Strong Culture/ Weak Culture and Suspicion

Douthat’s Chapter 5 Heresy

Douthat’s “Bad Religion” has gotten mixed reviews. The book complains about the loss of cultural power of the orthodoxies of the mid 20th century represented by Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, MLK Jr. and the Roman Catholic Church’s Fulton Sheen. There’s plenty to critique about the thesis and his examples, but the shift in the culture seems undeniable. Whether it is loss of a certain brand of civil religion or the loss of orthodoxy as he claims, something has changed.

At the end of chapter 4 he appeals to James Davison Hunter’s thesis about weak cultures and strong cultures.

As the third millennium dawned, this was very much an open question. In To Change the World (2010), James Davison Hunter distinguishes between “strong cultures” and “weak cultures” in American life. A strong culture exerts influence commensurate with its demographic strength—or, better, punches above its weight. It instills a strong sense of esprit de corps among its members and inspires admiration, imitation, and respectful engagement from those outside its confines. It establishes parameters for debate, supplies a common moral language for many of the great questions of the day, and influences millions of people’s ways of thinking without their even necessarily knowing it.

A weak culture, by contrast, tends to “have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production,”38 while enjoying only marginal leverage over the institutions with the greatest power to shape the culture as a whole. A weak culture is always embattled, always back on its heels, always resentful of its enemies and uncertain of its friends. It imitates but doesn’t influence, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a better past instead of forward to a vibrant future. This is true even if a majority or a plurality of Americans seems to share the culture’s values, because looking at numbers alone tends to overstate its potency: in a weak culture, “the whole … is significantly less than the sum of its parts.”39

Hunter’s standard, both the Protestant Mainline and the Catholic Church were strong cultures in 1950s America—capable of making their presence felt in the commanding heights of American life, from the media and the academy to the film and television industries, even as they provided a powerful spiritual and ethical vocabulary for everyday life down below. Together, these two traditions supplied a common religious story and a common moral framework for a vast and complicated nation, influencing even where they did not predominate, and sowing seeds in fields where they did not reap the harvest.

A half-century later, the picture looks very different. The Mainline has drifted to the sidelines of American life, Catholicism’s cultural capital has been reduced by decades of civil war, and Evangelicalism still has the air of an embattled subculture rather than the confidence of an ascendent force.

Douthat, Ross (2012-04-17). Bad Religion (p. 144). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Sowers of Suspicion of Traditional Religion

In chapter 5 Douthat will assert that certain heresies have taken its place. In this chapter he will take on Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, the National Geographic Gospel of Judas blowup, Dan Brown and some treatment of American Fundamentalism. He does a fairly decent job of showing how their work fails to payout to the promise of offering an alternative Christianity.

It seems to me that this works through the thesis of Hunter’s strong culture / weak culture. Pagels, Ehrman and others get attention from the TV and publishing media and the mid-level university crowd. Their cultural impact is greater than their gravitas within the smaller cadre of specialists in their fields. Having said this there are plenty of other serious and better scholars who are not orthodox nor are they popularly known. It is perhaps something analogous to Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett who are popularly known but not the best philosophers to present the case for atheism or against theism. They are popularizers, perhaps not unlike those he asserted popularized orthodoxy earlier.

It also seems to me that these popularizers don’t have anywhere near as much popular impact as Jerry Falwell or Rich Warren. Far more Americans will know Rich Warren than will know Elaine Pagels. The Purpose Driven Life will far outstrip the sum total of Pagels’ books. Is it worth while to complain about Pagels and Ehrman?

This layer of second class scholarship can’t deliver on spreading gnosticism but will succeed in spreading the more virulent seed of skepticism and suspicion. People will have no idea what Pagels is asserting, nor will they necessarily follow or buy all that Dan Brown imagines, but they will doubt the authority of what they see as traditional
religion. If there is one thing we know that media does well it is to shape subconscious biases about what is attractive or consensual.

In Chapter 6 Douthat will get at what he sees as the successful popularizers of popular heresy that will have power and legs.

Pastoral Reality

How much does it really take to have people drop out of church in North America? Not much. If life is going reasonably well, if problems seem manageable, there are many available amusements on a Sunday morning besides sleeping in. It doesn’t take a lot of suspicion seeded in a culture already suspicious of motives (see the Postmodern Submarine Races), suspicious of institutions, suspicious of authority.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary, Quotations and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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