In his religious memoir, An American Gospel, author Erik Reece relates the heart-breaking story of his father’s suicide. His dad, a second generation Baptist minister, took his own life at thirty-three, when Erik was only three years old. Erik describes his father as having too much “self awareness." He was controlled by a system of Christianity that felt like a penal system. Erik eventually came to his father’s dim view of Christianity and saw it as “a set of rules meant to inflict self-loathing.” This led him to look for an "American gospel."
Reece writes: “Eighteen years of compulsory churchgoing, followed by eighteen more years of trying to extract myself from the church, has convinced me that Tolstoy was right: the more Christian fundamentalism emphasizes that the kingdom of God awaits us as a reward in the afterlife, the more it ignores the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. That is to say, the more mainstream Christianity emphasizes a theology of salvation from this world, the more it ignores Jesus’ teachings of how we should act while we inhabit this earthly realm. And the more Christianity becomes about the salvation from this world, the more it highlights our inherent sin, the sole obstacle to salvation.”
Given the brand of fundamentalism that Reece experienced in his formative years I can understand why he pits the kingdom of God in this world against the kingdom of God in the new heavens and the new earth. The obvious theological solution is to believe that Christ’s kingdom is already present in this wonderful world and not yet final but when it is it will be a recreated new earth! This “already-not yet” perspective addresses many of the concerns that Reece addresses in this magnificent story. Sadly, the religion of his grandfather, and that of his father too, knew little or nothing about the glory of creation, the victory of Christ’s resurrection and the redemption of this world by Christ making all things “new.”
Reece eventually read the Gospel of Thomas and found a life-affirming message that he suggests gives us the basis for a truly “American Gospel.” He concludes, with non-judgmental equanimity, that “I have not quite come around to Tolstoy’s belief that one must choose which kingdom to believe in—the heavenly kingdom or the kingdom that is right before us. I still cast my lot with the pragmatists and hold that if a belief in a heavenly kingdom causes one to act on the teachings of Jesus in this world, then one has no right to question such a belief.” AS I indicated above, in my reference to the already/not yet I see no reason why belief in a heavenly kingdom to come precludes acting on the teachings of Jesus with regard to this present world. Indeed, I see this as nothing less than ancient, biblical (and very non-Gnostic) Christianity.
Reece concludes that we Americans “do not tend to change our behavior simply because we are told that we should. No real political, cultural, or environmental change—the crucial paradigm shift this country needs—will come about without a fundamental change of heart, an inspired people, poetic desire to begin inventing the American future that Jefferson, Whitman, and Wright proposed.” He is, of course, quite right. The problem is that Reece does not truly understand how the good news of Jesus can actually produce this change. Sadly, his experience of Christianity gave him no basis to seriously think otherwise. I believe the truly good news of Jesus can bring about such change but with Reece I long to see the gospel liberated from the machinations of the various proponents of American fundamentalism. In this case we may well be so heavenly minded that it could be said that we have become no earthly good. A life-affirming, world celebrating good news is needed in the church if critics like Reece are to ever see what the power of God actually looks like. His book is a powerful reminded of the need for faithful understanding of the great truths of Christianity held in proper balance.