Matthew Paul Turner’s “Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity” attempts to tell the story of how Americans’ perceptions of God have changed over the course of American history.
A SHORT HISTORY OF OUR EVER-GROWING DEITY”
Jericho Books/Hachette ($20).
Mr. Turner briefly traces the last 400 years of American history through the perspective of Christianity and its leaders. Many Christians believe that this is a history that has been molded and changed by God, but Mr. Turner attempts to answer a big question: “Has America changed God?”
Using humor, sarcasm and a fast-forward button through time, Mr. Turner traces the story of the United States and argues that American perceptions of God have changed dramatically — from the influence of the Puritans and staunch Calvinism, to the theological and pastoral work of Jonathan Edwards, the deism of the Founding Fathers, to the Great Awakening (parts one and two), the birth of the Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, and finally to the founding of the “Moral Majority” and the ecumenical impact of the work of Billy Graham.
Mr. Turner argues that various leaders and spiritual movements have altered and manipulated these perceptions of God to fit the economic and political needs of the time.
For Mr. Turner, “God” simply means Americans’ concept of God. At many points in the book, however, it is unclear to the reader whether or not there is a difference between God as God’s self and a concept of God, or if Mr. Turner is just using the two ideas interchangeably to make a point — that for a certain kind of Christian there is no difference between who God really is, and who we perceive God to be.
But Mr. Turner holds those cards close to his chest, never really discussing the difference between perception and reality, never really clarifying whether he is referring to isolated depictions or ontological truths.
I suppose, based on his random shots at religious sects, his sprinkling of sarcasm and his erratic tone, the reader is simply to infer that his use of the term “God” is meant not as a theological concept, but as a personal one, claiming that “[f]or good or bad, we are all molding God to reflect our own personal, American interpretation of Christian faith.”
And that is where the scope of this book begins and ends, with the Christian faith, which Turner claims more than three-quarters of the American public believes. He focuses on the main narrators of the Christian God’s story throughout America’s history, and these narrators, from John Winthrop to Billy Graham, have blurred the line between who they believe God to be and who God really is.
Mr. Turner says, “This is not only a book about God, it is also about God’s people, more specifically, God’s American people.” However, Mr. Turner does a far more thorough job describing the history and story of God’s American people than he does writing about God.
Yet this is no pure history. Mr. Turner infuses the summary of the development of Christianity throughout America’s history with brief moments of critique, sometimes scathing. Mr. Turner says, “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.”
This is a persuasive argument, and Mr. Turner tells a story that, when all the points are strung together, make it clear that certain Americans have used the name of God to further their political, social and economic ends.
These points, while when strung together present a very loud and convincing narrative, are not the whole story, and this is where Mr. Turner’s book left me wanting more. Though he is thorough in describing the perspectives of the major white, male — and occasional white, female — leaders in the Christian story in the United States, he leaves out the minority voices, the countercultural voices and those voices who, though few in number, dramatically changed the perspective of Christianity in the United States.
Such voices as Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, James Cone and Jeremiah Wright, among others, are left out entirely, while even Martin Luther King Jr. gets a mere cursory glance, and that only in the context of his relationship to Billy Graham.
Mr. Turner is his strongest when he writes with nuance, detail and historical evidence, and leaves the generalizations, sarcasm and sporadic interjections of humor aside.
When he does this, some very insightful reflections rise to the top. When he argues that it is part of our American psyche to make God “like a naked paper doll, one that free individuals could and would dress up into whatever Americanized deity they liked,” Mr. Turner’s critique of American Christian society becomes a call for serious reflection worth listening to.
Jennifer Frayer-Griggs is pastor at Greenfield Presbyterian Church and blogs her sermons at Jennsfaultlines.blogspot.com.