Kurt Andersen, the author of Fantasyland - How American Went Haywire appears to believe he's put his finger on why we in America think and behave the strange way we do. When I first started reading the book, however, I had mixed feelings. While I felt that this book brought out some accurate analyses of American culture, I also felt like I was sitting around with an old curmudgeon who was mainly complaining about America's slippery slide. I felt that the book would be best subtitled, "A Cynic's Guide to American History." However, as I continued I found it a fascinating read and felt compelled to carry on through its 400 plus pages.
Kurt Andersen has impressive credentials: a novelist, a contributor to The New York Times and Vanity Fair, a host on Public Radio and many others. He is well-known as a cultural critic. Andersen claims somewhere to be an agnostic and has a low view of Christianity, which he feels is based on fantasy. This, I feel, is actually rather encouraging, because if a book such as this were written by a Christian, it would probably be ignored by most, except for the Pat Robertson types.
The thesis of the book is pretty clear and is brought out in the title: we in America live in a fantasy world and have been moving in that direction since the beginning. Interestingly, though our modern situation with a president who treats his office as that of a reality show host and who appears to have little understanding of truth is the epitome of "fantasyland," this is not where the author begins. In fact, he lets us know that he began his studies and writing long before the Trump era.
He credits (or blames) the beginnings of this slide with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation (hence the subtitle "a 500 year history"). By making "belief in the Bible's supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus ... the only prerequisite for being a good Christian," Luther started people on a course of believing whatever they chose to. "The footings for Fantasyland had been cast." (page 17)
The settlers of America come next; they are of two kinds: the gold-seekers and the heaven-on-earth-seekers, i.e. the Puritans. Both believed a fantasy; one group believed the fantasy that wealth for the pickings was to be found in America; the other that some sort of Millennial Kingdom could be built here. And both were wrong.
And so we continue through the history of our nation. Credit is given to those of our Founding Fathers who were "reality based," such as Franklin, Washington and Jefferson. The Enlightenment is not seen as a step in the right direction; rather it "gave license to the freedom of all thought ... the absurd and untrue, as well as, the sensible and true:" The Great Awakening religious revival is a step backward into fantasy and led to even greater fantasies, such as Mormonism and the other weird religious movements of the early 19th century.
And on it goes from P. T. Barnum and the snake-oil salesmen to the California gold rush and on into the 20th century, the Fundamentalist movement and so on. The hippy movement. Always underlying much of his history are his digs at the "fantasies" of Christianity. It's a discouraging history. The red scare. The plethora of conspiracy theories. The economic bubbles. Even liberal intellectuals with their post-modernism making truth optional and personal, subjective rather than objective.
Then there are the Hollywood versions of Fantasyland: Disneyland and all its imitators. The X-files. Though these make no claims to reality, we are less and less able to tell where reality leaves off and fantasy begins.
And we finally end up in Trump's America, dominated by "alternative facts" and "fake news" and Fox News. An America where "truthiness" is more pleasing than truth.
So how do we Christians take this book? I suppose many, even most of my fellow believers will either ignore this book, write it off as the rantings of an agnostic curmudgeon or resent it as one more attack on the faith. For sure, like many unbelievers, Andersen at times shows little knowledge of the Christianity he attacks. And yes, he himself appears to have his own fantasy bubble. As one reviewer said, he suffers, in short, from "the fantasy of the intellectual that of all the rival systems competing for our attention, his alone is reality-based." (James Bowman in The Weekly Standard quoted in The Week, 9/22/17).
And yet I believe that this is an important book for any Christian communicator, for a number of reasons, the first being, as Robert Burns said long ago, "to see oursels as others see us." And this should lead to confession of our complicity in the decline in thinking in America. Andersen sees any belief in the supernatural as fantasy thinking and while we may not be able to prove him wrong to his satisfaction, we can at least attempt to rid ourselves of the fantasies that cling to us: imaginary miracles, supposed signs of the second coming, reading all disasters as signs of God's judgment, the prosperity gospel, seeking solutions to our moral problems in immoral political leaders. At times (most times?) we who consider ourselves orthodox appear just as loony as the rest.
Also - though unwittingly - Andersen's book illustrates some truths that are essential to our understanding of the faith: the doctrine of original sin ("the only doctrine of Christianity that is empirically verifiable."), as well as humankind's propensity toward religious and superstitious error. Or as the Apostle Paul said, "they (humankind) became futile in their thinking and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Romans 1:21)
And this book teaches us the danger of uncritical thinking. Of all people, we who are committed to the One who claimed to be the Truth, should also be committed to discerning the truth in every claim and to not be eager to follow the path to Fantasyland.