William Dean, the author of the book titled “The American Spiritual Culture and the Invention of Jazz, Football, and the Movies” is a professor of psychology at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. The title of this book can mistakenly lead its audience to the assumption that it is a light reading about football jazz and movies. However, it is a serious exploration of the culture of Americans from a spiritual and theological perspective. Football, jazz and movies are just used as examples to show how culture gave birth to such elements. The author argues that Americans are culturally displaced because most of their ancestors immigrated into the country. He asserts that it is very hard to define the American spiritual culture and it cannot be discussed in formal philosophical and theological categories.
In the first part of the book, titled “God the Opaque”, Dean tries to define the American spiritual culture. He argues that the American spiritual culture is full of mystery, pragmatism and skepticism. Dean asserts that skepticism is a national characteristic. He likens the spiritual culture of America to that of Russia before its fall at the start of the 20th century. Dean argues that the failed spiritual culture signaled by the lack of a shared ideology within the country precipitated the economic and spiritual decline of Russia. The author ends the first chapter with a call for the revival of outspoken and creative critics of religious matters in the American social sphere. The second chapter starts with the description of American society as that which is full of displaced people. He says that America is made up of immigrants, freedom seekers, asylum seekers, and slaves who moved into a new country without an awareness of what fully waited for them ahead. He argues that this situation has the potential to cripple America spiritually.
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The author identifies three situations that have set the spiritual and cultural change in America. First of all, the realization that leaving home is tantamount to abandoning an identity; second, there is no profound conventional identity in America and, third, the realization that the only choice Americans have is standing at the edge of the void, light their lamps and create a new identity. Dean goes ahead to compare America with the biblical Israelites. He notes that both societies were much focused on surviving away from their original homeland. Therefore, they created pragmatic theologies with a view of discussing God and his actions in their respective dramatic histories. While making a summary of religious pragmatism in America, he describes the impact of different groups and thinkers on America, ranging from the Calvinists to the Puritans. He asserts that the concept of God functions in the history of America as a social construct or convention that evolves within a society, and then takes a life of its own within the same society.
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Dean’s analysis of the birth of football, jazz and the movies in the American spiritual and historical context is the most interesting part of the book. He creates a free-ranging and engaging style of writing in this study of how jazz developed from African-American sacred music and other forms of immigrant music. Dean asserts that jazz developed from the extreme dispossession and violent displacement of black people in America, where they were stripped of their freedom, names and family. The author posits that jazz is therapeutic and socially and psychologically uplifting, a force powerful enough to overcome the effects of displacement. This method of approaching history through improvisation is crucial for dealing with the surrounding world, according to Dean. The practice goes back to the history of Israel, especially when the meaning of the law of the people of Israel was changed in the Pentauch. Dean draws parallels between the jazz improvisation and the Israelite oral conventions, which was based on many old stories that updated the community continually, helping them to understand God in dynamic and changing times. He paints the act of improvisation as a prayerful and holy creation, which signifies the role of faith in the relationship between God and human beings in history. Most Christian theologians all the way from the time of Eusebius of Caesura working together with the church have always articulated the role of God in history using a Hellenistic approach. Dean postulates that the practice of the laity of praying privately has been able to preserve many theological improvisations within the Christian religion. Moreover, the author elevates private prayer in a manner that redirects the attention of theologians and scholars to creative and serious theology that has been spread in the church for a long time.
Dean can move back and forth through centuries with much freedom and elegance. This makes his articulation of the main argument energetic, thought-provoking and eye-opening. This approach helps him to highlight connections in a manner that makes the past appear real and not quite rusty. In the chapters, where he deals with football, Dean draws parallels between the violence found in the game and the spiritual legacy of conquerors, who were untamed in the untamed territory. When dealing with the movies, he suggests that the early Jewish studio heads, who were outsiders, were figured mainly in the creation of a culture of glamour, gangsters and gunslingers, which were fictional, and are now part of the American history.
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Along notes section in the book and a good and serviceable index provides various historical, religious, and socio-political sources that can help his audience delve deeper into the debate and discussion of the spiritual culture and history of America. This book is broad enough due to the interdisciplinary approach that the author has used. Quoting extensively from a wide range of sources, Dean makes an impressive erudition. However, some quotes have been misused, which affect the validity of his arguments. This is not a general public book. The book has a targeted audience. It is a scholarly masterpiece that can be used by historians, theologians, and even music scholars. It can also be used in church study groups that would like to have a deeper understanding of American spiritual history.