William Dean is Professor of Constructive Theology at the Iliff School of Theology and the author of five previous books, one of which won an award for excellence from the American Academy of Religion in 1995. In this provocative volume, he analyses the spiritual culture of the United States. American citizens are religious, he argues, not only in the obvious ways like attending religious services but also in other ways that reflect their common heritage as a culturally displaced people.
In the introduction, Dean writes, "I describe an America that harbors its own distinctive spiritual culture. This culture has guided America for one simple reason: Americans have believed that it speaks for a truth, even a reality, greater than America" (p. 9). The book is one person's answers to discovering both what that spiritual culture is all about and what the grounds are that support it. The book consists of two separate parts and a somewhat controversial conclusion.
In part 1, "God the Opaque," Dean discusses reductionism, which he labels "America's Reigning Religious Skepticism" (p. 34). He refutes the reductionists (Durkheim, Freud, Segal, Guthrie and others) claim that the divine grounding of America's culture has disappeared, that the spiritual culture is based on nothing but itself, and that the claims of religion are "like shouts in an empty canyon." (p. 34). This was, for me, the book's high point. He then lays out the task for the religious critic, one which begins primarily by not adopting the worldviews of non-religious inquiries. Subsequent chapters describe the American character as being that of a pragmatic "displaced person." There is a commentary on William James who had explored religious experiences in others without having one of his own.
In James' final months of life, he broke through the "irony of atheism" into theistic richness. Dean returns to this theme at the end of the book.
In part 2, "America the Visible," Dean describes the inventions of jazz, football and the movies as particular forms of the American spiritual culture. He discusses what each of these activities suggest, both about the American culture and about the Ultimate Reality that is active in it. "In their devotion, jazz fans show their appreciation for, among other things, improvisation; football fans suggest their ambivalent negotiation with violence; and movie fans manifest their desire for self-creation through fantasy. In each case, the enthusiasts telegraph their view of what is most (religiously) significant in their world" (p. 114). I read this part of the book several times, each time gleaning more insight into its thesis.
At the book's end, Dean offers a "Conclusion," a four page brief titled "The Irony of Atheism." Out of secularization, he argues, religious experience often arises. Dean concludes, powerfully, by citing from Thornton Wilder's play, "The Skin of Our Teeth," an ironic look at the history of mankind. In the last speech of this play, the character Sabina speaks directly to the audience: "This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet. You go home. The end of this play isn't written yet."
This book is an important contribution to understanding the peculiar American character. Robert Bellah, in a back jacket recommendation, sees it as both "intensely readable" and targeted to a "large audience of scholars and lay people alike." I would not recommend it, however, to less than a college student, and then only one with training in both the sciences and humanities. With that caveat, I recommend the book highly.
Reviewed by John W. Burgeson, Denver CO. Submitted 3/15/2003 to PSCF. About 620 words.