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 too often missed. Dean is surely more optimistic than many of his recent predecessors in the genre. As a people self-conscious of their own displacement and deeply intimate with violence, he argues, Americans improvised their relationship with a God that worked as a "sacred convention" as well as a "living, historical reality." While this pragmatist’s vision of God leads inevitably to atheism, in Dean’s view, it is an "ironic" atheism that prompts its own transcendence. No less an exemplar of the pragmatic tradition than William James ended his life in a poignant search for "the only door to the universe’s deeper reaches." In other words, Dean believes that to be an American one must work through and perhaps even exhaust the social and sacred conventions built into our environment before a genuine encounter with God can occur. A similar argument has been made before: most memorably by the late John Owen King in The Iron of Melancholy (1983). Dean contributes some valuable insights and new material to the discussion particularly in his recurring invocation of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor, he suggests, understood perhaps better than anyone else that the Christian writer "has a greater, not a lesser, obligation to write a secular story, portraying the natural world just as it is, honoring its own laws and limits. It is when this is accomplished that the reader can be opened to a sense of mystery that operates within the natural world." Flannery O’Connor’s dictum that "fiction can transcend its limits only by staying within them" grounds Dean’s treatment of three American "inventions" with deep spiritual significance: jazz, football, and the movies. His pivotal chapter on jazz properly culminates in a brief discussion of the great saxophonist John Coltrane, who pressed the limits of improvisation in pursuit of his goal "to live the religious life, and express it in my music....My music is the spiritual expression of what I am-my faith, my knowledge, my being." The problem is that-after a perfunctory bow to cultural theories of jazz improvisation and African-American tradition-Dean brings us to Coltrane via a lengthy discourse on the theological implications of debates between Hebraic "improvisers" and Hellenistic "imitators." Eusebius, Augustine, Luther, John Dewey, and Paul Tillich all make appearances in this chapter, but Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Duke Ellington are nowhere to be found. Nor is a single piece of music or jazz solo cited, nor is Charlie Parker mentioned, though no one in our national history more truly embodies the spirit of artistic improvisation. Dean undermines his own avowed intentions by trivializing the music. If one wishes to see jazz taken seriously as a foundation of the American spiritual culture, one must write seriously about the art form as musicologists and cultural historians have been doing for decades. Dean is on much surer footing in his discussions of football and the movies, perhaps because they are so ubiquitous that he can speculate freely without fear of overgeneralization. Paul Tillich fits comfortably here in a treatment of Richard Nixon’s dark fascination with football, violence, and evil, just as theologies of displacement and dispossession have much to contribute to our understanding of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Dean’s reading of John Sayles’s 1996 film Lone Star shows what can happen when a theologian truly engages a cultural text. It is impossible to read The American Spiritual Culture without reflecting on the implications of 9/11 for both the national character and studies thereof. Dean makes a few passing references to the event but the book was surely conceived and largely written beforehand. Yet an equally significant date for this study is 1965 when, as Dean acknowledges, immigration reform legislation resulted (not altogether intentionally) in a massive influx of people from Asia, Latin America, and other parts of the third world. Dean assumes that these new Americans view themselves as "displaced persons" in the tradition of European immigrant discourses, but he offers no evidence for this assertion. Many of these third-world immigrants came to the United States as highly skilled workers and maintain enduring links to their countries of origin. We may well need a new model of immigrant narrative to account for the experience of these people, many of whom are neither Christian nor Jewish. We may even soon begin to see new models for studies of the national character. end

Published in the 2003-05-23 issue: View Contents
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