God has an image problem. The question is, which God are we talking about?
There have been many manifestations of God over the last four centuries of American religious history, according to Matthew Paul Turner’s newest book, Our Great Big American God. MPT’s sweeping historical overview doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. That’s because nothing is sacred in this book.
Then again, when you’re writing about how we’ve continuously made and remade God in our own image, maybe nothing should be sacred.
From the Pilgrims to Jonathan Edwards and the creepiest children’s sermon ever… from the emergence of modern-day evangelicalism to the corporatization of God… MPT dismantles the popular, sanitized version of our history—one that depicts America as a shining “city on a hill” planted by God himself. The effect can be jarring at times, even for those of us who’ve long since grown suspicious of the sanitized version.
Take, for example, how Our Great Big American God demolishes the notion that the Puritans came to America for the sake of religious freedom in any broad sense of the term. In truth, they came for their own religious freedom. Once on these shores, they ruthlessly denied such liberty to anyone who believed differently that they did. As MPT concludes, they effectively turned God into a “controlling, state-run deity, the same God that had made England so impossible for them to endure.” Just ask Roger Williams. Or Anne Hutchinson.
A few chapters later, Our Great Big American God turns its attention to D.L. Moody, the father of mass evangelism and a forerunner of sorts to Billy Graham (though the oft-repeated story of a chain of religious conversions connecting the two men is largely untrue). Our Great Big American God doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Moody’s legacy: his uncomfortably close ties with the robber barons of the Gilded Age and how he openly preached against the labor rights movement—at a time when child labor was commonplace and the average worker toiled 10-hour days, six days a week in dangerous and often downright horrific conditions.
Our Great Big American God also traces the development of dispensational theology in the 1800s by men like J.N. Darby and C.I. Scofield, including the invention of the rapture. It directly connects dispensationalism to the American church’s failure at times to practice the kind of radical compassion embodied by Jesus and his first followers:
Darby’s ideas not only changed how America’s Christians thought about God and the Bible but also how they thought about the world. According to Scofield, Christians shouldn’t worry about “the reformation of society.” He said, “What Christ did not do, the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer.” Which is why so many of America’s Christians do little to improve American society, because why bother when Jesus is coming back?
If you find yourself cheering while MPT takes on someone else’s golden calf, just wait. He’ll probably tackle something that hits a bit closer to home before long. Like I said, nothing is sacred in this book. Reading Our Great Big American God was at times an unsettling experience for me. But the conclusion it points to should be unsettling for all of us:
That’s because all of us have fashioned God after our own image, to one degree or another.
God has become, in effect, “like a naked paper doll, one that free individuals could and would dress up into whatever Americanized deity they liked. Which is exactly what Americans have been doing with God all along.”
We think it’s God’s story we’re telling when, all too often, what we’re really doing is using God’s name to baptize or legitimize our own agenda. Which is why God so often ends up (conveniently enough) being angry about the same things we’re angry about and hating all the same people we hate.
The irony, of course, is that this leads to a smaller view of God, even when we think we’re proclaiming a big, all-powerful deity. Whether it’s the Puritans in the 17th century or John Piper in 21st, this is what happens “when God is left in the hands of angry people of faith.”
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… As hard as we try to demand that God be this or declare that God hates that, in the end, our actions often undermine our understandings about the sovereignty of God.
Our Great Big American God should prompt plenty of discussion and debate, to echo what Chaplain Mike said in his review for Internet Monk. But it should also prompt a fresh dose of humility—for all of us—in how we go about telling God’s story. Being confronted with the less savory bits of our religious history should remind us that maybe we don’t have God entirely figured out, after all.
To quote something Matthew Paul Turner shared in a recent interview with Bedlam Magazine:
If we really care about God’s story we would be more careful how we express it. We would approach it with gentleness and questions and humility as opposed to such confidence and arrogance that we are just absolutely convinced that we know what God thinks about this issue. I hope it gets people talking about our Christian history and how there are so many bits and pieces of our history that play out in the here and now. As we tell the story it would behoove us to consider the words we use.
Our Great Big American God is worth reading, even if it makes you squirm at times. Which it should.