Espresso Shots: Our Great Big American God, by Matthew Paul Turner

Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.

Do we, as Americans, really know God? Our Great Big American God, by Matthew Paul Turner seeks to answer that question. The history of America’s God follows the Man Upstairs through various manifestations and incarnations. Turner, author of such books as Churched, The Christian Culture Survival Guide, and Hear No Evil, explores the history of God in America. At first blush, the book comes across as an accessible popular history, shying away from an academic tone or overly dogmatic perspective. John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, the Moody Bible Institute, the Social Gospel, and the Prosperity Gospel all preach different aspects of the so-called America’s God.

Despite its aim towards a general readership, the perspective is rather narrow. Turner spends a majority of time on figures and institutions related to Calvinist Protestantism. Lutheranism and Catholicism receive cursory mentions and Mormonism not at all. Early on Turner asks, “How did the Puritans’ God become America’s God? […] [T]he most influential was the Puritans’ love for and dedication to Calvinism.” (For another look at the Puritan’s love for and dedication to Calvinism, read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.) When not hanging Quakers and punishing anyone who danced, played cards, drank, swore, or farted, the Calvinists were engaging in the most austerely unpleasant iteration of Christianity. No wonder the English kicked them out after the Monarchy was restored under the sybarite dingbat King Charles II.

While an entertaining read, Our Great Big American God suffers from a cripplingly narrow perspective and a monumental blind spot. America’s God has throughout history embraced slavery and condemned it, embraced capitalism and condemned it, embraced socialism and condemned it. Is America’s God an ever-changing entity, reflective of our culture’s changing mores, or, more realistically, simply an extension of charismatic egos, exploitation, and American gullibility for the latest fad and craze? Is America’s God a site of polysemic meaning-making or simply a meaningless void? If the American God can represent anything and everything (at the same time being against anything and everything), the entire enterprise becomes a useless charade.

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