The other volumes in the Westminster John Knox “Gospel According to…” series (the Simpsons, Tolkien, Disney, Oprah) have all had more focused subjects than David Dark’s “The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea.”
As the subtitle suggests, this book does not present a cogent argument from beginning to end. Instead, it is a collection of eight somewhat related, meditative essays on the current state of “civil religion” in American culture.
This old term now seems something of an oxymoron, as public discourse on issues like religion and politics has become increasingly uncivil in early, 21st century America, a situation that Dark laments for many reasons.
The first chapter “Angel in the Whirlwind: An Exercise in Patriotism,” is a call to national repentance. In a refreshing manner, this call is not about any particular, perceived sinful acts, but concerns the way we think about ourselves and about others.
Dark poses the radical question, “In an age when many churchgoing Americans appear to view the purposes of the coming kingdom of God and the perceived self-interests of the United States as indistinguishable, what does faithful witness look like?”
The answer to this question seems to lie in a willingness to adopt a constant state of humility, confession, and repentence, but this attitude, which Dark understands as part of the coming of the kingdom of God, stands in direct opposition to the delusion of “America’s efforts at self-improvement, law and order, and the uprooting of every pereceived threat.”
At this point The Gospel According to America may seem a necessary updating of one of Tony Campolo’s earliest, and best books, The Power Delusion.
Dark’s diagnosis moves naturally into chapter two, “Song of Ourselves: Narcissism and Its Discontents in a Bipolar Nation.” The primary target is the privatized religion which has taken hold of American Christianity.
With help from Harold Bloom, Dark identifies the notion of having a personal relationship with Jesus as one’s savior as a modern gnosticism. Of course, this gnosticism is enormously attractive.
The college students I encounter are typically in love with the notion that their faith has flipped a switch inside of them that causes the Bible and all of life to make perfect sense to them, while these things remain utterly perplexing to those who do not believe.
Dark attempts to apply this insight to contemporary politics in America, as he should, but here his meditations become confusing. It is difficult to understand how his presumed meta-stance, above the fray of partisanship, accomplishes anything other than to make him superior to those who are caught up in it.
The remainder of the book explores aspects of American culture–literature, film, music and television–in light of Dark’s understanding of religion in America. These cultural components provide both expressions of and solutions to the neuroses of American, civil religion.
Dark is more interested in the latter, and he is at his best as an English teacher, exploring American literature in chapter three, “No Celestial Railroads: A Literature for Democracy.”
The interaction between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne makes the book worth reading, particularly as Dark finds in Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter the resources to resist the lure of the common theology. “The warped wood of human nature won’t produce the righteousness of God on earth, but it thinks it will. It believes in its own sincerity so powerfully that it will feel violently offended at any question concerning its well rehearsed script of goodness…It will mistake its Towers of Babel for the light that shines in the darkness.”
Thomas Pynchon and Lisa Simpson also make their appearances, and the latter concludes the chapter as the hero, as Dark recalls an episode of “The Simpsons” in which Lisa overcomes the megalomania of Mr. Burns (Rupert Murdoch?) by publishing her own ideas through her “Red Dress Press.”
This book is likely to be more palatable for progressives than for conservatives. Much of the book seems aimed at the easy co-opting of faith for political purposes, as practiced by the current, Bush administration, Fox News and the religious right. In comparison, the occasional cheap shot thrown at Bill Clinton seems trivial.
One wonders what someone who thinks and writes like Dark is doing teaching at a super-wealthy, fundamentalist Presbyterian high school.
The writing style alternates from annoying ( I can not remember ever seeing the word “mustn’t” in print in prose language before, and I wish that was still true) to poignantly incisive (In evaluating the lines spoken by Hester Prynne, the unlike heroine of The Scarlet Letter, Dark says they are “Timely words for a culture with the occasional puritanical tendency, a sense of Manifest Destiny, and an unfortunate habit of rewriting history to suit its own sense of moral superiority.”
Throughout the book, he argues for a thoughtful, respectful conversation, one that includes silent reflection, as an alternative to the destructive modes of engagement that have overtaken our culture, particularly when politics and religion, those two things our parents told us not to bring up, are involved.
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.
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