These days I don’t review as many books as I have in recent years. After reading 50+ books a year for a couple of years I found myself burnt out. I’d built up a good reputation in the publishing world and even moved into the top tier of the Amazon book reviewers. I had a constant stream of Christian books being delivered to my doorstep without me having to request them. One author even asked me to write a blurb for the front of her book, along with other well known ‘names.’ I was enthralled with myself. I read her book, wrote a few well-worded sentences, and sent it to her and her publisher. When my promised, published copy came in the mail my name, and statement, had been left out. I realized it hurt too much, and that this silly reviewing game was more about sales and popularity than it was about the message of the books.
I divorced myself from my marriage with these publishers and instead found a job where I actually earned money to review fiction and literature. While I wasn’t going to make a fortune or get famous, I still appreciated getting paid to read the latest Stephen King novel and interpret it for my Christian culture audience. The job lasted a couple of years until that website folded. Since then I have only reviewed items that really interested or inspired me- which sadly to say, hasn’t been many.
About a month ago I saw that author and blogger Matthew Paul Turner had a new book coming out. I’ve got to know MPT a bit through the years. It was actually his first, big release, “Churched” that started me reviewing Christian books. I had heard him interviewed on a podcast in 2008 and personally connected with his stories of growing up churched. I pre-ordered his book and when it arrived a few weeks later I stayed up late reading it all in one sitting. The review I wrote wasn’t all that spectacular (I compared the book to an Oreo cookie), but since I laughed through the book, and gave it to my kids so they could understand my churched upbringing, I thought I’d message MPT and find out what else out there was worth reading. He gave me some great connections and I was off and running.
In 2010 MPT followed up his collection of stories about growing up in the church with a follow up book about his time in college and in the Christian music industry. The book was titled “Hear No Evil” and my review is still listed as “The Most Helpful” on Amazon’s website (6 out of 7 readers of my review agree!). Both of these books offers insight into my generation’s maturity through Christianity, fundamentalism, and pop culture. Did I mention his books are funny?
So even though I’m in semi-retirement from the Christian book reviewing circles, upon my request MPT graciously sent me an electronic copy of his latest book, “Our Great Big American God.”
Good Heavens, I read this one again in the space of 24 hours!
Dear God, when did Matthew grow up?
Instead of the Christian, biographical stories of his own past (as he did in Churched and Hear No Evil) in his newest book Matthew Paul Turner refocuses his attention to the biography of God since the time he crossed the Atlantic to establish Himself in His new Promised Land. America was the land of opportunity and God needed a fresh start from His messy history in Europe.
We often hear broad, sweeping generalities from pontificating politicians and preachers pounding pulpits that the United States needs to return to the God of our forefathers and/or we need to return our nation back to God as it had been originally established. But upon honest reflection, do we really know what that means? The question Turner asks in his book is, “Who is the God of American Christianity?”
Turner has done his due diligence to research the journey of the American God starting from the Puritan perspective and the Calvinist influence of the early colonists. His chapter on Jonathan Edwards, who Turner believes is ‘one of the most misunderstood individuals in American history,’ is worth the purchase price of the book alone.
Turner then covers George Whitefield and the Great Awakening and some of the perceptions of our country’s Founding Fathers. While he doesn’t attempt to answer the question of whether or not the birth of America was divinely inspired, he does a good job of painting the historic worldview of that time and how it has affected us ever since.
Preachers, theologians and the laity don’t interpret God in a box, nor do they use just scripture. Their views of economics, poverty, social justice, war, slavery, civil rights, feminism, sexuality and politics color the way they see God, and the way they see God affects the way they approach economics, poverty, social justice, war, slavery, civil rights, feminism, sexuality and politics. Turners addresses these factors as his chapters take us through America’s movement away from a Calvinistic God, mostly because of the influence of Methodist ministers. Already the American religious culture redefined God to be something significantly significantly different than their one forefathers.
Is this the God we should return to? Turner reminds us (again with thought provoking research) that at this time of American history we were still a country that supported slavery, which was backed up by some of our most revered, Christian-American heroes. From their perspective they had the Bible on their side. Turner explains, “How a Christian views and understands that Bible will dictate not only his or her worldview but, more importantly, how they interact with the worldviews of other people.” And this really does become a crux in the matter of knowing who God is, as our history with Him has been to subject to our interpretation of scripture. Again, Turner – “Much of America’s big God isn’t about God at all; it’s about the Bible. For many Christians, the Bible is God – the Word in Flesh, translated into English, and printed on pretty paper.” And yet, as we read our own history we have to face how many times our interpretation of Scripture (and thus our interaction with God) has changed over, and over, and over again.
And from there Turner takes us to the birth of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and the marriage of religion with marketing and presentation. We get to see D.L Moody and Billy Sunday at their best, and at their worst.
He also addresses the impact that dispensationalism view of scripture made on our culture by Darby and Scofield. Even though this theology is so relatively new, the concept and resulting focus on the End Times, and the creation of the Rapture is in some American circules presented as having been as old as Noah himself. A good portion of my friends still view God, the world, the nightly news, and the happenings in the mid-east through the Scofield footnotes found in an authorized King James Bible.
America’s God didn’t stop on our shores, instead once He established Himself here He decided He wanted to take the American version of Himself to other countries. Our missionaries have often taken more than just Jesus to foreign fields. Often our clothing, culture and politics have been almost as widely preached. Turner takes us back to observe this history and these decisions.
And before closing the book the author addresses the history and practices of the Moral Majority, the role of organized religion and a God who is consumed with American politics. He also gives an overview of the journey of Billy Graham (some of which was very new to me), including his split from some of his fundamentalist friends. He also includes the significance of the Pentecostal influence, which I found particularly interesting because of my own church history, and how it led to ‘health and wealth’ interpretations of the Gospel, and of God.
For those who enjoy Turner’s writing style they will be happy to know that Turner is still Turner. He hasn’t got over his personal frustration with Calvinism (but if you were chosen to survive it, how can you blame him?). His writing is fresh and makes this book about an interesting topic a very easy and enjoyable read. He also provides plenty of footnotes so those who would like to jump into the research themselves have a good place to start.
Turner leaves us with a couple of important questions, “Dear God, who are you in the context of America? Are we a Christian nation, and if so, what kind/brand of Christian nation is it?” And though we may have thought these answers were obvious with our rendering of a Great Big American God, the reading of the book may leave us as better and more honest Americans than before – even if God isn’t wearing our great grandfather’s Uncle Sam outfit.
More than ever it looks like the American Jesus needs a new public relations team.
“Our Great Big American God” is released on August 19th and is available now for pre-ordering.