Summary: A romp through American religious history with a bit of humor and cynicism, but a lot of serious questions about how Christianity has changed on American soil.
This is the third book that I have read by Matthew Paul Turner. The first two were memoirs, of his childhood in a Fundamentalist church and how music (and his work in the Christian music industry) affected his faith and world. Both were good, but this is the best of the three books I have read.
Matthew Paul Turner is one of those authors that people tend to say, ‘I don’t agree with everything he writes, but he is worth reading.’ Turner is a gadfly, one of those prophets that are not always comfortable to listen to, but still important.
I think Matthew Paul Turner is what you would get if you mixed Sarah Vowell, Jon Acuff and Frank Schaeffer. And that is someone worth paying attention to. He mixes real understanding of history and how it relates to today, a good bit of humor and the hard truths that usually are not said to insiders.
Our Great Big American God is a religious (primarily Evangelical) history of the United States, from the Puritans to the weakening of the Religious Right. Turner spends much of the time of this book pointing out innovations in Christianity that have become part of standard Evangelicalism. Evangelicals tend to be weak in Christian History and just don’t realize that what they think is standard within all of historic Christianity is a recent innovation. (Turner is not saying all innovation is bad, just trying to point out that as we innovate, we are actually changing the way we relate to God.)
For instance, Turner points out that premillennial rapture theology of Dispensationalism is only about 150 years old. Or that the language of ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ is not much older. Some of the most important parts of Evangelical’s faith tend to be some of the most recent innovations.
The book opens with an account that probably started as a slip of the tongue but ended up being defended. A friend of Turner’s was talking about how much America had helped God. And as silly as it is when you think about it, I think there are many that probably do feel that way.
That slip seems to have a long history. The Puritans appropriated God’s adoption of Israel and seemingly claimed America as a replacement child for Israel. Mixing of nationalism and theology continued throughout much of US history and the history of evangelism and Evangelicalism.
It is hard to criticize the cynicism of the book. There is much to be cynical about. But as with many cases, those that most need to know and understand this book will be the ones that are most offended by it. It was rare that I went more than a couple pages without a, ‘but that is not the only way to think about…’. And I am pretty much on Turner’s side. While there are other ways to think about many of these issues, Turner is right to point out that there are many that have thought about them in the exact way he is pointing out.
The main issue that I am uncomfortable with (but understand why he does it) is how he intentionally conflates God and Christianity. Throughout the book, Turner talks about how ‘God was changed by America.’ When really what was happening was America was changing Christianity. I get Turner’s point and I even mostly agree with it. But what is changing is the way we think of God (theology) and the way we react to God (practice) and the way we present God (evangelism) not God the actual deity.
What I appreciate is that while Turner’s standard targets are on prominent display (Turner really does not like Calvinism or political appropriation of God) he does not gloss over the problems of those that he is more likely to agree with. And he does not universally condemn anyone. There is a lot of admitting that much of the problems that he is pointing out were done out of real conviction and probably some necessary course corrections of Christianity. The problems come when the swing goes too far. And it is certainly true that honest conviction does not trump bad theology.
One minor problem with the book is that on the kindle version, none of the notes are formatted correctly. If formatted correctly then they would come up on screen without jumping to the endnotes. Or if formatted using the older standard, clicking on the footnote would move you in the book to the endnote. But these were not properly linked at all so you could not get to the endnotes without going to find them yourself. In a paper book that is not a big deal, in a kindle book that is a problem. And especially in a book like this where a skeptical reader is going to not trust some of the research.
Turner is not a historian himself. He is a writer that uses historians. So he is forever quoting Marsden, Noll and other prominent historians of US Christian history. That can be a bit tedious, but it is necessary for a book like this that is popularizing history. Noll and Marsden and others would not put things the way that Turner does, but I don’t think he is misstating any history. And having read several books by both Marsden and Noll, they don’t mince words about some of Christianity’s failings either.
So with some caveats, I think this is a book worth reading and worth reading generously. If nothing else, this is a book that should be read to understand why many younger Evangelicals have become cynical about the ability of Evangelicalism to sustain Christianity into the 21st century.