interesting question that Douthat simply ignores. But he also gives a good leaving-alone to the born-again evangelical experience of a “personal Lord and Savior.” (Apparently, a God Within is fine, as long as He’s wearing a Douthat-endorsed logo.) As Winters points out, he’s drunk deeply of Michael Novak’s neoconservative Catholic capitalist malarkey, which is how Sister Gilbert, and Father Chopra, and Pope Oprah I get blamed for the irreligious consumerism of American society. (He also quotes David Brooks to back himself up, which is a dead giveaway.) This passage is a remarkable three-rail shot in which the conservative religious historian manages to blame his idea of “heretical” religious liberalism for all the sins of capitalism without ever mentioning any of the large American business concerns that spend billions turning a buck on those heresies:
The covetousness of the American consumer becomes a path to self-actualization: think of the way Oprah’s network suggests that peace of mind goes better with a new Hyundai. (Ed. note: And things go better with Coke. What’s your point here?) Think of the vast market for high-end products and luxury goods that promise “simplicity” and “authenticity.” (Everything from their vacations to their kitchens, David Brooks wrote of the current American upper class in 2000′sBobos in Paradise (ed. note: I warned you), seems designed to be “the physical expression of a metaphysical sentiment.”) The gluttony of the Whole Foods-shopping gourmand is redefined as a higher form of asceticism: if you put enough thought (and money) into your locally grown artisanal grass-fed free-range organic farm-to-table diet, then a lavish meal can be portrayed as one part philosophical statement, one-part Eucharistic feast.
Or maybe you’ll simply be less likely to get E. coli and die. This whole passage is all my balls, and it exists, especially in that litany of adjectives right there at the end, simply so Douthat can get snotty about a lot of the imaginary liberals who are running around in his head. (Which reminds me, Jonah Goldberg, the true master of this form, has a new book coming out, too.) What’s the obverse of this? The essential Christian qualities of Wonder Bread? He’s a lot more conspicuously even-handed in his denunciations when he’s discussing the fallout among Catholics from the sexual-abuse scandal than he is about the deleterious salvific effects of the designer-arugula crowd.
But nowhere does Douthat so clearly punch above his weight class as when he decides to correct the damage he sees as having been done by the historical Jesus movement, the work of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman and, ultimately, Dan Brown’s novels. Even speaking through Mark Lilla, it takes no little chutzpah for a New York Times op-ed golden child to imply that someone of Pagels’s obvious accomplishments is a “half-educated evangelical guru.” Simply put, Elaine Pagels has forgotten more about the events surrounding the founding of Christianity, including the spectacular multiplicity of sects that exploded in the deserts of the Middle East at the same time, than Ross Douthat will ever know, and to lump her work in with the popular fiction of The Da Vinci Code is to attempt to blame Galileo for Lost in Space. First, he offers a threadbare explanation for why Pagels is wrong in her assessment of the early Gnostic texts. (His argument: St. Paul says they’re wrong.) He describes the eventual calcification of the sprawling Jesus movement into the Nicene Creed as “an intellectual effort that spanned generations” without even taking into account the political and imperial imperatives that drove the process of defining Christian doctrine in such a way as to not disturb the shaky remnants of the Roman empire. The First Council of Nicaea, after all, was called by the Emperor Constantine, not by the bishops of the Church. Constantine — whose adoption of the Christianity that Douthat so celebrates would later be condemned by James Madison as the worst thing that ever happened to both religion and government — demanded religious peace. The council did its damndest to give it to him. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, but Constantine was a doozy. Douthat is perfectly willing to agree that early Christianity was a series of boisterous theological arguments as long as you’re willing to believe that he and St. Paul won them all.
In any event, it is mendacious in the extreme to argue, as Douthat does, that Pagels is engaged in her work in a kind of proselytizing mission, and that her mission has failed. (Her “best-selling works… haven’t reversed the fortunes of her beloved Episcopalianism.” Young conservatives simply can’t resist a cheap shot. It’s like asking camels not to spit.) Pagels has done more to elucidate the yeasty, god-crazy culture out of which the Jesus cult sprang and over which it ultimately triumphed than any two people I know. What makes Douthat so nervous about the fact that, through the works of Elaine Pagels, people out there might know a little more about the Gnostics, or the Essenes? As a young rabbi, Jesus certainly must have been aware of some of it. Catholicism has a nasty history of conflating science — and new knowledge in general — with heresy. Ross Douthat, who is very sincere and not at all stupid, knows this all too well. He’s yearning for a Catholic Christianity triumphant, the one that existed long before he was born, the Catholicism of meatless Fridays, one parish, and no singing with the Methodists. I lived those days, Ross. That wasn’t religion. It was ward-heeling with incense.