Monday, November 08, 2010

Lutheran Geek Book Review: America's Prophet

It is probably a good thing that I'm not asked to review books very often because otherwise I would find even more books and authors out there in the world to add to my never-ending lists of books to read.  Still I love it when I am invited because that means that I get to delve into something I might not have picked up otherwise.  In this instance it was with TLC book tours and the book was America's Prophet: How the Story of Moses shaped America by Bruce Feiler.

And just to give you an idea here is the teaser on the back of the book:
The pilgrims quoted his story. Franklin and Jefferson proposed he appear on the U.S. seal. Washington and Lincoln were called his incarnations. The Statue of Liberty and Superman were molded in his image. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked him the night before he died. Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama cited him as inspiration. For four hundred years, one figure has inspired more Americans than any other. His name is Moses.

Traveling through touchstones in American history, bestselling author Bruce Feiler traces the biblical prophet's influence from the Mayflower through today. Meticulously researched and highly readable, America's Prophet is a thrilling, original work of history that will forever change how we view America, our faith, and our future.
 Are you intrigued?  I know that I was.  It helps that I seriously debated getting an Old Testament MA at Seminary, or that my dad is a history buff, or even that Mr. Goat has a serious History Channel addiction, but more than that I love delving into the conscious and unconscious way that story frames our cultural context.

The book starts out with the juxtaposition of two major family holidays of Feiler's:  Thanksgiving and Passover.  The reality we come to conclude quickly is that the basis of these holidays are tightly wound in America culture in ways we don't even expect.

If pressed I would have said that there were comparisons to Moses and the Exodus story in America's history but I was surprised how far reaching and purposeful many of them were.  Take the Pilgrim's - they clung to the Moses story as they crossed the waters of the Atlantic seeking religious freedom and seeking to set up a "holy nation"  If you replace Israelites with Pilgrims it seems like the same story and in their minds it was the same story.

Likewise Washington, Jefferson and the Founding Fathers grasped the image during the Revolution, going so far as to suggest an image of Moses for the US seal and comparisons between Moses and Washington.  (Crossing the Delaware for example).  Interestingly the book also talks about how Moses (and Washington) emphasized the need for stricter law and regulation in light of the new found freedom.  They both recognized, Feiler argues, that freedom and law often go hand in hand.

From the Founding Fathers connections to Moses and the Exodus narrative continue to be heralded and formative in the growth of the nation.  Both the North and the South frequently quoted from the books and story of Exodus-Numbers.  The slaves too sought for freedom from oppression and the literal slavery that makes Moses such a compelling figure to them. 

Many Moses' can be found around the Civil war - from Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Harriet Tubman.  The nation, it seemed, raised up leaders willing to take the risk to call the world to "Let their people go"  Later Moses figures naturally go on to include Martin Luther King Jr. as well.  Feiler does not so much insist that in hindsight these leaders of our nation are seen as Moses but that during their lifetime they were viewed, participated in and even called on the story of Moses as a grounding force for the battle of liberty vs oppression around them.  To them and the people living the history of America they were the Israelites striving for freedom, grumbling in the desert and seeking the promised land.

The comparisons to Moses are not only found in leaders but also in our nations imagery and popular culture.   Feiler discusses how the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, Superman and DeMille's Ten Commandments all had ties to the idea of the Exodus story and its relevance to America today.  I for one, had no idea of the anti-Communist propaganda within the Ten Commandments as DeMille scripted it.

I found two things particularly compelling that I am still mulling over today in particular.

1.  I was fascinated by the comparison of Moses not gaining ultimate entry into the Promised Land and how it compares to the death of Lincoln and King in particular.  Would Lincoln or King have had the lasting impact on our nation had they not died when they did?  Could they have succeeded in being both the liberator and rebuilder of the nation?  It was fascinating to consider that the type of leader needed to thrive in the Promised land might not be the same one to lead you to freedom.  Feiler talks much about the importance of this act and you should read what he says on it.

2. I am also intrigued by the continued use of Moses in a much more secular world and am wondering how new Moses' may ultimately influence the current issues of our society - reconciling the Islamic world with our culture for one, or gay marriage for another.  Who will be the next Moses to stand up and say "Let my people go"?

I'm still thinking and probably will be for a while and as far as I'm concerned that always means that I enjoyed the book.  Still to be obvious, the book was interesting and well researched and it gave me a new perspective on our nation's heritage.  Even in its non-"religious" moments of history the story of Moses was a crucial one.  What is it that makes the story of Moses so compelling and easy to parallel?  Perhaps it is because deep down we are always starting again in the cycle of oppression to deliverance to covenant.  

I was giving a book to review from TLC Book Tours but was not compensated in any way, nor was I told what to write.  You can visit Bruce Feiler at his website, on Facebook, or on Twitter too.


Melinda said...

Sounds like a great book...I just added it to my Amazon wishlist (since I owe a small fortune to the library at the moment....)

Heather J. @ TLC Books said...

I love it when a book gives me something to think about for a long time. I'm so glad to hear that this was that kind of book for you. :)

Thanks for being a part of this tour!

trishatfox said...

I've read Feiler's other books. He is super readable. I especially liked his book on Abraham, which I read twice. Could Abraham be any more relevant today? It sounds as if Feiler makes the same case of Moses in this book. I'm so glad you brought it to my attention. I'm going to head to the book store this weekend. You write a good review.

trish said...

You've given me a lot to think about and I haven't even read the book! Fantastic review. :)