Having the honor of being Facebook friends with the preeminent progressive Christian blogger and Evangelical culture critic Matthew Paul Turner, I ran across a posting of his one day which spoke of his upcoming book “Our Great Big American God.” He was offering people who are bloggers, critics or other culture influencers a free copy of his book for them to review. I messaged him. He was gracious enough to send me a copy even though I don’t know if I fit any of the aforementioned categories. I do my best impersonation of a blogger and critic.
As mentioned Turner (MPT) has a built-in reputation of being a more “liberal” Christian. I would not have that designation (although I freely admit that the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are loaded terms and we all should talk more specifically about what we believe on the issues). As a matter of fact, I have responded to MPT before on a blog of his that I did not agree with on original sin. (read: https://dangeroushope.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/original-sin-a-response-to-mpt-matthew-paul-turner/).
Enough of the disclaimers. Before I dived into “American God”, I honestly had no idea what to expect. I had never read a book by MPT before but I have been a fairly consistent reader of his blog. This work by MPT seemed to be a pretty significant departure from his normal topics. Without having read them, “Churched” and “Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost” both seem autobiographical. His Twitter handle is @jesusneedsnewpr and he frequently offers a critique of contemporary conservative Christianity such as looked to be the case in his past book “The Christian Culture Survival Guide”.
“American God” related to MPT’s writing career seems to be the next logical extension. It is as if MPT in keeping up with the current Christian trends, fads and beliefs asked the question: “how in the hell did we get here?” His answer is “Our Great Big American God” and the book is a compelling read.
“American God” is, according to the tagline, “A short history of our Ever-Growing Deity”. The work is an overview of the idea of God in America and how believers have sincerely fashioned God into their own image. Not just exclusively a history of different American Christian beliefs about God, the book also explores how our distinctive religious ideas had an impact on our nation’s history.
“To some extent, we are all ‘growing’ God, stuffing his mouth full with ideas, themes and theologies, fattening him up with a story line we believe to be true. Our intentions may be good, but then again, I’m not sure intentions matter when it comes to God’s image. For good or bad, we are all molding God to reflect our own personal, American interpretation of Christian faith.” (page 6)
“For four hundred years, Americans have narrated God’s story, and during that time, God has grown and evolved, become bigger and more unbelievable. Our stories have added theologies and folklore, miracles and fear, pro-this narratives and anti-that themes, ghost stories and strobe lights, Sarah Palin and more than a little humanistic sensibilities. In our efforts to make God known, we’ve quite possibly turned God into something that resembles us, a big fat American with an ever-growing appetite for more. What follows is the story of God as told, shaped, and affected by America. Because God is not the same as he was yesterday, not here, not among America’s faithful.” (page 10)
MPT begins with one of his only personal stories. He is talking with his friend Dave who he comes to realize is a Christian Zionist. This encounter actually bookends “American God” and serves to illustrate one of the central points. The ideas that Dave articulates have impacted America’s foreign policy in significant ways toward Israel and the middle east. Most readers may be blown away by this claim in MPT’s book:
“Without question, John Nelson Darby is one of the most influential people in American history, quite an accomplishment considering he was British and spent only a limited amount of time in the United States.” (page 135-136)
Of course, MPT explains that Darby was the father of Dispensational theology in America. The tenets of this view highlight a distinction between Israel as God’s people and the church and then interprets Revelation through the prism of God dealing with his original chosen people (Israel). This is where we as Americans inherited the rapture, seven years of tribulation and premillennialism (as well as an assortment of other related views). Impact? Consider the massive sales of the “Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that describe the horror of the rapture and tribulation. Nicholas Cage is starring in an upcoming “Left Behind” movie which is being remade from the previous Kirk Cameron installment. This idea, foremost in millions of Americans thoughts, has come to impact middle eastern foreign affairs.
“American God” provides a generalized outline of personalities and their beliefs as well as the subsequent impact on American history. MPT dives into Puritan founders including John Cotton, Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Hooker, Roger Williams (including Williams appeals for religious freedom), Jonathan Edwards and John Winthrop. He spends quite a lot of time with Winthrop and his ideal of American being a “shining city on a hill”. This very phrase came up in President Ronald Reagan’s farewell address in 1989 as he (apparently) articulated a fairly liberal immigration view.
MPT moves on toward discussing the religious divides of the Civil War and moving into the 20th century, Billy Sunday and how he helped shaped the Constitutional amendment of prohibition. We are reminded of classic Americana scenes including William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial in Tennessee, DL Moody working and evangelizing in Chicago (and MPT’s perspective of Moody mixing capitalistic principles with how he ran his ministry), the Azusa Street revival and birth of modern day Pentecostalism, and the rise of the religious right behind Jerry Falwell and other foot soldiers. Finally, Billy Graham makes an appearance as he revolutionized Protestantism in the latter part of the 20th century.
The massive kudos that are due to MPT is how he fits this history into a book that is 222 pages. Sure, the overall treatment of American religious history is a breeze but this leaves the reader wanting more (and there are ample footnotes to peruse). MPT does not merely recite history but adds the provocativeness of his personality to the pages. His wittiness is on full display as well as a good deal of snark….but hey, this is MPT we’re talking about here. While the reader will recall American events they are familiar with, they will also learn about new figures and see, perhaps for the first time, how unfamiliar ideas to the modern nation’s conscience have had a far ranging impact on our nation’s beliefs and life.
My only quibble with the book is MPT acts as a kind of historical narrator, not really divulging what exactly he thinks (or believes), about the figures and events that are encountered along the way. I should add though that this may be my fault having not read his other books. Perhaps, he explores his own personal views in those works.
I have already stated that I come from the theologically conservative end of the spectrum and I have a “reformish” leaning in my own theology to be sure. I suspect that many people who are more conservative Christians will pass this book over because of MPT’s theological or social views (or his reputation for them) which may differ from them. I would highly encourage them not too. This is not a liberal or conservative book in my view. There are gleanings that will speak to anybody and the big challenge to people on the conservative end (like me and liberals too) is asking the question: how have we allowed our culture/country to illustrate who we understand God to be? This is a haunting question and one worth exploring. When we fashion God in our image (especially a nationalistic image), we create an idol and often ignore other people in the world whom God (the True God) immensely cares about.
See a trailer for the book here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=716301368440731