The American Spiritual Culture

The American Spiritual Culture
And the Invention of Jazz, Football, and the Movies
by William Dean
Continuum, $24.95, 240 pp.

The study of the nation’s character is a genre of American writing older than the nation itself, tracing its origins as least as far back as Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782). In the latest renewal of this tradition, theologian William Dean argues that Americans share a common spiritual culture "that is sometimes more vividly expressed through secular activities such as jazz, football, and the movies than through the overtly sacred activities of organized religion."

Dean devotes the first half of The American Spiritual Culture to an elaborate meditation on "God the Opaque." He insists that religion is rarely taken seriously anymore by intellectuals, including professors of religious studies. He also believes that "the American spiritual culture need only be revived rather than created de novo, for there is a significant and relatively consistent American symbolic, theological, and philosophical tradition on which it can lean." Many historians will howl in indignation at this latter assertion, pointing to the work of such scholars as Jon Butler, who showed in Awash in a Sea of Faith (1990) that the nation’s Christian-dominated character was achieved only after decades of struggle against all manner of heterodox and unchurched dissenters. The tradition of national-character studies that The American Spiritual Culture now joins is, in fact, more consistent than the culture itself, an irony all...

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