The Gospel According to America: A Meditation on a God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea by David Dark
We don’t know how to listen to people we disagree with. You see this in politics. You see this in your congregation. You see this amongst your peers. You may even see this in your family. Red or blue, conservative or liberal, makes no difference. We’ve quit listening to those we disagree with. Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can effectively insulate ourselves 24/7. If we so desire, we need only watch or listen to people who espouse the ideas we believe in and the rhetoric that strokes our egos to make us feel smart and clever and popular. Our sinful, self-centered nature has been technologically amped up by a bevy of commentators and talking heads willing to tell us that we’re right because they agree with us.
As Christians we’re held to a higher standard. We’re called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. If we fail to do this, it’s not just the beginning of the end for an economic system or a political system or a personal moral failing – failing at this compromises our ability to witness effectively to the forgiveness of Jesus Christ that unites people of very different opinions into one holy, universal Church. We aren’t loving our enemies if we consider them unworthy of the time of day and tune them out rather than praying for opportunities to share the Gospel.
David Dark’s book is a long, convoluted cultural and historical examination of the intrinsically biblical call to hear one another – to really hear one another. Utilizing American political history, pop icons, musicians and literary figures, Dark musters an army of quiet voices calling us to suspect our smugness, question our acquiescence, distrust our demagogues, and in general raise the bar of what is expected in terms of public discourse.
One of Dark’s most effective (and underused) motifs towards this end is the metaphor of sitting around a table at a Waffle House with your friends. You gather to discuss the Big Issues and wrangle with the miscreants and situations that vex your hearts and minds and wallets. But your conversation is tempered. You listen to one another. Every person has an opportunity – a responsibility, even! – to speak. You may not agree, but your disagreement is shaped by the fact that next week you’ll be sitting there again ready to discourse on the day’s events all over again. You can’t write someone off that you not just have to, but want to interact with time after time after time. We’ve lost this sense of communality, and it’s to our detriment and mortal and moral danger.
Dark is not an easy person to read. His prose is complicated – not in a dry academic way, but in the somewhat convoluted way that probably looks most like how we actually think and speak. Sentences wrap in and around on themselves and each one is a gem, but it takes a bit of effort to truly appreciate the brilliance.
Dark also utilizes some very specific authors, musicians and pop figures from American history and culture. While references to REM and Bob Dylan may not be far afield from the collective consciousness, his predilection for referencing Herman Melville and Moby Dick may be a little more of a stretch for many readers. At times the reader should be prepared to skim through sections where Dark gleans wisdom from authors and artists we are not well acquainted with. This is ok. Dark’s basic premise is more than adequately dealt with in his introduction. The rest of the book is explication. He makes the same point over and over and over again utilizing different examples.
Christians desperately need to live out our Biblical exhortations to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We must be the first to demand that every person around the table at the Waffle House has the right to speak, even if we disagree with them. We have to live out our trust and faith that the Holy Spirit is at work in us, in those around us, in the whole wide world. We need to conduct ourselves in ways that won’t make us surprised when we get to heaven and see people we assumed wouldn’t be there. We need to humbly admit that we don’t have all the answers, and neither does our church, our denomination, our candidate or our political party. We’re all doing the best we can with what we’ve got, and Dark has a valid point that Christians would be well advised to review 1 Corinthians 13, paying particular attention to the less popular verses at the end of the chapter.