Our Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever-Growing Deity by Matthew Paul Turner
Loading our ice cream cones with such flavors as politics, race, hope, hell, and revival , the way people speak about God varies depending on their perspective. Matthew Paul Turner, in his new book Our Great Big American God, develops this theme as he traces the way ‘God’s American people,’ including the big players of the faith, portray God in light of their own aims. Turner writes in the prologue, “Because most of us believe, regardless of what we’ve piled atop our two scoops of God, that he – our American God – is good… This is not only a book about God, it is also about God’s people, more specifically, God’s American people” (9). With witty portrayals of such people as Phoebe Palmer and George Whitefield, sarcasm, and leaning on some excellent scholarship by such people as George Marsden, Turner makes his case that God doesn’t stagnate with the old dusty pages of the past but is ever moving, ever affecting America’s people.
Bringing God into the New World in 1630 wasn’t an easy task, even for elected governor of Massachusetts Bay Company, John Winthrop. Yet, as Turner indicates, “God wanted him to play the role of white European Moses and lead God’s people out of the Old World” (14). The Puritan enterprise was solidly Calvinistic in their theology but wholly bent on claiming the new land for theirselves. Weaving Israel’s story into theirs, Reverend John Cotton ‘stood with his Puritan brothers and sisters at the edge of the Jordan River and they had witnessed together their first sight of the Promised Americaland” (19). Turner goes onto make a very telling comment concerning Cotton’s leading of the Puritans into New England, he writes, “The truth of Cotton’s words didn’t matter. People believed they were true. Belief, under the right conditions, almost always trumps truth. And sometimes belief can manifest its own truth” (21). The divine destiny of fleeing the gross misinterpretation of God by English churches was enough to set the people sailing to the New World.
Turner captures the uneasy and unsettling nature of some of evangelicalism’s first preachers. Revivalist, preacher, salesman, preacher of the gospel, and bringer of God’s Word to the masses outside of church, George Whitefield imbibed both the experiential aspects of faith (mystic aspects) but also a strong strand of Calvinist theology. Yet, Whitefield was not so easily received among those who rejected his New Birth teaching, turning to tossing dead animals carcasses and tomatoes at him (74). Adding to this uneasiness about preaching, faith and national freedom, ‘a growing number of those same Christians had become vocal opponents of the state’s enforcing one particular Christian orthodoxy over another’ (79). Outlining the avowed efforts of Jefferson and Patrick Henry for the freedom of religious expression, Turner makes the remark that there has always been a razor thin line between nationalistic tendencies and what is considered divine (88). Yet, the colonies bolstered by the work of Jefferson managed to make religious liberty a freedom sought by the individual.
In the rest of the book, Turner captures the American spirit by bringing out the ministries of Phoebe Palmer, the early Methodist preachers such as Peter Cartwright, and the ministry of D.L. Moody, and the dispensationalism of Scofield and Darby. Turner is perceptive in bringing out the fact that Moody was as much concerned with the organization and financial state of the revivals he held as he was the spiritual lessons he taught. He also brings out the popular character of Methodist converters because of the individual nature of their spirituality and the interest in bringing faith to the masses.
Yet, I think also that Turner is prone to mischaracterizations throughout the book. He posits correctly that John Wesley was in adamant opposition to the predestination of such preachers such as Whitefield, but fails to mention that Wesley’s theology of justification and redemption was just a hair’s breadth away from Calvin’s. They agreed in much of what taught, differed in a few major lines of theological inquiry. Secondly, Turner says this about Calvin, “Calvin developed a new spin on God, a spiritual thinking about faith, sin, and Christianity that emphasized the doctrines of God’s sovereignty, predestination, and limited atonement, and the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures” (16). All these points are true but they are lacking in elaboration because a major significant part of Calvin’s work, especially all over the pages of the Institutes is his view on the power of the Holy Spirit. Further, although Calvin did make arguments in favor of limited atonement, this was not one of his central and significant tenets in his writings.
With wit and history at his side, Matthew Turner puts out a work in describing God and the American people that is both amusing and illuminating. I know you will find some things to agree with, disagree with, and ultimately to learn how God has shown up in the mess of countless people who followed him throughout the ages.
Thanks to Jericho Books and PRISM( Evangelicals for Social Action) for the copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.