Jul 19, 2012

The American Bible—A Book Review

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation by Stephen Prothero. 

May we quickly disabuse ourselves of two notions pertaining to the title of this book The American Bible? First, some readers may be irked because a conjecture that Stephen Prothero’s perspective presupposes that “America” is purely a Christian ideal. Hence—why not “The American Koran” or “Torah?” This is not what the title implies. Rather Prothero uses "Bible" in his title in a sense of “collection of books” or “library” of documents. This is our collective history that has authority for how Americans think and behave.

The second inaccurate notion is probably why this book came into my possession to review. When seeing the title The American Bible I jumped to the immediate conclusion that this book had to do with biblical interpretation from a North American hermeneutic or something of that nature. Instead, what the book turns out to be is a collection of what author Stephen Prothero sees as the most important documents in the history of the United States. The subtitle offers a clue to the book’s aim: “How our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.” He uses a religious metaphor of “bible” to suggest that although this is not a religious book, it is nonetheless full of religious ideas. Prothero writes: “The conversation [about America] is spirited because the United States isn’t just a country; it is also a religion of sorts” (page 3).

The religion of which he speaks is not that of Yahweh, Moses, and Jesus, although in some American quarters this may be true. Rather, Prothero writes of a religion in the more generic sense of a set of high-minded concepts that have a “religious feel” about them: freedom, courage, respect, equality.

John Ruskin once remarked, “All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” What Prothero strives to do in The American Bible is bring to our collective consciousness those ideals and concepts that made us what we are as a nation. In so doing, Prothero creates a book that highlights what Ruskin offers as “books of all time.” Of course, as Prothero himself admits what he calls “books” in this writing may include poems or songs or narratives—but Prothero collapses all these literary forms into the generic term “book.”

Prothero’s table of contents may be seen as fanciful or brilliant, depending on one’s point of view. He divides the documents or books he selects for this volume and places them under actual biblical categories. Under Genesis he places seminal American writings such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence. In the section called Lamentations he places the Gettysburg Address and Mary Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Prothero has ten such categories.

The American Bible’s content is predictable. We would expect to see The Constitution and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Speech. Yet Prothero also includes some surprises: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman,” Ronald Regan’s “evil empire,” and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. What Prothero is after are works that, as the subtitle suggests, are documents that “unite, divide, and define” us as a nation. This collection of writings—and they are complete or abridged—is more than 500 pages.

In this book, America can be seen through the keyhole of its formative writings—things that stand in authority in our national conversation. Agree or disagree with these pieces of American literature, they are all nonetheless those writings that set the agenda for any national dialogue.

Like our national parks which have been called "America's best idea," America has almost always taken other nations’ and people’s ideas and altered them into our sort of art form—some for the worse, some for the better—slavery, freedom, universal suffrage, universal education, and free enterprise. Taking roughly 38 time-tested documents from our history, Prothero allows a wide assortment of critics to weigh in on whatever the writing puts forth. For example, in the chapter titled “Roe v. Wade" some of the critiques are written by, among others, Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Mother Teresa, and Barack Obama. Many of the commentaries on the primary sources are fascinating and run the whole gambit of American history—from very early to quite recent.

Although there are many anthologies that collect American documents, I am familiar with none with this range of authors with respect to gender, time, and political perspective. The American Bible truly allows many voices into the conversation that is uniquely American. In addition, the commentary as well as the introductions to each entry helpfully set the historic context of the writings. But more than that, it is fascinating in one book to have access to both Stephen Carter (law professor) and Jimmy Carter (former president) comment on Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists—written in 1802. The strength of this book is that it is a tour of great American ideas from multiple perspectives over the last 250+ years.

Perhaps more than any other country since the Greece of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the United States of America is a nation of ideas, notions, and concepts—and at times ideals we all thought worthy of passionate debate. Today, sadly, too many citizens are only interested in “feathering their own nests” or “getting what is mine” and the rest of the American experiment hardly stirs their notice. America is a place in the mind and heart where we talk seriously about things: the relationship of individuals versus community liberties, inalienable rights, limited and decentralized government, the pursuit of happiness, private versus public property, and the role of taxes to enhance the life of the commonwealth.

I heartily recommend Stephen Prothero’s The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation. For although it is not a book about biblical interpretation or a North American hermeneutical methodology, it can, like the original Bible, offer one a glimpse of the best humanity can muster.

Review written by Rev. David N. Mosser and reprinted with permission from The United Methodist Reporter

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