Charles Pierce’s review of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion (shorter version: the Sixties sucked) is a master class in how to take apart a book in a manner that respects the subject, but gives the author the flogging they deserve. This may be my favorite part:
[N]owhere 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.
Fantastic. As good as Adam Gopnik’s epic takedown of The Matrix, Reloaded. It’s made more impressive by the fact that you get the sense that Pierce really knows what he’s talking about. Here are two very different lines that each in their way are quite illuminating:
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….
[Douthat is] 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.