In my youth I bought music with reckless abandon. My CD collection used to be prominently displayed on a hand crafted, wall-covering shelf like some hugely antlered deer. Once we started having children I relinquished the ‘man cave’ and moved my collection into more compact binders. (Which are now displayed next to my bed on a hack-job self crafted shelf.)
Now, thanks to quaint used book stores and never-ending digital book sales my book collection is catching up. I’ve even found space for a hand crafted, wall-covering shelf to display my physical editions in all their glory. (The CDs at least got listened too, but these books keep piling up unread.)
A few months back I decided to get my books in some sort of order. In the process I discovered LibraryThing.com. It wasn’t as flashy as GoodReads, but it was a geek’s dream….data, data, data everywhere! I paid a few bucks to join and got to cataloguing my books. Along the way I applied for a few books in their early reviewer program. I did have great expectations, but lo and behold I got picked for my first entry: Matthew Paul Turner’s ‘Our Great Big American God’. This was particularly exciting because Matthew is somebody I have follow online for some time. A few weeks later, Hachette books mailed me a nice hardbound and shelf displayable copy. I cracked the cover and dug in.
The thing I loved most about this book was Matthew’s wry, cheeky style. History is boring stuff and I’m not a fan of history books, especially religious history. However, this book was anything but dry. His wit and presentation style made even Puritan history seem fresh and exciting.
Our Great Big American God tackles American Christian history. Through each period of American history cleverly presents how those times helped evolve God. He gives a well researched account of God’s ever-changing face from the angry, separatist God that compelled the Puritans to conquer America to the slick corporate God of recent times who has an officially licensed chicken sandwich to sell you.
I was surprised to learn that the modern culture war is just an extension of the religious conflict that birthed this nation. Much of the rhetoric we hear today about ‘returning to God’ is nothing new in our history. And our past is rife with talking heads opining on the nature and desires of God for ‘His chosen people’. At each stage in our nation’s history God has been there, schizophrenically supporting every side of any given the debate, but standing exclusively with the victors.
One prime example of this is during America’s civil war. God joyfully supported slavery. Scripture taught His followers that slaves were to submit to their masters and institution of slavery was biblically accepted and unchallenged. God also vehemently opposed slavery. The overarching story of scripture informed His followers about the liberation of captives and affirmed the dignity of all people. So, God marched into battle wearing blue and waving the stars and bars. He also marched into battle wearing grey and waving a rebel flag. Perhaps it is not surprising that God’s position was more solidified after the bullets stopped flying.
Another frightening development in God’s character happened during America’s Gilded Age. Around 1860 a young man named D.L. Moody sold all of his possessions to work with the poor in Chicago. His willingness to live, eat, and be with the poor endeared him to those he ministered to. Over time D.L.’s ministry began to grow and instead of a few people his bible studies began to draw a few thousand. As his vision changed, so did God. Moody set off on several evangelism tours. To manage the increasing demands of such ventures he his ministry began to run like a business. “He galvanised into religions action church people in cities of millions….He organized his revivals like a corporate CEO, leaving little to chance. There were committees for everything — prayer, finances, Bible study, visitation, music, ushering, tickets, and an executive committee to supervise committees.”
Moody’s relatable style and knack for storytelling attracted poor, working class families. Unfortunately, this audience had no means to support Moody’s evangelistic ministry. Thankfully, their employers were more than willing to foot the bill.
When Moody railed against drunkenness, it positively effected job performance. He also began preaching against unions, shilling for ten-hour work day, and associating hard work with holy living. In one sermon he’s quoted as preaching
“Get something to do. If is for fifteen hours a day, all the better; for while you are at work Satan does not have so much chance to tempt you. If you cannot earn more than a dollar a week, earn that. That is better than nothing, and you can pray to God for more.”
Among Moody’s upper class sponsors were J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Cyrus McCormick. Why were these men so willing to fund Moody message to their workers? As Turner shares that these tycoons concern was their work force’s unrest in the crowded cities and crummy working environments. They believe that a little God could go a long way in developing a manageable work force. All it seemed God’s gospel of protestant work ethics and morality lacked was a bit of capitalist funding.
This book is fun, frightening, and enlightening. It’s empowering to see the roots of many aspects of the modern American Christian message. It allows us to name them, point to their origins, and rob them of any mystical power. I think it’s a great service that Turner has taken the time to research these moments and offer something outside plausibility structures most of us live in. The real power of this book, unlike most books, speeches, or sermons, is in its subtlety. By presenting us with the origins of some of our favorite pet theology, he asks us to move forward more gently. We must begin to realize that our beliefs about who God is, what God is like, and what God wants have not developed in a vacuum. We have not been entirely in control of what we believe, what our churches teach, or what we think we know about God. There is a long line of men and women who came before stretching back ages. They have each left their mark on our thoughts, practices, and rhetoric. The real power of this Matthew Paul Turner’s book is its quiet call for a more humble approach to certainty, the future, the past, and especially our great big American God.