Stephen Prothero

Our Great Big American God: A Review

By Derek Penwell

When teaching history, I tell my students about the exciting worlds we will inhabit for just a little while. Some of them give an almost silent “ugh!” complete with glottal stop. A couple of students will sit up a bit straighter, and look expectantly at me, as if I’m the storekeeper who’s just gone into the back and returned with a slightly dusty box of candy bars for which our earnest young inquirer’s have been searching, and about which they have despaired of ever finding. Some of them duck back down behind their laptops, doubtless sharing another YouTube video about a man on a motorcycle riding headlong into a fountain or a precocious armadillo who’s learned to play Fur Elise on a Snoopy piano. But most merely stare straight ahead, the vacuous look of sufferance or indifference; I always find it difficult to tell which.

Then, I ask, “How many of you find history boring?”

This question places them in an awkward position, since I’ve just told them that history is a large part of what we’re going to be doing. If they say “yes,” they can feel good about their honesty, but risk annoying, and thus potentially alienating, me. If they say “no,” in their minds they get to stay on the good side of the professor, but will be actively lying—a thing I believe most people still have a difficult time doing casually.

I want them to feel the awkwardness. Part of teaching centers on confronting the inertial challenges of boredom and resistance to learning. Awkwardness upsets the stasis, if only a tiny bit, allowing opportunities to engage their minds.

“History,” I continue, “is really only professional storytelling. Historians tell stories not just about dates, and battles, and great men, but about the stuff that made up the life of a particular people, in a particular time, in a particular place in the past, stories that attempt to disclose a glimpse of what things looked like, and to give a plausible account of why things turned out the way they did. Boring history amounts to poor story-telling. A good historian can tell the story in such a way as to make the Irish potato famine gripping. My job is to try to be a good story-teller, so that you get a sense not only of what happened, but why, after all these years, it’s important for you to know about it.”

Matthew Paul Turner, in my estimation, treats history the way I enjoy history to be treated—that is, as a good storyteller. In his book, Our Great Big American God, Turner traces the evolution of the American perception and presentation of God through America’s history. Beginning with the question posed by a friend, “Where would God be without America?” Turner’s sets himself the task of exploring the many ways that God has been used to advance various American projects, from the God of the seventeenth century Puritans all the way through the God of the Moral Majority.

Like Stephen Prothero’s, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon—which surveys the way Jesus has been a giant screen, upon which different eras have projected their ideals, Turner details the ways that God has been portrayed at the hands of American theologians and crackpots (sometimes indistinguishable) over the years. Turns out, God has had a pretty rough go of it in America, suffering the indignities of apparently having such a protean nature.

And while projecting onto God the desires and fears of a culture is nothing new, Americans, because of their enduring association with all things divine, have been amazingly adept at the marketing work of doing God’s branding work for the masses. God in the hands of angry sinners like Jonathan Edwards, for instance, gave us a vindictive and petulant deity, whose antipathy to human sinfulness was so pronounced that God apparently spends most of God’s time waiting expectantly to administer ever more creative methods of punishment and torture. In the hands of D.L. Moody, on the other hand, God became a commodity that, when properly advertised, was available for purchase by the hoi polloi.

Throughout the history of America, Turner examines the extent to which God has been called upon to fortify the spiritual and political prejudices of God’s followers. Those prejudices, as I’ve indicated, are varied and numerous. What remains consistent, however, is the theme “that God and America are usually sleeping in separate bedrooms. And it’s always America’s fault.”

This last quote brings me to my favorite aspect of the book: Turner’s voice. As I suggested in the beginning, good history is the product of good storytellers. Turner is just such a storyteller, one whose voice sounds both conversational and acerbic. His sarcasm (which I love) is always in the service of his story, not just a device to draw attention to itself—a common problem for those who employ it. The manner in which Turner tells his story never loses sight of the seriousness of its subject matter, but nevertheless communicates a playfulness that engages. While some folks won’t cotton to their history of the American God being served with a twist, Turner’s wit will be exactly the thing that draws in others who wouldn’t ordinarily spend time reading, what amounts to, a theological history of God in America.

And though I know it seems like in every “serious” book review some space needs to be set aside to establish the reviewer’s objectivity by providing at least some quibble, I don’t feel any particular need to do that … at least for its own sake. I will say without equivocation: I liked this book a lot, and you should buy it.

I will say, however, more for the purpose of edification than anything else, there was one thing I found slightly jarring. Presumably, the primary audience for a book like this is mainline clergy and the people who teach them in seminary. Oh, I know that the book will be read by Evangelicals and by laity; it will be read by atheists who have no particular theological dog in the fight, other than to observe with a modest amount of opprobrium the way American Christianity has put a hammerlock on the divine—and, by extension, the rest of a culture heavily influenced by that God. But for the most part, if we’re honest, the book’s biggest appeal is to my colleagues and me.

One thing we mainline clergy have been taught (at least those of us who began our theological education after sometime in the 1980s) from the first day in seminary is the theological problems with assuming divine masculinity as the standard for our own (at least as it appears to those outside the guild) parochial form of discourse. That is to say, we had it drilled into us that since referring to God with masculine pronouns serves to underwrite patriarchy by making normative a particular way of speaking, we should never—on pain of having our essays and exams graded severely with all the disapproval a red pen can muster—refer to God as “he” or “him.” It’s now a reflex with most of us, on the order of, but not quite as acute as, a racial or ethnic slur or a positive claim that Justin Bieber is a musical genius.

Objecting to the use of masculine pronouns for God sounds so very P.C. (I know. Get off my back already.) And I swear I don’t want to sound all fancy pants by bringing it up. However, I actually do think it’s theologically important. And, if the audience for a book is largely made up of folks sensitized to a particular way of speaking, it makes sense to observe slight adjustments to vocabulary, if only for the sake of etiquette.

[Update: I was alerted to a note on the copyright page in which Mr. Turner writes: "I have elected to use the masculine pronoun for God, not because I think that God possesses a gender, but for the sake of narrative flow and because all of the people I write about in this book refer to God using male pronouns." From this, it seems, we can conclude that while seminary taught me inclusive language, it didn't do enough to ensure my ability to read thoroughly. My apologies to the author.]

Having said that, though, let me once again enthuse: Matthew Paul Turner’s book, Our Great Big American God, is worth your time. As history goes, it’s good work. Not only does he get the facts right, he gets them right in a way that makes you care about the story he’s telling—a story he tells exceedingly well.