Gospel According to America
by David Dark
Westminster John Knox Press, 2005
review by John Tintera
At first glance, the latest volume in Westminster’s “Gospel According to” series might seem like one more book in the long progression of left wing/right wing nose bashing that publishers have foisted on the public lately. From Al Franken’s Lies & Lying Liars and Jon Stewart’s America: The Book to Bill O’Reilly’s No Spin Zone and Anne Coulter’s Treason, there seems to be no end to the market for red-hot, no-holds-barred political vituperation. And publishers are only following the lead of network and cable TV stations. Alas, David Dark comes to us like a voice crying in the wilderness. His new book is like the balm of Gilead amidst Daniel’s fiery furnace.
According to Dark, who is a high school English teacher at a parochial school in Nashville, the Gospel according to America is summarized in the words and spirit of Lincoln’s second inaugural address. In that speech, which was written during our nation’s darkest hour, Lincoln embodied a humility before his creator that is scarcely seen in the annals of American politics. Of the two parties in the conflict, he said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other….The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” Dark raises up this speech as a standard, not only for its “God-centeredness,” but for its humility in the face of what many saw as a just cause. Who amongst us today, at a similar historical crossroads, would not bluster on and on about how our side is good and their side is evil? Says Dark, Lincoln took “no particular pride in being…president.” In his wisdom and humility, he recognized that “…somehow, the Lord’s judgments will prevail and, whatever may befall, they are true and right altogether.” This, according to David Dark, is the essence of America’s Gospel.
Dark sees this same virtue at work in the ethos and mindset of the common American citizen. He writes:
Many Americans seem reasonably certain that God is blessing them, one way or another, most of the time, but we’re honest enough to stop short of dragging Jesus into our rationalizations. We do what we do, for better or worse, giving thanks to God and praying for guidance.
Think about it: there have been very few superpowers for which this sort of attitude has been true. The Holy Roman Empire, perhaps; more certainly the British Empire; but few others come to mind. In the past century, the Soviets and Nazis notably viewed themselves as embodiments of the purposes of Nature. Yet, whatever America’s shortcomings are, and there are many, this sense of being “one nation under God” runs deep in the American psyche and is the most distinctive part of our “gospel.”
Another peculiarly American trait that Dark points out, which is also based on Biblical principles, is our belief in the inherent value of every human being. As much as our founding fathers and mothers narrowly defined what it means to be human, civil rights leaders have risen up throughout our history and expanded our understanding of human dignity. In our own day, some, like those in the anti-death penalty and the animal rights movements, continue to lobby for even broader definitions of dignity, beyond what the majority of citizens currently recognizes as implied in the notion. For many, these groups are further indication that our penchant for “rights” of every kind has run amok. Viewed differently, these movements are a sign of a very powerful force dwelling in the American psyche.
Despite our traditions of humility and human rights, Dark reminds us that from time to time in our history, we have fallen short of these ideals. He demonstrates particular contempt for leaders who fail to admit mistakes. Also coming under fire are those who lobby vehemently for their own version of reality, without consideration for their own natural limitations and inherent subjectivity. He is especially upset by the nasty, degrading rhetoric used by agitators on both sides of the red/blue divide. As an anodyne he points readers toward “the rules of the pancake house,” which is his shorthand for the kind of civility practiced by old friends, even those who might disagree. It should be noted here that despite his criticism of the prideful and the loud-mouthed, Dark never stoops to the hateful rhetoric which he despises in others.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is that David Dark is most often in conversation with an eclectic crew from Shakespeare and Herman Melville to Rod Serling (creator of “The Twilight Zone”) and Bob Dylan. One is reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s epitaph at the poet’s corner in St. John the Divine, “Out of Space and Time.” Clearly, Dark’s “News Hour” lies out of space and time, and he shares with us many of the insights he’s gleaned from a life devoted to the best that has been thought and done in America. He is wary, however, of the erosion of this knowledge base through the negativity and simplicity of today’s pop culture. Here’s a quote from his passage on how Faulkner’s writing can be seen in light of current modes of “entertainment” and “communication:”
His work will appear willfuly [sic] incoherent and odd to minds increasingly unaccustomed to the pleasure of listening to lengthy stories, explanations, arguments, or poetry and increasingly drawn to angry people on television and radio who presume to cobble together answers to all of life’s questions in whatever tidying up manner will keep the most people watching and listening. But the tidying up impulse can prove toxic, and being true to a wiser American selfhood that can endure and prevail over and against the repeated pressing of the sex, money, and pseudo-patriotic buttons will require familiarizing ourselves anew…with the ancient wisdom regularly preempted by the sound and fury of the present.
Faulkner, who was a master of portraying the dark motivations of the human heart, is especially needed in the age of the 24-hour satellite news stations. With two or three of these channels duking it out for ratings, we’re given the impression that what we see on our screens is the real thing, whether it’s Beijing, Baghdad, or Washington, DC. But as Dark reminds us, the first step in knowledge is the Socratic “I do not know.” It’s a demanding step and is not unlike the effort required of faith. What it gives us is the ability to step back and say with Dark that while I may not wish you to be my leader, you’re still my neighbor on this planet and you implicitly have my respect, my prayers, and my support.
In the closing chapter, “When the Man Comes Around,” Dark brilliantly sums up his earlier analysis with a powerful meditation on the political significance of Easter. In Dark’s vision of the Resurrection, everyone who has ever died through oppression and violence will rise up on the last day to confront his or her oppressors. He writes, “‘Elimination of potential rivals,’ ‘collateral damage,’ and ‘antipersonnel weapons’ take on a different aura when resurrection is brought into play.” In this context, Dark is especially passionate about the gap between what Christians profess about Christ and how they act. He says, “[W]e’re often guilty of assuming continuity with unthinking presumption, speaking of Jesus as if he is easily incorporated into our lifestyles while viewing too radical an apprenticeship to his lifestyle as unseemly or irreverent.” In the end, he believes, “The apocalypse resides over all matter and history…. Our understanding of what’s necessary (for personal happiness and homeland security) will be transformed by it.”
In reading The Gospel According to America, I was reminded of the pleasure I’ve taken in reading some of the great Christian essayists, especially John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis. Something I’ve always longed for when reading those authors, however, is a fuller sense of the current events that fired their passions and inspired their arguments. With Dark, I’m pretty sure I know what he’s talking about when he uses phrases like “homeland security” or “fair and balanced.” This book will probably lose some of its luster as the heat of this moment passes, as it surely must, but at the moment, I can’t imagine a more cogent or timely call to Christian renewal.
©2005 John Tintera
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