Douthat’s history and critique of both approaches are fascinating. But more relevant for our predicament today is the analysis of the alternatives to traditional Christian churches, what Douthat calls “bad religion,” which comprises the bulk of his book. These are the various “heresies” that attracted Americans whose religious needs hadn’t faded away into the secularism, humanism, or atheism that religious conservatives feared and liberals celebrated as the consequence of Christianity’s decline.
These heresies arose across the cultural spectrum, from academic research to the “prosperity gospel” that reaches millions through television, bestselling books, and the Internet. For example, the hype in 2006 over the discovery of the ancient Gnostic Gospel of Judas made extravagant claims about its influence in the development of Christianity and the light it shed on “how diverse and fascinating the early Christian movement really was,” as one scholar claimed.
Yet more careful study revealed that dubious dating, tendentious interpretations of the text, and a bad translation of the document had shaped it to create a more modern Jesus, one more attractive to a sensibility eager for a non-judgmental spiritualism defined by therapeutic self-actualization. The same occurred with other “real Jesus” scholars and popularizers like best-selling novelist Dan Brown. Their anti-orthodox Redeemer looks suspiciously like a blue-state Unitarian Democrat.