I love reading books, and call me crazy, but I particularly enjoy reading books that frustrate me. The ones that frustrate cause wrestling in the heart, prompting me to take a closer look and figure out just what pushed my buttons. Our Great American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner is a book that did just that.
Reading Turner’s book was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. I read the title and sub-title, saw the absurdly white, squeaky clean family on the front and thought to myself, “THIS. I’m sure the wit and honesty of this is going to be glorious.” I was not entirely disappointed, considering the fact that Turner pulls no punches when laying out America’s history with God. My frustration, I admit, comes mostly from my own expectations that went unmet. I expected a feisty and balanced mix of American history and rich, theological debate. What I got, however, was a witty rendering of our history and our addiction of shaping an idea of God that will justify and upholster our hunger for power and more.
I do not disagree with Mr. Turner, as it would be bull-headed to ignore the obvious ways that we as Americans have evolved in our perception of the Christian God as deity, and more importantly, how that ever-changing perception has lead us to live as human beings with other human beings. Following with the rest of the tone of the book, Mr. Turner writes, “That’s what happens when God is left in the hands of angry people of faith. He becomes defensive when handled and shaped by our own self-importance. The big sovereign God that Christians usually boast about becomes a small and narrow-minded deity incapable of handling unorthodox ideas, at least not without humans helping him to carry the burden.” Now, remember, this is supposed to be sarcasm. I think that’s where I slipped up. I found myself becoming irritated at Turner’s apparent lack of respect for the Christian God, when in fact, he was making the dramatic point that American Christians do, in fact, use God as they damn well please.
I existed in a state of tension throughout the entirety of this book. I agreed with one paragraph, nodding in affirmative style, only to be flustered by the next. A prime example of this was Turner’s talk of Calvinism and the sovereignty of God. He frequently points out the contradiction between the American Christian’s beliefs and their actions. Reaching back to illustrate this point, he says, “It is interesting the lengths the Puritans were willing to go in order to protect God from outsiders. The very notion seems to contradict their firm belief that God was an almighty, in-control, sovereign-beyond-all-biblical-reason deity.” Head nodding all day long at that one. However, there were other sections where Turner completely demolishes (and by demolish, I do not mean “presented an intellectual argument against.” Instead, I mean “became annoyingly superior in his tone to the point of borderline bitterness.”) the notion of Calvinism. In one instance, I put the book down and said to my husband, “Is this book about American history and God, or is it just a ploy for him to blast Calvinists?” I was legitimately confused.
Regardless of your stance in any debate – predestination vs free will, complementarianism vs egalitarianism, etc – it is poor taste to make sweeping generalizations about all people who hold to the same view. Sarah Bessey wrote a blog post yesterday about peace-making, and a quote from her piece immediately came to mind: “Wherever people find themselves in their journey, am I creating pipelines or building bridges? Am I inviting my brothers and sisters further out into the holy and wild work of redemption?” In regards to Turner’s apparent fascination with demeaning those who hold Calvinistic views of salvation, I was not under the impression that he was committed to building bridges.
Like I said at the beginning, I enjoy reading books that frustrate me. For this reason, I appreciated Turner’s book because it acted as a mirror that forced me to look a little closer at my own heart. We are all influenced by our environments – culture, Christian leaders, the social atmosphere – but this is the wrestling that began in me: What is worth the fight? A co-worker recently chastised me about going soft. He said, “Where is the feisty Maggie I used to know who would put people in their place on Facebook threads?!” I guess I’m starting to weigh the fights – what’s worth it and what’s not. As Turner’s book suggests, many Christians feel that they have to protect God. And maybe that’s it. Maybe I’m tired of believing the lie that I have to protect God – as if He was not capable of doing that Himself.