Alan Wolfe in his book The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live our Faith observes that too often culture has shaped the church rather than church impacting culture: “in the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture—and American culture has triumphed” (pp. 2-3).
Matthew Paul Turner in his new and excellent tongue in check book Our Great Big American God: A Short History of our Ever-Growing Deity takes Wolfe’s thought a step further–American culture has continually reshaped God!
Theologically we know that isn’t true, but if we step back for a moment and become a bit more objective, we realize that all too often God does mirror our ideas, God does get shaped by culture. One of my friends has printed on his business card–Isn’t it fortunate that God hates the same people I do! (Maybe he shouldn’t be my friend!)
Missiologist Andrew Walls reminds us that God as reveled in Scripture always meets us where we are (the homing principle). He comes to us. He dwells among us. He is a part of any culture. That is the wonder of the Incarnation. Walls also reminds us that God does not just leave us there. God is never fully at home in any culture. God is always counter-cultural (the pilgrim principle).
We don’t need to be alarmed that we mold God into our image, and that the American church has done a good job at this over the years. We should rather be very aware of this and determine to always be critical of our theology and the practices that result from that theology. We need eyes wide open, and engage in good conversations with others asking: Where is it written? What should be our stance and our convictions based on the Word and the work of the Spirit.
Walls again: “No one ever meets universal Christianity in itself: we only ever meet Christianity in a local form and that means a historically, culturally conditioned form. We need not fear this; when God became man he became historically, cultural conditioned man in a particular time and place. What he became, we need not fear to be. There is nothing wrong in having local forms of Christianity–provided that we remember that they are local” (The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of the Faith, 235).
We have to do the hard work of theological reflection. We need to be generous and humble as we engage in formal and informal theological conversations.
Back to Turner’s book–it is really good. Read it. Laugh. Enjoy it. Sometimes you might squirm a bit. That is okay too. Our Great Big American God is a wonderful journey through American church history.