I have often thought that my forty years in the wilderness were a curse. From 1966, when I went away to school, until the mid-2000s, when I got the call from Rome, I never attended mass, communion, Bible worship, tent revival, snake-handling, or any form of Christian worship. Now that I am one-third of the way into Ross Douthat’s new book Bad Religion, I am shouting, Praise the Lord!
I missed all the bad stuff! Thank you, Jesus!
Well, not all the bad stuff. The jacket copy warns me that after tracing the decline of traditional religion from an extraordinary peak in the 1950s (Fulton Sheen! Billy Graham! religious Hollywood movies!), Douthat will spend the second half of the book on "the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses." Yeah, I'm surrounded by that even today. All I have to do is walk the self-help section at Barnes & Noble or turn on any daytime TV talk show.
But so long as I receive the sacraments at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, Massachusetts, under the thoughtful leadership of Father Barnes, I won't have to worry about that.
What I missed was:
1. Watching the cultural sell-out of Mainline Protestantism from inside the Episcopal Church of my youth. I was an Episcopal altar boy who wanted to be a minister when I was fifteen in 1966. Leaving then, I didn't have to watch the train wreck that followed, when the church of my childhood turned to mush, then fractured. (Bad metaphor: mush doesn't fracture.)
2. All the bad liturgy offered by the Catholic Church when, after Vatican II, the fresh air blew through the open windows and nearly swept all the flowers away.
3. The priest abuse scandal and its cover-up.
Instead, I got to walk into St. Mary in 2007, smile, and say, Wassup? Isn't this cool? I love being a Catholic!!
And hear others say, You must be a convert…
I will have a full report on Douthat's book when I finish it, but for now I can say that it is erudite and, though written by a devout practicing Catholic, balanced. It focuses initially on four major strains of Christian worship: Catholicism, Mainline Protestantism, Evangelicalism, and the African-American Church, then shows how each sold out, then collapsed.
In the first 100 pages, I have received a summary of everything I missed, especially the Catholic stuff. For converts or cradle Catholics who have trouble keeping Wills and Weigel straight without a souvenir program, who are always confusing the National Catholic Register with the National Catholic Reporter, Bad Religion is a really good book.