Friday, 19 February 2010

American Beauty

Just spent a very good week in the USA. I love being in America and Americans, but they do perplex me sometimes. Browsing through the bookshop in Charleston airport this week, I found all the Christian books (Rick Warren, Joel Osteen etc.) under the ‘Self-Help’ section. No trace of irony of course. It’s telling though: American Christianity has a fair amount of the ‘self-help’ variety: ‘Seven keys to improving your life every day”, ‘Six steps to build a healthy marriage’ and so on.
I guess a lot of it can be explained by American origins – a land where everyone came to seek fortune and prosperity. The ancestors were the ones with the initiative to get up and leave their home countries to look for a better life (unless, that is, they were slaves and didn’t have much choice). Built into the American psyche therefore is a self-made, you-can-do-it attitude, which explains why it has been such a phenomenally successful nation. It also explains the quick-fix make-it-simple approach: if you don’t help yourself, no one else will, so you need to take responsibility, get there as soon as you can.
That sense of needing to do it yourself is maybe why they are so reluctant to accept universal healthcare, which we Brits just take for granted. Even the more politically conservative British think the NHS is a good thing, and we just can’t understand why the Americans don’t want it.
Funnily enough, however, Americans also value character (witness Tiger Woods’ words this afternoon), and yet character takes time to build. It takes a sense of surrender – it starts with the recognition that we lack goodness, with the humility that recognises true Christian character as the work of the Holy Spirit not human effort. Its only when we know we need God’s help not self-help. It can only come through the work of God is us as we submit to the disciplines of the Christian life. Character doesn’t come in six easy steps. That is the dilemma: D-I-Y religion or the slow steady growth of faith-based virtue and Christian character – which one will win the day?


  1. You've written a timely message here, explaining the pschologizing of the church's message.

  2. Ask any American who said "God helps those who help themselves." Your answer will be met with a little confusion. The answer will be, "It's in the Bible."
    Proverbs maybe...?
    Solomon didn't say it.
    David didn't say it.
    Our Saviour didn't say it.
    Well... Nuts! Who said it then???
    A fine American wiseman, scientist, founding father, printer, founder of the University of Pennsylvania, and "cheeky fellow"--Benjamin Franklin.
    Ultimately Americans realize we are individuals and not entitled to a hand-out. We will lend a hand when necissary, but despise you when you take advantage of our generosity.
    Americans (most of us) have a sense that when a government controls a benefit they can control those who are dependent on it.
    If you read the the Declairation of Independence, to paraphrase, it states that we the people are endowed by our Creator to persue Life, Liberty, and Happiness. Notice that the infant American government does NOT claim to make men free and equal. The credit is placed with our God. A government that controls your life liberty and ability can take it away.

    This is the defining line between American conservatism and liberalism. One states that you know best how to lead your life. The other, that the government is filled with wiser, and better educated people who know what's best for you and your family. If you don't know your history, or your Scriptures, they will even control what you think.

    O.D. Dearborn


St Mellitus - a Story of Redemption

This is the text of a sermon preached at St Paul's Cathedral on Thursday 2nd May 2019, when  the  Cathedral was celebrating St Mellitus...