Your new book, The Gospel According to America, is a wide-ranging, ambitious survey of American religion and culture. What were you hoping to accomplish?
David Dark: I'd been disturbed by some of the responses of many Christians to the events of September 11, and the kind of uncritical acceptance of slogans and mantras. Around that time, as I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do after Everyday Apocalypse, David Dobson called with the idea of me doing a book in Westminster John Knox Press's Gospel According to series. After thinking about some possible topics, like country music, my wife suggested the gospel according to America. I'm hoping the book can become a sort of bridge-builder for people. It seemed like it could be a good exercise in bringing biblical witness and politics together, and also talk about some things that I liked in my [film] viewing and book reading.
Your book refers to a wide variety of cultural touchstones, from blues and folk music to popular movies and classical literature. How do you have the time to keep up with all this reading, listening and watching?
Every spare moment, I'll often be reading something. I'm ashamed to say that I've even done it while pushing a child on a swing. We've got three children. Before we had children, I was a complete freak for movies and music. With my little network of friends in Nashville, this has been our lingua franca for a long time. There's been a sort of communal discernment happening with colleagues for many years. I feel like reading is what I'm supposed to be doing.
Why do you say that America's living in a "weird moment" right now?
I suppose folks might say that people have always had difficulty talking about politics and religion. But in recent months and years, we're more divided as a nation. We have a culture in which folks find themselves repeating sound bites they heard on Crossfire or talk radio. We mistake this biased spin-talk for real arguments. We're too busy thinking about what we're going to say next to really listen to what other people have said. Part of this book's goal is to remind people of our stories, of what is good in novels or songs or films. They have wisdom that we can incorporate in our way of looking at the world.
You say your book is a "project in anger management." Why?
I'm angry. I don't shout, but I can seethe pretty well. There were probably some angry bits in the book initially, but I edited it pretty heavily. My anger is that people are increasingly unable to give the benefit of the doubt to those who disagree with them or to learn something from them. Those are actually the people you have the most to learn from. With the Ahab stuff, and Hawthorne and Melville's characters, you see a lot of inner wrestling. I believe that both of those writers have something to say to us about how to be afraid of our own stubbornness, of our power to mischaracterize others. Lincoln, in his refusal to pull the name of God in to endorse his decisions or policies, is a model through the book. God isn't a bragging right. The greatest minds of American history and letters have understood that truth isn't a possession. We get to be seekers and learners of truth, but we don't have the copyright on the ways of the Lord.