December 12, 2017

IM Book Review: Our Great Big American God

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Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity
By Matthew Paul Turner
Jericho Books (August 19, 2014)

• • •

Matthew Paul Turner sent me a preview copy of his new book last week (it’s now available – click the link above), and it ties right in with our emphasis in recent days upon U.S. evangelicalism and Christianity in America. MPT reminds us that our American experience has changed God, that is, our perception of God and the world’s perception as well.

Our Great Big American God is a breezy, irreverent romp through the history of our irrepressibly religious nation with a focus on the way the image of God has morphed right along with “we the people.”

It begins with a question: “Where would God be without America?” Whereas we might expect that to be asked the other way around, Turner’s friend Dave contends that America has been very good to God and that God would not be nearly as popular as he is were it not for what America has done to keep his reputation and work alive in the world. We have helped write his story. Turner says this about his friend’s argument:

[Dave’s] not alone. 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. 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. (p. 6)

pilgrimsAh, but which interpretation? Which God?

  • Is it the God of “America’s Pentecost” — in Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, the second “Great Awakening” — when God showed up with tangible power, moving “through the crowd like a tsunami, slowly engulfing people in the Spirit, causing people to hop around like pogo sticks or to perform backflips off wagons and tree stumps”?
  • Or is it the God who brought the Puritans across the Atlantic to the New World almost 200 years earlier? This was the God of radical, sectarian Protestants with stern Calvinist theology, the God who spoke through preachers that replaced the nation of Israel in key O.T. texts with his chosen remnant who had come to the New World as if to the Holy Land. England had turned into Pharaoh and these were his once enslaved people he was planting in the land of milk and honey. They weren’t in search of a place of religious freedom as much as they sought a place where their religion could be practiced freely. That meant God had to be protected from people like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and other Christian groups like Quakers and Anglicans and Baptists. So the sovereign God of the Puritans hired them to be police, judge, and jury to guard the boundaries of the Promised Land.
  • Perhaps it is the God of America’s greatest theologian and most unlikely revivalist preacher, Jonathan Edwards. His God was glorious and majestic, decked out in the finery of Edwards’ magnificent poetic language. Edwards was one step removed from the early Puritans, emphasizing more fully the personal presence and pleasures of God. He found proof of God’s electing love in the “Religious Affections” God’s true people experience. Edwards also painted the most grotesque and picturesque visions of hell ever preached: “The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath toward you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.” Is this the American God?
  • God changed under George Whitfield’s preaching into a God with “a true catholic spirit, free from sectarian zeal.” This preacher sought to preach Christ alone and stay away from matters that caused disputes. He was the first celebrity preacher in America, the first mass evangelist who reached out to people from different backgrounds and religious affiliations and led a great awakening among them. Those who responded became the first “evangelicals” in the U.S. and this was what their God looked and sounded like.
Finney

Charles Finney

And what shall we say of the God of Patrick Henry, for Whom the Revolution was a “holy cause of liberty”? Or the God of the early 19th century — years when the Methodists and Baptists spread throughout the land like wildfire — Who shook himself free from Calvinist doctrines in the second Great Awakening and raised up men like Charles Finney to proclaim human free agency and the right use of “means” to produce spiritual results?

Is God the slave-owning God, or the great Abolitionist? It eventually took a civil war and a century of reconstruction to work out the answer to that question.

Or is God most interested in personal holiness? That was the God of Phoebe Palmer, who, along with her husband, spread the doctrine of perfection and spawned such groups as the Church of the Nazarene and laid the groundwork for later Pentecostalism.

Perhaps God is a winsome, plain-spoken Businessman who is interested in making a transaction for your soul: like D.L. Moody, who invented modern crusade evangelism and ran it like a business, with superb organization and a gift for getting the fat cats of the Gilded Age to pony up the dollars. Billy Graham learned a lot from Moody, and took this approach even further in the mid to late 20th century.

We could go on to speak of the Dispensational God, the Social Gospel God, and the Just War God who waved the red, white, and blue when America went to war and, in essence, equated patriotism and faith. We must not forget the Pentecostal God, who was born at 312 Azusa Street in Los Angeles under the spiritual midwifery of William J. Seymour, a God who is still growing today and taking his act around the world with enthusiasm. Nor could we complete this survey without a nod to the Fundamentalist God and the New Evangelical God, and especially the Culture War God, the deity of people like Jerry Falwell and the Christian Right, who reached the pinnacle of American success when George W. Bush became president at the turn of the millennium.

Matthew Paul Turner tells these stories of God in America with wit, energy, and sass. He definitely has a point of view; that is beyond question. MPT views American history through a post-modern, progressive Christian’s lens, and I’m sure he will be criticized for slanting his accounts that way.

But this book is meant not so much as a serious historical analysis (though it is certainly well researched) as much as it is a social and religious commentary. That should come from a clear point of view so as to present a clear case and prompt discussion and debate.

And above all, Matthew Paul Turner is asking us to consider how we who are created in God’s image keep ourselves relentlessly preoccupied remaking him into ours.

That’s something we should all welcome as healthy and necessary.

Comments

  1. Faulty O-Ring says:

    Is this just about Protestantism, or does it cover Mormons / Catholics / Jews / Hare Krishna etc.? And I would imagine that the parallel history of atheism (e.g. Ingersoll, O’Hare) would make an irresistable counterpoint.

  2. That portrait of Finney would make for an excellent dartboard.

    • Ha!

      Don’t forget to make a second one for CalvinCuban!

      • OldProphet says:

        Gee, is there any historical, religious figure that you good fellows think is not a heretic? John Brown?

        • I mean that CalvinCuban, a regular poster, may also enjoy throwing darts at Finney.

          I agree though, it’s not quite fair to poor old Finney.

          If you like, I can even the score by throwing darts at Jonathan Edwards. I’ve still not quite forgiven him for that soul-crushing treatise, “The Religious Affections.”

          • Me, throw darts at Charles Finney? Overripe tomatoes, maybe; darts are so–violent.

            As for Jonathan Edwards, I’ve read his “Religious Affections” great stuff! By the way, Edwards is tough to read; there’s a good book by Sam Storms “Signs of the Spirit” (http://www.amazon.com/Signs-Spirit-Interpretation-Religious-Affections/dp/1581349327/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1408760278&sr=1-1) which helps explain the twelve signs of authentic affections. It’s a good companion to the original text.

          • “The Religious Affections” is brilliant.

            My main problem with it is that I’m with him for the first component of his argumentation, which runs:

            1. Here is a proof that one is elect, with about 8 million verses to back up the point.
            2. And here’s the same number of verses saying that it’s not a sign.

            Of course, Edwards wants to go beyond this, to get onto sure ground. The problem is that I don’t really buy his solution. So the affect of reading Affections, for me, is mainly an exercise in deconstruction.

            That’s not necessary the fault of Edwards. It is true I’m not convinced by all of his argument, so quibble is partly intellectual. But the real issue is pastoral: I don’t always find the kind of introspection classic calvinism requires to always be sending me in a helpful or healthful direction. There are somethings I’ve learned to put on the shelf, and only do when I’m really up to it. Then I put them back on the shelf for a while. If I’m having a hard time, I can definitely deal with Luther or perhaps poetry by the Wesleys. Even crazier levels of introspection? Not so great. Again, though, that says more about me than the Puritans.

        • It’s just that Finney was probably the worst offender and led so many people into ‘will worship’.

          We’re (Christianity) still dealing with the mess he caused.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Was Finney the guy who invented the Altar Call?
            .

          • Yes, Finney came up with the altar call, or “anxious bench.”

            Related to this, Finney argued that revivals could be be engineered with good planning and technique: if you use the correct method, you would get results. And one reason you will get them is that you can persuade people to make decisions they wouldn’t otherwise have made. Other Presbyterians, with traditional calvinist theologies, did not think you could plan revivals.

          • I thought Moody came up with the “anxious bench”? Well, he used it a lot, at any rate.

          • Moody used it, but didn’t invent it.

    • Why would you need to make one of those when you a Martin Luther dartboard is already in production and is available to purchase!

      http://www.zazzle.ca/martin_luther_nails_rubber_chicken_to_church_door_dartboard-256849947935198976

      • I guess there may be some Jews and Catholics still PO’d by him.

        But for those of us who have been freed from all that religious ladder-climbing, Luther was truly a Godsend.

      • Richard Hershberger says:

        I am disappointed to find that oldlutheran.com doesn’t sell that. They still have the Martin and Katie bobble heads: a mere $27.95 for the set!

      • So, I just realized you can order one of those dart board’s with any image you submit.

        Have fun. 🙂

        • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

          The apostrophe police have your number. They are sending ninjas.

          • Wait, ninjas? I was ready for grammar nazis, not apostrophe police-ninjas.

            (Excuse about staying up until 5 am doesn’t work on ninjas.)

          • Stay after school and write 50 times on the blackboard:

            I will not use apostrophe’s to make plural’s.
            I will not use apostrophe’s to make plural’s.
            I will not use apostrophe’s to make plural’s.

            And then the irony police will come after you.

          • It’s OK. My new dart board is shipping by expedited service, so I’ll have 6 starter darts by the time they show up.

            And that ax in the basement.

          • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

            The irony don’t have police. All they have is half a dozen hipsters with waxed moustachios and ironic assault rifles.

          • Hm, I think those are my neighbors. I’d best not anger them. That said, on a Friday they may be neutralized by Pabst.

            “The Irony.” I like it. It’s like being the Furies or the Illuminati.

          • If you are the tall tree
            We are a small ax
            Waiting to cut you down,
            Sharpened to cut you down.

            —Bob Marley

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            “We are the Little Folk — We!
            Too little to love or to hate;
            But leave us alone and you’ll see
            How fast we can bring down your State!
            We are the worm in the wood,
            We are the rot in the root;
            We are the taint in your blood,
            We are the thorn in your foot…”
            — Rudyard Kipling, “The Pict’s Song”

            http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_picts.htm

  3. Turner’s beginning question is only a small step to “Where would God be without America’s megachurch pastors?

    • Faulty O-Ring says:

      Or TV evangelists. I could almost believe that Robert Tilton embodies some mysterious aspect of the Godhead, much like the plagues of Egypt or the Binding of Isaac.

  4. It appears the author missed one other God: The Internet Monk God, the God who looks skeptically on most denominations, but has a soft spot for the Orthodox church tradition and whose members feel a vague importance because of their wilderness wanderings. The definitely Calvinistic God who likes to mock those not amongst “the elect”. The Tea Party hating God who never passes up an opportunity to skewer Republicans but ignores the wackos in the other parties.

    As long as everyone else gets the treatment it only seemed fair to look in the mirror. And remember, no mirror give an exact reflection, they ALL have minor imperfections that distort the image of the looker. THIS looker’s vision is far from 20/20, in fact, it is slightly myopic and a tad jaundiced. So take this post for what its worth…not much!

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    But this book is meant not so much as a serious historical analysis (though it is certainly well researched) as much as it is a social and religious commentary.

    It’s not a historical treatise of Facts and Dates, it’s a Story.

    A long, wild, and crazy Story, with much laughter, crying, and weirdness along the way.

  6. This one is clever. Let’s kill him.

  7. David Cornwell says:

    I was just thinking this morning about how we in America are lucky to have a marketplace for everything on earth, and even those things transcending earth.We even have a marketplace to choose the God of our desires, personalities, wishes, and whims. We can choose the God of our liking, rejecting all who fall short. This is not true in much of the world. Choose the wrong God in Iran, Syria, or Iraq and you might end up beheaded. But here we pick and choose, and can even engineer one to suit ourselves, sort of a hybrid.

    I once heard a parent say something like this, when considering the alleged atheism of her teenage son: “I want him to believe in some kind of god, it doesn’t matter much what religion, just so he believes in something.” We don’t like the God of our parents? Make a new one, dropping off all those parts that make us nervous or afraid.

    I recently saw an advertisement by the Jesus Seminar on the Road entitled does “Does God Have a Future?” I suppose God will have a future if we just make him in our own little image.

    Maybe the better question would be: Do we have a future with our own little gods? Maybe we are not so lucky after all.

    • If God is really real — I mean real in the sense that if every sentient being in the physical universe dropped dead, He would keep on trucking and existing, even without anyone to believe in Him — then I would dare say that His future is secure. As to our future as a species and the future of American Christianity — well that’s a bit iffy and beyond the capacity of my pea brain to predict.
      I think it’s interesting that God introduced Himself to Mosses as “I Am Who I Am” — which seems to imply that who He is doesn’t have a dang thing to do with what human beings want or expect Him to be. Six billion people can have six billion unique conceptions and mental pictures about who God is, and, while I believe that He deals with us on a personal level, I don’t think our differing ideas, opinions, and beliefs about Him are causing Him to have some kind of divine identity crisis. When we see Him face to face, I think we’ll all recognize Him and at the same time be somewhat ashamed of the crude pictures of Him that we’ve drawn in our imaginations.
      As to how we get past our own preconceptions, our own reflections, and all the flashing lights of American culture to see God as He really is — I couldn’t tell you. I’m not there yet. I suspect, however, that the way there has something to do with maintaining a humble faith and a heart willing to love and serve Him, even while He’s deconstructing the god we’ve created in our heads.

  8. George Whitefield was proslavery, which is worth noting in light of yesterday’s post, as well as for many other reasons.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says:

      Agreed. I was really and truly shocked, when I attended a “prominent” Southern Baptist seminary to hear some professors say that it was absurd to consider a person’s position on slavery before appraising their theology (in the interest of fair disclosure, these were all old white men and the younger white men who could benefit their careers by parroting the old white guys). Of course, they were apparently willingly ignorant that 1) slavery is a theological issue and 2) you cannot justify slavery with the teachings of Jesus. I guess when you reduce Christianity to Penal Substitutionary Atonement, none of that matters.

  9. Martin Luther would have been horrified to read this book. I look on his appearance at the beginning of the Modern Era along with Herr Gutenberg and Captain Columbus as most fortuitous for me and everyone else. Where else can you get such a smorgasbord of trial and error learning in a 500 year period? Where else could folks have learned how to fly, to soar, on leaving the nest with so many examples to avoid of crash and burn? Still going on as we speak. Glad to be here. Exciting times. Buckle your seat belt.

  10. Steve Newell says:

    We like the generic “God” of American civil religion. We like to say “God Bless America” or “In God We Trust” or even “One Nation Under God”. However, would we be just as pleased to say “Jesus Christ Bless America”, “In Christ We Trust” or “One Nation Under Christ Jesus our Lord”? I would argue that many Americans would feel offended or feel uneasy about this. The generic “God” can be whatever you want it is what many people want, not the Triune God.

    • Yet who’d scream the loudest if these meaningless, generic phrases were removed from our currency?