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The Gospel According to America: Reflections on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea

by David Dark. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. ISBN 0664227694. Pb., 173 pp. $14.95.

The Gospel According to America is a winding path through the literature, film, and music of the American consciousness. It curves through theology and brings onto the stage of awareness figures ranging from Bayard Rustin to Dorothy Day, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, and Will Campbell. It is not an easy read for those unaccustomed to Melville, Hawthorne, and Pynchon--and far less easy for those who have never listened to Wilco, REM, or Dylan. Written in a style that at times leaves one considering the possibility that David Dark's marvelous offering was translated from the German (not so), the book is demanding; it is not a book for the beach. So why make the journey? Is the demand on the reader worthy?

Indeed it is. For Dark brings biblical insight--delivered in diverse cultural forms--to bear upon our history. He calls us to "stand firmly within the Jewish- Christian tradition and its teaching that evil doesn't come to us self-consciously, introducing itself and offering us a choice ("Join us in our evil"). It's more like a Faustian bargain, a narcissism in which we believe our fantasy to be the only real, unbiased version of events. We surround ourselves with voices that will affirm our fantasy and dismiss as treacherous (or evil) any witness that would call our innocence into question. (p. 76)

by David Dark. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. ISBN 0664227694. Pb., 173 pp. $14.95.

The Gospel According to America is a winding path through the literature, film, and music of the American consciousness. It curves through theology and brings onto the stage of awareness figures ranging from Bayard Rustin to Dorothy Day, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, and Will Campbell. It is not an easy read for those unaccustomed to Melville, Hawthorne, and Pynchon–and far less easy for those who have never listened to Wilco, REM, or Dylan. Written in a style that at times leaves one considering the possibility that David Dark’s marvelous offering was translated from the German (not so), the book is demanding; it is not a book for the beach. So why make the journey? Is the demand on the reader worthy?

Indeed it is. For Dark brings biblical insight–delivered in diverse cultural forms–to bear upon our history. He calls us to “stand firmly within the Jewish- Christian tradition and its teaching that evil doesn’t come to us self-consciously, introducing itself and offering us a choice (“Join us in our evil”). It’s more like a Faustian bargain, a narcissism in which we believe our fantasy to be the only real, unbiased version of events. We surround ourselves with voices that will affirm our fantasy and dismiss as treacherous (or evil) any witness that would call our innocence into question. (p. 76)

And innocence is a great threat. The profession of innocence threatens both church and nation. There is a good reason for the insistence that Reformed worship dare not proceed without confession. If we are innocent, what is there to confess save our fear of others? Rollo May wrote of the deceit of innocence in a parody of the familiar aphorism of power: “Innocence corrupts and absolute innocence corrupts absolutely.” The certainty of both the left and the right is corrosive. It wears away at civility and gnaws at the bonds that secure the imperfect union of the nation as well as the soft tissue connecting the Body of Christ. Dark calls our certainty into question through the witness of many voices. In some ways the book as a whole is an elegy to Flannery O’Conner, who wrote of a Christ-haunted society.

So what is to be done? Dark does not provide a prescription. He does, however, commend a number of behaviors, which form a kind of a set of practices that are faith-filled and practical means of living discipleship.

At least four such practices come to mind. Practice curiosity–a vigilant curiosity arms us against self-righteousness and opens us to our neighbors. Practice respect–persistent respect summons a listening heart. Practice vulnerability–mindful vulnerability deepens our trust of God and our love of others. Practice assertion–humble assertion requires us to ask of our selves and others: What doth the Lord require of you? And when that answer appears, we are compelled to assert what we believe to be right, mindful of curiosity, respect, and vulnerability.

Dark’s Christology is thoroughly Barthian; and while this is a strength, one wishes he might have more fully engaged the issue of pneumatology, the theology of the Holy Spirit. It was Barth, after all, who called the theology of the Spirit “the future of Christian theology.” Still, there is only so much that can be done with a single work, and Dark had provided a wonderful gift to the disciplined reader.

Partisans find no comfort in these pages. One need not abandon hope to enter here. Abandon rather the uncritical ideologies, poll results, party stripes, pride revealed in arrogance, and fear disguised as righteousness. Abandon these and then read on; here hope may be found. We can hardly sustain partisanship in the light of the gospel, for this Light makes fools and beggars of us all. Dark issues a call to a multi-partisanship in which allegiance to Christ undermines party politics.

Improvements might be suggested to the work on two levels. One is the sheer density of the writing, in which a sentence, once launched, may run for dozens of words in an arc with which it is hard to keep pace. Another–and shame on the publisher–is a useful index so that the curious might sustain their curiosity with greater ease.

Finally, I would like to have seen some hint about how to develop the habits among the readers that have become ingrained in the author. What might we do to practice curiosity? Where may we go to hear the charitable give and take comprising this book? How shall we practice genuine vigilance while yielding to neither depression nor paranoia? Perhaps these are among the reasons we would welcome the next offering served forth by David Dark.

MARK DAVIS is pastor of First Church, Boise, Idaho.

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