For The Someday Book

Book Review: An American Gospel

Posted on: July 18, 2010

An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God, by Erik Reece, Riverhead Books, 2009, 224 pages.

I read this book on the recommendation of a church member currently seeking a new path back to faith after a tragic loss. He said it had spoken to him of a different kind of faith, and I was curious enough to read. Besides, I always love a good spiritual autobiography.

This book was not at all what I expected. There were parts I loved, parts that bored me, parts that intrigued me, parts that moved me, and parts that I found simply amateur and naive. This book is not-quite-equal parts autobiography and American religious history. Reece recounts his religious journey as the son and grandson of a fundamentalist preacher, his grappling with his father’s suicide and his attempts to find a faith beyond fundamentalism. He also traces a line of a particular American faith that runs counter to the Puritan fundamentalism he was raised with, drawing a line from William Byrd to Jefferson to Whitman and Emerson to James and Dewey to Dr. Lynn Margulis. He even finds a way to argue that the Gospel of Thomas is the key to finding a true American gospel.

Here’s what I loved: Reece’s resurrection of and perspective on these great American thinkers and their faith. He points to two key factors among all these American poets and philosophers: their connection to the natural world, and their pragmatism about finding a faith that works to make the world a better place. He made me want to read Emerson and Whitman again, in depth. I agree with his call to panentheism, a faith that sees God at work in everything around us.

Here’s what bored me: Reece offers yet another critique of atonement theology, a harsh critique of Pauline Christianity and fundamentalism. He find Jefferson, Whitman and the Gospel of Thomas scandalous to this Christianity, and argues that the kingdom of God is all around us in this life, not just something we await in the next. Many Christians (and I count myself among them) crossed this bridge a long time ago, and the critique seemed stale. I’ve seen it done much better elsewhere.

Here’s what intrigued me: In addition to creating a desire to reread Emerson and Whitman, Reece introduced me to Dr. Lynn Margulis, and I wrote extensively of my intrigue with her work in another post.

Here’s what moved me: The final chapter brings together all the pieces Reece lays out for an American gospel. He connects naturalism with a new reading of the Genesis creation narrative, which results in a pragmatic demand to build the kingdom of God on earth. He imagines this as an aesthetic experience, where religion is beauty and beauty is religion. It was a beautiful portrait of faith.

Here’s what I found amateur and naive: Reece treats the newly-discovered Gospel of Thomas as proof positive that his version of Christianity is the true faith. Using the argument that the Gospel of Thomas is older than the other gospels, including a huge reliance on the Q hypothesis, Reece draws a distinct line between Pauline Christianity and the faith of Jesus. While Reece’s arguments are plausible, it is his certainty and his need to prove himself in history that I find amateur and naive. Biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to these same studies speak with far less certainty, and put far less personal faith in their conclusions. I want to urge Reece to ground his faith somewhere outside any particular theory of the earliest Gospel or the historical Jesus.

This is where I think Reece’s book got under my skin a bit: he does not realize (or at least does not acknowledge) that there is an entire history of Christianity, even an American Christianity, that already agrees with his conclusions. This fills me with both frustration and pity. Frustration that he did not acknowledge the other stream of American Christianity that is working to build the kingdom of God here and now, that launched the Social Gospel movement and worked for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the quest for civil rights, just to name a few examples. In Reece’s book, my kind of Christianity is frustratingly absent as a significant force in American history.

But I also feel pity, because Reece’s journey is highly personal, and it seems like he has never met a Christian from outside the fundamentalist circles. It is a painful and lonely journey to lose one’s faith community while holding on to faith, and I am sad for him that he had to reinvent his own faith without a community of support. I want to invite him to the United Church of Christ, and tell him that he’s not alone.

In the end, the book is a mixed bag. I recommend it for that last chapter alone, which is hard to grasp without reading the whole, and is so rich with faith and perspective. It moved me, frustrated me, bored me, intrigued me, inspired me.  Most of all, it left me wondering about the church member who recommended it to me. What was his experience? What drew him so strongly to this text? I need to ask him.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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