One of the most famous authors of the late nineteenth century, Leo Tolstoy, once read the New Testament Gospels and then wrote a book titled: The Kingdom of God Is Within You. In his book Tolstoy argued that one cannot believe in the Sermon on the Mount and the Nicene Creed.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, to give to those who beg and to avoid all hypocritical judgments. By contrast the Nicene Creed is an assertion of the divinity of Jesus as “the only son of God.” He was born of a virgin, crucified as a bloody sacrifice for the sins of humankind and rose from the dead on the third day. Tolstoy argued that one either has to accept the Sermon’s rigorous demands for how we must act in this world or choose the Creed as a way of escaping from this world to another. He concluded, “The man who believes in a god, in a Christ coming again in glory to judge and to punish the quick and the dead cannot believe in the Christ who bade us turn the left cheek, judge not, forgive those that wrong us, and love our enemies.” For good measure the famous Russian then added, “The man who believes in the Church’s doctrine of the compatibility of welfare and capital punishment with Christianity cannot believe in the brotherhood of all men.” And later, “The man who believes in salvation through faith in the redemption or the sacraments cannot devote all his powers to realizing Christ’s moral teaching in his life.”
Erik Reece, writer in residence at the University of Kentucky, begins his powerful new memoir, An American Gospel, with these words of Leo Tolstoy. Reece, the son and grandson of Baptist ministers, deeply agrees with Tolstoy, up to a point at least, and then sets out to show why. His prose is magnificent and his story moving, especially to this son of the South and the product of the Baptists. But Reece's conclusion is not mine. His is an American blend of Emerson, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gnosticism and the spiritual experience of William James. His primary religious text is the Gospel of Thomas and the opposite is American Christianity in its most fundamentalist forms.
Erik Reece’s grandfather was a pillar in his rural Virginia community. He explored the local mountains and rivers with his grandson but Erik soon realized that for him existence on this earth was about denying pleasure in order to prepare for the next life. Erik’s father was also a Baptist minister, though not as settled in mind and emotion as his father. By the age of thirty-three Erik's dad had experienced enough of life (he was mentally ill as Reece admits). He violently ended his own life in his bed at home with a rifle shot. This led to Erik, only three at the time, spending most of his childhood around his grandparents and later a step-father.
As a result of these human tragedies Reece grew up very conflicted about religion. He suffered terribly and eventually experienced his own breakdown. At thirty-three, the same year in which his father had ended his life, Reece found comfort in the famous Jefferson Bible. He carefully tracked Jefferson’s choices regarding what he left in the Bible and eventually discovered how close Jefferson's instincts were to the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. (Obviously, Jefferson did not have this work in hand when he made his choices for what he kept and omitted in his own version of the Bible!) Thus began Reece's earnest attempt to put together a truly “American gospel.”
His spiritual and literary quest led him to some amazing American writers—William Byrd, Walt Whitman, William James and Lynn Margulis. The gospel he found celebrated the pleasures and glories of this earth, not of heaven. In time this gospel gave Reece both spiritual and intellectual peace within his American soul. The result of this experience is a deeply self-revealing book that stirs the soul and grips the reader in some rather profound ways. If ever there was a non-Christian sermon that can move the mind and heart this has to be it. The only problem will become obvious to thoughtful Christians—Reece did not need to reject Christian orthodoxy to find a life-affirming, earth appreciating, message of joy.
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