I have recently discovered the extreme value in reading more than one book on important topics; preferably from different angles. This is probably going to be a thing. Book reviews that cover two books at once.
Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever Growing Deity, originally struck me as a favorable read despite some initial objections to its liberal bent. I agreed with much of what Matthew Paul Turner had to say concerning the increasingly American presentation of the God of the Bible. More than that, it was pretty funny.
Turner’s description of believers he has encountered and known, with their extensive use of Christianese and shallow presentation of Biblical truth resonated with me. His description of his friend “Caroline” at the beginning of chapter 3, who described Jesus as her husband, and whose response to every bit of good news no matter how trivial, was a breathy “Praise Jesus”, and who response to every bit of bad news no matter how trivial, was an equally breathy “Help them, Jesus!” made me literally laugh out loud. A lifetime in the church coupled with nearly 20 years of trying to deprogram and connect to a true and living faith rather than such caricature caused me to let my guard down while reading this book.
It was well referenced historically, and makes some valid points, but it ultimately fails to do what it set out to do, unless the end game was to mock conservative, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Oh yes, and to suggest that the gospel is all about social justice to the exclusion of any demand to live righteously. He has plenty to say against our Americanized version of the Faith:
Ronald Reagan loved borrowing the words of Winthrop to define America, something he did throughout his political career. But in 1989, during his final speech as president, Reagan sat in the Oval Office and explained his own vision:
The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined….He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.
Was that how John Winthrop saw it? It’s not that Ronald Reagan’s vision was particularly evil, but Reagan’s “city” is very much a nationalized idea. Winthrop seemed far too consumed with the pursuit of humility12 to cast such an American-focused ideal. As a Puritan, he certainly doused his “humble thoughts” with more than a dash of pride; still, he can’t have imagined an America that resembled anything remotely similar to the Godtropolis that Reagan (and Palin) seemed to visualize.
Or perhaps Reagan was right. Maybe Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” was indeed a municipality brimming with capitalism, patriotism, and a very liberal immigration policy. Lucky for Reagan, Winthrop never fully explained the details of his vision.
However, that is all he does. If that was the goal, Mr. Turner succeeded, and in quite an entertaining style. Just as in the Ann Coulter book, the jokes and quips got tired. Turner, at least, is a decent writer. What he failed to offer was any view, Biblical or otherwise, of who the God of the Bible actually is and how we should rightly worship Him.
Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton, is a another book which examines the state of the Christian faith as it has been tweaked and redesigned according to American sensibilities. Horton’s critical eye however, contains a much deeper sense of purpose and search for Biblical truth.
As such, despite reaching many of the same conclusions as Turner regarding slick marketing and self-esteem boosting theology, Horton is clearly much more concerned with the health of the church going forward, and a return to sound doctrine. From chapter 1 (full chapter can be read here):
I think our doctrine has been forgotten, assumed, ignored, and even misshaped and distorted by the habits and rituals of daily life in a narcissistic culture. We are assimilating the disrupting and disorienting news from heaven to the banality of our own immediate felt needs, which interpret God as a personal shopper for the props of our life movie: happiness as entertainment, salvation as therapeutic well-being, and mission as pragmatic success measured solely in terms of numbers.
So, in my view, we are living out our creed, but that creed is closer to the American Dream than it is to the Christian faith. The claim I am laying out in this book is that the most dominant form of Christianity today reflects “a zeal for God” that is nevertheless without knowledge—particularly, as Paul himself specifies, the knowledge of God’s justification of the wicked by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works (Rom. 10:2, see vv. 1–15). Fourth, there are a lot of issues I would like to address about our American captivity that will not be taken up here.
Most of these issues I have treated elsewhere, especially in Made in America, Power Religion, and Beyond Culture Wars.2 The idols that identify the Christian cause with left-wing or right-wing political ideology are merely symptoms that Christ is not being regarded as sufficient for the church’s faith and practice today.
As the media follows the growing shift among many younger evangelicals from more conservative to more progressive politics, the real headline should be that the movement is going back to church to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ rather than becoming a demographic block in the culture wars. So my focus in this book is on whether Christ is even being widely proclaimed in the nation where half the population claims to be evangelical.
Horton takes an excellent turn at succinctly diagnosing the problem (p.71):
We are swimming is a sea of narcissistic moralism; an easy listening version of salvation by self-help.
Yes, that sounds about right. He calls for a return to a Biblical, accountable, creedal faith that first starts with acknowledging our need for repentance from sin. He also offered quotes and documentation by clergymen from all corners, Reformed, Catholic, and Evangelical who agree with his diagnosis. Another good excerpt from chapter 2, page 63:
Jesus lamented that the religious leaders of his day were like children playing the funeral game and the marriage game, but they could neither mourn over their sins when John the Baptist came, nor dance in celebration at the arrival of the Son of man (Matt. 11:16-19). Similarly today, the preaching of the law in all its gripping judgment and the preaching of the gospel in all of its surpassing sweetness merge into a confused message of gentle exhortation to a more fulfilling life. Consequently, we know neither how to mourn nor how to throw a real party. The bad news no longer stands in sharp contrast with the good news; we become content with so-so news that eventually fails to bring genuine conviction or genuine comfort but keeps us on the treadmill of anxiety, craving the next revival, technique, or movement to lift our spirits and catapult us to heavenly glory. (emphasis mine)
Overall, an excellent book.