Why Does American Christianity Always Seem to Wait for the Real Thinking to be Done Elsewhere?

GileadA few of us have been reading Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel Gilead recently. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

One episode jumped out at me last night. The trickster, the Prodigal perhaps, of the novel is debating faith with the protagonist, an old preacher, when he asks:

‘Do you ever wonder why American Christianity always seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?’

The preacher replies:

‘Not really’ I replied, which surprised me, since I have wondered that very thing any number of times.

They are referring, in part, to Barth’s thinking, and the novel is set in the 50’s. And I wondered if people thought there was any truth in that, or if still the case, or if things had changed? Is Pentecostalism America’s unique gift to the church?


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10 responses to “Why Does American Christianity Always Seem to Wait for the Real Thinking to be Done Elsewhere?”

  1. Kester, be assured that there are a few of us doing real thinking. We are just pushed the margins by the wealthy, powerful, and those who feel entitled.

  2. I remember reading (somewhere) a comparison a few years ago, of the strengths of European, (Far East) Asian, and American education and culture. As I recall, (painting with a broad brush) the article suggested Europeans have excelled at philosophical work, Asian at systemization and Americans at innovation. I have reflected on that a lot since. You need all three and yet each one tends to be a drag on the other two.
    I would also ask, are we talking theology that is done the academy, removed from the daily work and life of the community of believers? Or are we talking about theology as the emerging wisdom of the people of God living in dynamic community?

  3. Kester, don’t forget to add the Mega-Church movement and Prosperity Gospel to that list of American-specific ‘gifts’ to the church…

  4. America is an emerging society made up in it’s cultural roots of those who have “had enough” of their family of origin. Our “real thinking” needs to feed the tree it came from like fallen fruit feeds the roots. What’s the secret? In “spending ourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfying the needs of the oppressed.”
    The postmodern prodigal of Gilead needs to see the fruit of faith. The preacher has the character it takes to reveal love’s truth. The prodigal doesn’t need law, he needs love.
    Maybe that’s why penticostalism took off when it did where it did. It’s demonstrative qualities are an experiment in fruitfulness.
    glad to here you’re reading this. a wonderful book.

  5. I won’t try to answer your question but instead add further praise for the book. It was our lent book at grace this year and it proved to be an amazing source of provocation for discussion, thoughts and ideas. Would recommend it highly.

  6. Ha – prosperity and MegaChurch™ – great contributions!
    I think it’s a serious question though, and well set out by Michael. The main denominations were all pretty much European in origin. And clearly something has been contributed by the US since…
    Suzanna – I really think you’re onto something there. The movements that have taken off from the US – Pentecostalism, Vineyard, Emergent (?) – have all been about a return to the roots of love, not the law.
    And I think this may be a pertinent further question: is ‘Emergent’ going to be a gift from the US, or is this a truly global movement that has no ‘home’, and therefore no fixed contribution?

  7. Or maybe the emerging movement exists like “The Gift” and erases boundary lines rather than creating them like denominations.

  8. You may be right there Adam. Or perhaps it is more akin to dirt, forcing people to re-evaluate those boundaries. That’s certainly been my experience: denominational concerns seem to lessen under the wider emerging umbrella.

  9. So maybe we’re going to escape being fixed into a “Movement” and finally relax our fixation on definitions. The very nature of the New nature is to shimmy out of catagory.
    Good show Kester- Saw your words in Relevant mag!

  10. Oh good – thanks – I’m waiting to see my copy actually!
    I’d agree it would be great to shake off the whole idea of a ‘movement’ – and particularly I’m wary of the slippery slope into ‘denominating’. That’ll be the end.