Book :: Our Great Big American God

Somehow I avoided Church History and still got out of seminary with a degree. This year, however, I’ve found a rising interest in the topic. When I burned out of Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation around page 150 (halfway through Chapter 2), I was looking for something a little more digestible. It was then that I discovered Matthew Paul Turner’s Our Great Big America God (in stores Aug 19).

For the last decade, Turner has developed a strong voice in Christian circles through his blog and over a dozen published books. Perhaps a bit liberal-leaning for some, he has still managed to carve out a significant niche of followers. His latest work is very much ideologically in line with what he has presented throughout his career – though this work takes on a much more academic bent.

Our Great Big American God, tracks the development of the idea of God throughout the past four centuries of American history. Beginning at Plymouth Rock and travelling all the way to present-day America’s Christian subculture, Turner looks at the personalities, denominations, and cultural beliefs that have shaped America and her people’s view of God.

The book begins by asking an often-unspoken – but no less pointed – question:

Can the God of American Christianity be both the God of the Quakers and the God who is worshiped by gun-fanatical evangelicals? Is God pro-life or pro-choice, pro-birth control or pro-natural family planning, pro-war or pro-peace, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, pro-gay or pro-straight?

Never making a specific argument for or against any particular position, the author tells the story of God in America and how diametrically opposed sides – all earnest in their theology and hermeneutics – have argued their position as being “God’s position.”

While Turner never makes an explicit statement of his personal position on any of the topics that he discusses, his personality certainly comes through. Those familiar with his work will recognize his style in the writing itself. Those who are unfamiliar will likely find themselves put at ease and drawn in by the way he turns a topic that could be overly academic into something thoroughly engaging and relevant. Chapters often open or close with present-day contexts or the implications of the movements discussed within the chapter.

Some may feel that the overall tone of the book is a bit skeptical, those who know the author however will know that his skepticism comes from a place of deep love for the Church. As he said in the interview I conducted with him “I didn’t write a book for ‘progressive Christian thinkers.’ It’s written by a progressive thinker and so that’s there, but I tried to keep it on a leash.”

As I read, I found myself quite astounded and never wanting to put the book down. Despite my background of Christian school and seminary, much of the content was new to me. Specifically of interest were portions that outlined closely held evangelical doctrines that were shown to be relatively young relative to the history of Christian faith (see specifically portions regarding John Nelson Darby). I suspect that many life-long church-goers will find themselves surprised by some of the behind-the-scenes drama American Christian heritage.

I’ve been talking to people about this book for the last two months and I’m so glad that it’s finally available. This is easily my book recommendation of the year. It is insightful, funny, and heavy; encouraging, challenging, and heartbreaking at times. It’s a book for everyone in the Church. Truly, “must read.”

Interview :: Matthew Paul Turner

I had the chance to interview prolific blogger and author Matthew Paul Turner on the topic of his new book Our Great Big American God (out 8/19) on behalf of

Ryan Brymer (Faith Village): How would you, in a nutshell, describe the book – what it is and what it’s for?

Matthew Paul Turner: It is America’s telling of God – 400 years of history of the denominations, the people the events. How we have shaped the perception people have of who God is, how God works, what God does, what God doesn’t do, what God loves, what God doesn’t love. And how we have combined and mixed the God-story into our very American story. How we’ve mixed the details to make it work for us.

People have asked why I didn’t cover the Mormons or the Seventh Day Adventists. I really wanted to focus on the familiar, the mainstream. I wanted to write about the threads that people were somewhat familiar with. Anything outside of that could be tossed away as a potential fringe or something that is not as relevant to the context of the book. The Mormon part of the story is not as relevant to the context of the book as the Presbyterian part of the story.

RB: This book is a bit different from what you’ve written in the past. How much research went into it and how long did you spend in researching and writing it?

MPT: Well, I came up with the idea at the very beginning of 2012. I researched for most of 2012 and beginning of 2013 – so a year and a couple of months. Then I started writing and I wrote for about a year.

What was different about this book than some of my other titles is that with those I didn’t necessarily know where the stories were going beforehand – even though they were my stories. So, it was really refreshing to tell other people’s stories and just put bits and pieces of my opinions in between at certain times.

So, it was about two and a half years from start to finish. I’ve written four books in six months before, so yeah, big difference.

My last book came out in 2010 and then I took some time off to just re-asses where I fit into the faith publishing world. It’s a world in which you can get in trouble as much for what you don’t say as you can for what you do say. Christians love to laugh, but they want the laughter to lead them somewhere. So after my first two memoirs and college tours I really had to go back and figure out what I bring to the table and how could I continue to be myself and still fit into this world that is the only world I know.

RB: So, what drew you to such a different topic?

MPT: At the time I was reading a book by Sarah Vowell called The Wordy Shipmates – a book about Puritanism. And she is hysterical in it and brings her own personality. I was just blown away by the drama that played out among the Puritans over the course of 60 or 70 years. She didn’t go into any of the years after the Puritans and I just started to wonder “how did we go from that Puritan experience to where we are now?” So, I started to do some research and explore whether or not anyone written about this before. Of course, many have written about America’s Christian history, but none of them had written about how we’ve shaped the story of God to fit into whatever our experience was and how that happened.

There’s a reason why people think that we are a Christian nation. And there’s a reason why we aren’t. But there are so many evangelicals that know what they believe, but they don’t necessarily know the story that got them to what they believe. There are very few people who engage God in a Reformed way the way that the Puritans engaged God. And why is that?

The Puritans believed that they were 100% right. The Pentecostals believe they are 100% right. And the Baptists believe that. And the neo-Reformed believe that. Most of us don’t go into the story of God thinking that we could be wrong – but we probably should.

RB: With all of the research that went into this, how did you balance being academic and being engaging, while bringing the tone and wit that you are known for?

MPT: I assumed that most people view history as boring. I figured that the average person was not going to pick up a history book, so my goal was to keep the story moving, highlight certain aspects of a person’s life and belief, but never go into a story without really doing it justice. I couldn’t just write a few paragraphs about Jonathan Edwards. I had to dive into Jonathan Edwards. I had to consider his whole life and figure out why so many people found his message so unique, special, brilliant. Why was he considered America’s greatest theologian? There was a reason for that.

I definitely wanted to present the story as it happened, but do it in a way that was not so heavy and thick with historical facts presented as such. So, bringing it into the here and now – showing people how it plays out today. What was fun is that I didn’t feel the stress to be funny on every page or in every paragraph. I was able to stick to the story and where it naturally felt funny I put it there. There were certainly times where I forced it and my editor called me on those spots. But I really tried to let the story tell itself and for me to be a decent narrator who was engaging.

RB: You said before that you had an idea of where you were going from the beginning. Where did you see the story going and what surprises did you encounter or what did you learn along the way?

MPT: I felt really far more certain of how God is perceived today, even though it is much more diverse than it has ever been in history. I certainly understand the culture of today. So I knew where the story was going to end up. My goal was to not allow that knowledge to shape the story of getting there. I really wanted the reader to discover how the story shaped what we have today. There are moments, as I read the book back over, that I get a glimpse of God in the 21st century while looking at a Methodist circuit-riding preacher in 1818.

Were there surprises? Yes. Honestly, I had never heard of the Cane Ridge Revival. It was such a grandiose and influential experience. I was blown away by how much influence that one festival had on what happened in the years that followed. The fact that it sparked many more revivals all over the country. The fact that many people went there as Reformed thinkers and they left there as non-Reformed thinkers. The fact that it was one of the first times where Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians all sat down beside one another and did something as a unified group.

Then, also, the rise of Methodism. There was a time in history when the Methodists employed more people than the postal service. That just blew my mind.

And to meet these people – even when I disagreed with them – who were riding horses and running into towns and getting people to confess of their Calvinism the way they would eventually get them to confess of their drinking or sexual sin. And they were going in and getting people to give up their Calvinist way of thinking. That was a big surprise.

Also, the Gilded Age. It’s our first glimpse of the America we see today. It was an America built on enterprise and celebrity. An America that was built on a population that was fascinated by wealth. All these rich, famous people. And the opposite side of that coin and its effects. When someone was making several million dollars a year, there was another person sinking deeper into poverty. And to see how God was weaved into that story.

The story of D.L Moody. I mean, he might as well have been a prophet in my church. We had pictures of him on the wall. Pastors would tell stories about him. We heard about him working in the shoe store and giving up everything. He only had a 4th grade education. And he went on to become a very influential evangelist. I’m not sure that he intended it, but to see how his ministry morphed into where he was making demands. Not going into a city unless they built a building for him. Working alongside these rich investors. Really extending and using his simple way of telling the Gospel to help them motivate their workers to not join the labor movement. It’s really fascinating. And to see how many of the things he put into place while running a convention or a conference or a revival – how many of those details are still used today. Systems that were used by Billy Sunday and Billy Graham and even now used by conferences where Rick Warren speaks. So to see the influence of him on even the idea of the altar call was really great.

Then to explore the great divide in Fundamentalism. In the 20th century there was this great divide between moderate Baptists and Fundamental Baptists. It came down to these two great men: Billy Graham and John R. Rice. There was so much more drama that I really would have liked to have included. Here were these two men leading two groups of people and they were trying to work together and make it work. Billy Graham was trying to honor the respect he had for John R. Rice and Rice was trying to hold onto this kid (Graham) that he seemed to think of as a son. So, to watch this narrative morph and showcase a bigger story that the moderate Baptists were forming together an Evangelical movement – what we would know in the 90’s as “nondemoniationalism.” So to watch these two divide and the whole thing come down to this relationship is pretty dramatic.

Then you have Jerry Fallwell. As much as you might disagree with him, you can’t deny his passion and his belief in the words he said. Nobody believed in what Jerry Fallwell said the way Jerry Fallwell did. There’s a quality to people who – though not as well respected today – you can look back and at least admire the passion. He’s certainly a divider, but there was no one who could unite Christians the way he could. And he got lambasted for working with Pentecostals and Catholics. There was a tension that he created but the Fundamentalists didn’t throw him out the way they did Billy Graham. There was something about him that was able to unite the conservative side and the moderate side in the name of politics. And it was intentional. It was something that he planned and it effected the way we enjoy God now.

RB: I want to frame up this question in a way that it has some context: The question is, how much of yourself is in the book? We talked about balancing the academic side and the engaging side. Over the past few years, you’ve established yourself as something of a critic of the culture. There’s a risk of bringing too much personal bias into an academic work and risking your credibility. So, how did you balance maintaining the integrity of the story with putting your own opinion or personality into it?

MPT: Well, I am certainly in the book. I think you definitely get a good idea of where I stand on these ideas. I use an issue from the 1800s and foreshadow what it means today and I’ll throw in my opinion. But I’ll try keep that somewhat at bay because I didn’t want to lose an entire audience just to insure that they knew exactly where I stood.

At the end of the day, I felt like this book could be read by a very wide variety of people. They aren’t all going to agree with my conclusions and that’s fine. I think that to engage the story, know the story, or take their research further, I wanted to leave that option open. I didn’t write a book for “progressive Christian thinkers.” It’s written by a progressive thinker and so that’s there, but I tried to keep it on a leash. I relied a lot on my editors to help keep things in check.

I went in wanting to tell the story of God. I certainly couldn’t keep my bias completely out of I didn’t want it to overwhelm somebody. Whether I accomplished that, I don’t know.

Film :: Stephanie in the Water

It will probably come as a shock to you that I’m no expert on the sport of competitive surfing. So, when I was approached with the film Stephanie in the Water, a documentary film following champion women’s surfer Stephanie Gilmore, I was intrigued by the opportunity to learn a bit more about this completely unfamiliar subculture. In fact, my knowledge of the world of skateboarding is wholly owing to the fantastic Stacey Peralta docs Dogtown and Z-Boys and Bones Brigade. I mention those because they do play a role in my evaluation of this film.

Growing up watching her Dad surf, Australian Stephanie Gilmore was never far from the water. Turning her hobby into a passion, then into a profession, she won her first world championship at the age of 17 in 2007. DirectorAva Warbrick’s film catches up with Gilmore in 2010 after she has won two additional championships.

Warbrick’s story takes a turn when Gilmore finds herself the subject of a violent attack outside of her apartment.  Physical injuries leave her sidelined for an extended period of time, but emotional trauma wears even more heavily. The confidence that marks her work for the first half of the film disappears in an instant and a bit of helplessness overtakes even the audience in watching Gilmore struggle to find her footing again.

Now it’s really not fair to compare this film to the Peralta films mentioned above, but they are really my only point of reference on a topic like this and I found myself making the comparisons continually as I watched. The biggest difference is that Peralta told really complete stories not just of the personalities but of the sport of skateboarding – where it came from and how it developed. This allowed even the unfamiliar viewer to really be enveloped in the world seen on screen. Stephanie, however, is wholly focused on a couple of years in the career of a single competitor. For that reason, it seems that the audience is a little more restricted to those who are coming in with some knowledge of the sport.

That said, it is still a great film. Interview and activity scenes of life-on-the-pro-surfing circuit are juxtaposed against the subtle beauty of wave-riding. Classic surf-vibe music plays over extended scenes of Gilmore cutting her way through the water. These scenes are almost transcendent.

One of the unexpected gems of the film is a series of scenes that give the viewer more insight into the world of surfing. These come in the form of interviews with Stephanie’s board shaper who serves in much the same role as a professional golf caddy. The relationship between the two seems both deeply professional and deeply familial. He speaks of making boards for some customers who are only that – “customers” – but that he and Stephanie have a shared history and chemistry when it comes to knowing just what she needs for any given competition.

In short, I enjoyed this film but it left me wanting more. At a mere 67 minutes, it seems like there could have been room to invite the audience into more of the world of competitive surfing. Still, the director tells a compelling story of skill, willpower, and passion and what it takes to be a champion.

Released by the great folks at BOND/360, the film is available on iTunes and you can learn more at