From “Our Great Big American God” to “Christless Christianity”

I have recently discovered the extreme value in reading more than one book on important topics; preferably from different angles. This is probably going to be a thing. Book reviews that cover two books at once.

great big american godOur Great Big American God: A Short History of Our Ever Growing Deity, originally struck me as a favorable read despite some initial objections to its liberal bent. I agreed with much of what Matthew Paul Turner had to say concerning the increasingly American presentation of the God of the Bible. More than that, it was pretty funny.

Turner’s description of believers he has encountered and known, with their extensive use of Christianese and shallow presentation of Biblical truth resonated with me. His description of his friend “Caroline” at the beginning of chapter 3, who described Jesus as her husband, and whose response to every bit of good news no matter how trivial, was a breathy “Praise Jesus”, and who response to every bit of bad news no matter how trivial, was an equally breathy “Help them, Jesus!” made me literally laugh out loud.  A lifetime in the church coupled with nearly 20 years of trying to deprogram and connect to a true and living faith rather than such caricature caused me to let my guard down while reading this book.

It was well referenced historically, and makes some valid points, but it ultimately fails to do what it set out to do, unless the end game was to mock conservative, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Oh yes, and to suggest that the gospel is all about social justice to the exclusion of any demand to live righteously. He has plenty to say against our Americanized version of the Faith:

Ronald Reagan loved borrowing the words of Winthrop to define America, something he did throughout his political career. But in 1989, during his final speech as president, Reagan sat in the Oval Office and explained his own vision:

The past few days when I’ve been at that window upstairs, I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.” The phrase comes from John Winthrop, who wrote it to describe the America he imagined….He journeyed here on what today we’d call a little wooden boat; and like the other Pilgrims, he was looking for a home that would be free. I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

Was that how John Winthrop saw it? It’s not that Ronald Reagan’s vision was particularly evil, but Reagan’s “city” is very much a nationalized idea. Winthrop seemed far too consumed with the pursuit of humility12 to cast such an American-focused ideal. As a Puritan, he certainly doused his “humble thoughts” with more than a dash of pride; still, he can’t have imagined an America that resembled anything remotely similar to the Godtropolis that Reagan (and Palin) seemed to visualize.

Or perhaps Reagan was right. Maybe Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” was indeed a municipality brimming with capitalism, patriotism, and a very liberal immigration policy. Lucky for Reagan, Winthrop never fully explained the details of his vision.

However, that is all he does.  If that was the goal, Mr. Turner succeeded, and in quite an entertaining style. Just as in the Ann Coulter book, the jokes and quips got tired. Turner, at least, is a decent writer. What he failed to offer was any view, Biblical or otherwise, of who the God of the Bible actually is and how we should rightly worship Him.

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christless christianityChristless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church by Michael Horton, is a another book which examines the state of the Christian faith as it has been tweaked and redesigned according to American sensibilities. Horton’s critical eye however, contains a much deeper sense of purpose and search for Biblical truth.

As such, despite reaching many of the same conclusions as Turner regarding slick marketing and self-esteem boosting theology,  Horton is clearly much more concerned with the health of the church going forward, and a return to sound doctrine. From chapter 1 (full chapter can be read here):

I think our doctrine has been forgotten, assumed, ignored, and even misshaped and distorted by the habits and rituals of daily life in a narcissistic culture. We are assimilating the disrupting and disorienting news from heaven to the banality of our own immediate felt needs, which interpret God as a personal shopper for the props of our life movie: happiness as entertainment, salvation as therapeutic well-being, and mission as pragmatic success measured solely in terms of numbers.

So, in my view, we are living out our creed, but that creed is closer to the American Dream than it is to the Christian faith. The claim I am laying out in this book is that the most dominant form of Christianity today reflects “a zeal for God” that is nevertheless without knowledge—particularly, as Paul himself specifies, the knowledge of God’s justification of the wicked by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works (Rom. 10:2, see vv. 1–15). Fourth, there are a lot of issues I would like to address about our American captivity that will not be taken up here.

Most of these issues I have treated elsewhere, especially in Made in America, Power Religion, and Beyond Culture Wars.2 The idols that identify the Christian cause with left-wing or right-wing political ideology are merely symptoms that Christ is not being regarded as sufficient for the church’s faith and practice today.

As the media follows the growing shift among many younger evangelicals from more conservative to more progressive politics, the real headline should be that the movement is going back to church to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ rather than becoming a demographic block in the culture wars. So my focus in this book is on whether Christ is even being widely proclaimed in the nation where half the population claims to be evangelical.

Horton takes an excellent turn at succinctly diagnosing the problem (p.71):

We are swimming is a sea of narcissistic moralism; an easy listening version of salvation by self-help.

Yes, that sounds about right. He calls for a return to a Biblical, accountable, creedal faith that first starts with acknowledging our need for repentance from sin.  He also offered quotes and documentation by clergymen from all corners, Reformed, Catholic, and Evangelical who agree with his diagnosis. Another good excerpt from chapter 2, page 63:

Jesus lamented that the religious leaders of his day were like children playing the funeral game and the marriage game, but they could neither mourn over their sins when John the Baptist came, nor dance in celebration at the arrival of the Son of man (Matt. 11:16-19). Similarly today, the preaching of the law in all its gripping judgment and the preaching of the gospel in all of its surpassing sweetness merge into a confused message of gentle exhortation to a more fulfilling life. Consequently, we know neither how to mourn nor how to throw a real party. The bad news no longer stands in sharp contrast with the good news; we become content with so-so news that eventually fails to bring genuine conviction or genuine comfort but keeps us on the treadmill of anxiety, craving the next revival, technique, or movement to lift our spirits and catapult us to heavenly glory. (emphasis mine)

Overall, an excellent book.

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7 thoughts on “From “Our Great Big American God” to “Christless Christianity”

  1. Have you ever read any Philip Yancy books, I think you would like them. He does a good job exposing the culture and returning to God and the bible.
    The Horton book sounds interesting, I think I’ll skip the first one though.

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  2. As it turns out, my dear sister Hearthie is reading the Michael Horton book, and is not viewing it through as favorable a lens as I have. So for the purpose of discussion, I changed the comment settings to allow her comments to get through without having to wait to be moderated by me.

    The reason being that if I’m not releasing them quickly, anyone else with a question or who has read the book can see how her thoughts contrast with my own.

    No one is reading this blog anyway, so I don’t figure it’ll hurt. Who does book clubs anymore these days when you have Facebook, LOL?

    And Jenny, I agree that you should skip the first book. It’s not at all your style. Nor is it (in retrospect) at all edifying.

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  3. The Horton book… ah. Well. I’m Arminian, and so I disagree with a good chunk of Horton’s conclusions.

    Positives: It presented the Gospel, presented it clearly and unequivocally. I hope that many unsaved read it, hoping for something like the first book on your list, hoping for more ammunition to use on Christians, and getting the Good News full blast.

    I agree wholeheartedly with both of the authors that our faith is being diluted and merchandized – and Horton’s diatribe about Osteen was a pleasure to read. I have heard of many a pulpit where nice morals are preached rather than the Word of God – and that’s terrible. We do have a deficit of Biblical literacy, and that should be addressed. We *need* to know what the Word of God says, and I agree that that is the business of the local church.

    But I’m neither Reformed nor a Calvinist, so I have theological bones to pick with Horton – and some literary ones as well. Horton, especially as the book wound on, failed to differentiate Biblical differences from differences in theological schools from a generalized weakness in the faith. I spent about two chapters wondering what Arminian churches he’d been in that had failed to preach the Word – my church preaches verse by verse, every Sunday. I spent a lot of time looking at things he found mutually exclusive and wondering why we couldn’t have it both ways, because IME many of his mutually exclusive bits aren’t.

    Another bone I’d pick is his distaste for self-feeding. Well, not everyone has the gift of growing up with good doctrine. Some folks show up at church entirely ignorant. Do you want to leave them “eating” only on Sunday? We are to study to show ourselves approved unto God – that’s *personal* study. One hour a week is simply not enough.

    Horton seems to find most of what is between Christ and the individual suspect – he sounds as if he’s about to cross the Tiber – there was a lot of business about the church being the mother of the faithful, the only place where you could get the means of grace, the only place where you should be fed… um. No. And what, exactly, is Biblically wrong with a personal relationship with Jesus, if He calls us His friends? I disagree, violently.

    So – this book has some beauty and truth, but it also has a lot that is muddied and confusing. I could deal with the theological differences if they weren’t presented as part and parcel of what Horton calls, “moral, therapeutic deism”. These arguments should, IMO, be separated out and dissected more clearly. I not only disagree, I found the arguments themselves a bit muddy.

    All that said – there is so much clear preaching of the Gospel here that I might recommend it to a non-Christian friend who was hoping for ammo *against* the Church, in the hopes that they’d come to faith.

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  4. Positives: It presented the Gospel, presented it clearly and unequivocally. I hope that many unsaved read it, hoping for something like the first book on your list, hoping for more ammunition to use on Christians, and getting the Good News full blast.

    Yes.

    I agree wholeheartedly with both of the authors that our faith is being diluted and merchandized – and Horton’s diatribe about Osteen was a pleasure to read. I have heard of many a pulpit where nice morals are preached rather than the Word of God – and that’s terrible.

    Amen, again.

    But I’m neither Reformed nor a Calvinist, so I have theological bones to pick with Horton – and some literary ones as well. Horton, especially as the book wound on, failed to differentiate Biblical differences from differences in theological schools from a generalized weakness in the faith.

    I didn’t really pick up on that, but in retrospect I can see why you say it. His general preference for a more traditional (historically speaking) approach to faith probably accounts for the conflation you noted.

    Another bone I’d pick is his distaste for self-feeding. Well, not everyone has the gift of growing up with good doctrine. Some folks show up at church entirely ignorant. Do you want to leave them “eating” only on Sunday? We are to study to show ourselves approved unto God – that’s *personal* study. One hour a week is simply not enough.

    Agree, but with the caveat that a lot of the confusion in the post modern church is a result of self-feeding translating into personal interpretation. It smacks of Christianity infused with too much rugged individualism.

    I’m all for personal study. It’s important but it needs to be accompanied by confirmation and additional counsel. There is far too much (to quote our friend Alte) “a boy and his Book” in Protestantism today.

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  5. I think that we see a lot of “a boy and his Book” because them boys get excited and talk a lot, but that in actuality, the serious students of the Word are few and far between.

    One thing I am reminded of (particularly in my objection to Horton’s preference for traditional, creedal, forms of Christianity and the Sunday-only feeding) is an experience one of my friends had when she moved back to the Bible belt. She sat down to lead a Bible study among women her (and our) age who had spent their entire lives in the church. Not one of them had ever read the Bible cover-to-cover for herself. Many of them couldn’t find some of the books of the Bible. The idea that they should be digging for themselves was foreign.

    And since Horton has a problem with the paucity of Christian education in the Word… it seems illogical that he’d have a problem with self-study.

    Now, I agree that we need wise counselors and more mature believers and well-educated pastors to help us with our crazy ideas. That’s certainly a function of the church, and an important one. We are commanded to continue to fellowship, to stay in a body of believers.

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  6. Like you, I was raised with a fairly thorough diet of Scripture memorization, Bible study, and a strong Biblical foundation. I still hear Bible verses in perfect KJV in my mental rolodex.

    But I also had a fair amount of wrong thinking and a misunderstanding of Scripture when I thought I had it down pat. I think this is what Horton was trying to do, however imperfectly: Strike that balance between the need for study toward growth without forgetting Paul’s admonition that we all “speak the same thing”, in 1 Corinthians 1:10. This is what I think of when I think of a creedal, traditional faith. Not cookie cutter execution, but a decided and confirmed truth on which all believers agree.

    The American church is one which largely focuses on felt needs, love as defined in terms of niceness, and living “our best lives now”, to crib from that horrible Joel Olsteen. Than necessarily colors the way we digest and interpret Scripture no matter how earnest we feel as we do it.

    That’s not to say I agree with Horton entirely (after all we’re not Calvinist either) but his argument is a strong one IMO.

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