Book review: Our Great Big American God

turner-great-big-coverOUR GREAT BIG AMERICAN GOD : a short history of our ever-growing deity, by Matthew Paul Turner. New York: Jericho Books, 2014. 241 pp. ISBN 9781455547340

This is a book about the history of Christianity in America, written by a young, white, evangelical blogger from Nashville, Tennessee. As best I can tell, Matthew Paul Turner (whom I’ll call Matthew in this review) gained a following online by blogging stories of his personal experiences as a believer, seasoned with irreverent, edgy humor.

One such episode kicks off this book: During a friendly debate, a friend of Matthew’s asks, “Where would God be without America?” He’s not being ironic. It’s an engaging anecdote about how nationalism can seep into the very foundations of sincere belief. I found it to include the most insightful of Matthew’s several attempts to define fundamentalism.

This opening dialogue with “Dave” (not his real name) also introduces Matthew’s willingness to use figures of speech that might offend some readers. Here’s one:

“Well, I don’t think anybody questions the fact that America and Christianity have shared the same bed from time to time. But I hate to break it to you, man, God gets around.”

Hilarious. And sloppy. Setting aside the question of how useful it is to portray God as a bed hopper, you’ll notice that Matthew has conflated “God” with “Christianity” in these sentences. This fuzziness about the meaning of the word “God” persists throughout the book. It can mean a concept of the Deity, or a strain of Christianity, a new form of worship, a “message,” or perhaps a sense of identity as a certain kind of Christian. Often it’s not clear what Matthew is thinking — for instance, when he writes that God in America, around the year 1700, “still smelled like a European.” (That phrase earned an eye roll from this reader.)

This book does presume some familiarity with terms such as “premillennial,” “postmillennial,” “charismatic,” and “prosperity gospel.” (That last term does get defined, eventually, but not the first time it appears.) For example, Matthew’s friend Dave is a “Christian Zionist,” and if you don’t know what that means, this book won’t help you.

Well, let me begin saying what I liked best about this book.

Anecdotes about believers

The initial dialogue with “Dave” was an entertaining way to raise some profound issues, and while it was irreverent, it also showed (I thought) a sincere effort to understand where Dave was coming from as he worked his way through a series of video lectures by one of the latest of many End Times preachers our nation has produced. As a southerner who has had similar intense dialogues with friends who are boiling over with Christian zeal (including one in Matthew’s hometown of Nashville), I thought this dialogue was a very promising start to the book. Going in, I already knew that not all “conservative” Christians think alike, and some of their bitterest fights are with each other. This stuff matters to me, and I looked forward to gaining some insight into the diverse cultures and perspectives of American Christianity.

That’s not what I got. True, there are a couple more anecdotes about believers — namely, “Caroline,” who calls Jesus “my husband” and invokes his name with every breath, and an unnamed couple in Chicago who were planning a public event starring the Holy Spirit. (“The more I listened,” Matthew quips, “the more the Holy Spirit sounded like a diva.”) Matthew makes good use of these anecdotes; for instance, he uses Caroline’s intense Jesus-speak as a counterpoint to the fact that the first generations of American evangelicals had remarkably little to say about the Son. They were all about the Father.

Matthew wants American Christians to understand their history a little better. More specifically, he wants to teach evangelical Christians about their past. This is not a history of “God in America” or even of the Christian God in America; it is a history of evangelical Christianity in America. Except for the charismatic sects (Pentecostals, Church of God, etc.) that compete with evangelicals for members and influence, most other denominations are an afterthought here. Even the Roman Catholics only attract attention here as the objects of evangelical prejudice, rivalry, and finally, political alliance.

I don’t really have a problem with this; after all, evangelical Christianity is a large enough topic for a book. I did expect some attention, though, to how evangelicals deal with an ever more pluralistic society, in which the fastest growing belief systems are apparently Islam and “none of the above.” The last chapter, “One Nation under Gods,” looked like it might be about that pluralism. Instead, it describes a schism within the right wing of evangelicalism: what Matthew calls a “Great Split” between the more “relational” God of Billy Graham and the biblical-literalist God of Graham’s reactionary critics. This “Great Split” was presumably bad for evangelical Christianity, although it coincided with a surge in evangelical growth and influence.

Pity the poor reader: Matthew presents us with two evangelical Gods, plus a third, Pentecostal God whom he remembers to tack on. There is a digression about a commodified GOD™ (spelled in all-caps, followed by a trademark symbol) who makes Matthew very angry. By now, the conceit of using the word “God” to mean almost anything related to Christianity has been stretched beyond the breaking point. An experienced editor could have been a great help here.

Hits and misses

Matthew’s free-wheeling style occasionally scores a hit, as in his summary of the difference between Arminian and Calvinist views on predestination:

“One side cannot fathom a God who cherry-picks souls that will go to heaven and souls that will go to hell, and the other side believes that God’s sovereignty over the eternal destinies of humanity (divine cherry-picking) only magnifies his glory, power, and honor.” (p. 98)

OK, that seems fair to both sides.

In other cases, though, Matthew’s style makes me wince. When I read of “a more tangible and hopeless narrative thread,” or of a movement “from providence to tragedy,” or of Christians being “slightly merciful” to a cause, or of two things that are ”morphed perfectly together,” I have to ask myself: Is he even trying to think of the right words? When I read of preachers “loading Jesus into the guns of soldiers,” I resent both the absurd image and the awkward way it’s expressed. These screw-ups aren’t just a matter of style. Even a few of the most polished, prominent passages are slipshod, confused in thought as well as language. Take the opening of Chapter 5: “God in America is a free spirit, a supernatural entity capable of being shaped to fit a variety of ideas… (l)ike divine Play-Doh.…” As usual, “God” is used here to refer to almost anything except God. Whatever that thing is, it is “free.” And in Matthew’s world, “free” apparently means “subject to the irresistible shaping influence of others; malleable.” I mean, what the hell?

His historical narrative is entertaining but unreliable. Most readers will probably figure this out for themselves; after all, a statement like “America’s most famous Christian slave owner was Patrick Henry” is so obviously untrue as to be dazzling. Other errors are more likely to be shared by readers, such as the assumption that 19th-century ”voices that supported abolition” were also for “racial equality.” This was true only of most black abolitionists; most white people who sought to abolish slavery also assumed that black people were inherently and permanently inferior.

Unfortunately this book shies away from racial subjects, which leads to an implicit bias toward whiteness that I am sure was unintended. For example, slavery and the Civil War leave almost no trace, even though the war forever changed American views of death and the afterlife. There is nothing about the “color line” that W.E.B. Dubois famously identified as “the problem of the twentieth century,” and nothing about the formation of racially segregated denominations within the ambit of evangelicalism. Matthew finds that “racism ran amok in the South,” but not anywhere else, apparently.

Describing the Azusa Street revivals that led to Pentecostalism, Matthew lets us know that these congregations did a remarkable job of overcoming race prejudice (which apparently did exist outside the South after all). But then, as the new church institutionalized, it also segregated. Why did this happen? Is it “natural”? It certainly is not, but Matthew seems unwilling to face the subject.

He does somewhat better at describing women who influenced the course of Christianity in America. Ann Hutchinson, the colonial dissenter, seems to be a favorite of his.

Mystified

Like a typical evangelical, Matthew has no idea what mysticism is. He is forced to try to describe it, though, because two of the founding fathers of evangelicalism, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and George Whitefield (1714-1770), were sincere mystics. In other words, each of them believed that he had, briefly, experienced God’s presence in a way that transformed his life, but this profound experience could not be recounted or explained with words.

These days, among evangelicals, such talk would get you funny looks at best. The only Christian mystics left in America are Quakers (and a few other, even smaller sects). Almost everyone else thinks mystical experience is the domain of “Eastern religions,” and therefore highly suspect, at least if you’re a conservative Christian. Certainly it has nothing to do with Christianity, right?

So immediately after calling Jonathan Edwards “one of the most misunderstood individuals in American history,” Matthew proceeds to misunderstand his mystical experience. In effect, he calls Edwards a liar, and an arrogant one at that. As for Whitefield (whose name sounds like “Whitfield”), Matthew treats the “Divine Light” he experienced as just another manifestation of the preacher’s ego. This cynicism seemed to me to stem from our young evangelical author’s discomfort with an unfamiliar subject. It’s true that Edwards, in particular, was a tragically flawed figure, and both he and Whitefield are easy to criticize. But Matthew commits a young man’s error in assuming that it makes sense to subject their entire careers to withering ridicule. After a while this kind of thing gets a little tedious. Sometimes it’s all that Matthew has to offer, and that disappoints me.

Mentioned with approval

There are some passages where I felt that this young writer had taught me something worth knowing. He does a decent job of describing the rise of dispensationalism, that bizarre end-of-the-world doctrine that plays such an outsized role in American culture. (The book lacks an index, so let me direct you to pages 133–143.) Matthew’s discussion of John Nelson Darby and his disciples won’t sway any convinced fundamentalists, but for me it shed some gentle light on a subject that is usually vexing. It may give some readers pause to realize that what we have been taught about the Last Days and the Second Coming is nothing like what was believed by, say, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.

The discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr, from Missouri, is another of the book’s gems. (It concludes Chapter 8, pp. 163–66.) I sensed that Niebuhr has been very important to the author and that he was probably trying to keep his own feelings and opinions out. Maybe he should have let them in.

Matthew Turner has a fertile imagination and a quick wit. As a faithful Christian of the so-called Millennial generation, he manifests some restless discontent with the noisier forms of postmodern Christianity: the Jesus-themed merchandise, the fire-and-brimstone video performances, the arrogant “Messianic consciousness” denounced by Niebuhr and others. He clearly enjoys irreverence and mockery, perhaps because it helps protect him from genuine commitment or engagement with opponents. When he writes about God and America “exchanging DNA” in a drawn-out love affair, or about how “God lost fair and square” at the Scopes trial, any ensuing controversies are liable to stay on the level of language.

As a result, what might have been a cogent critique of the practice of Christianity in America instead merely expresses a mood of restless dissatisfaction, mixed with cynicism and a (subdued, but unmistakable) sense of superiority. The book is something like a political tract to rouse the base, in that the message will probably only reach fans. A young conservative evangelical reading this book would find much to distract or offend, even more to mistrust, and little to challenge his or her received beliefs.

It seems best to conclude this review with a list of some of the books most often cited by Matthew Turner in footnotes. He also mentions them all with approval in the text of his book.

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