Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation

I always am honored when I am asked to review a book for TLC book tours, they always seem to introduce me to really interesting books that I might not find on my own.  Whether I enjoy the book or loathe it (a rare experience for me), I always come away with some new information, ideas and knowledge.  Stephen Prothero's  The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation is no exception.

Prothero sets out to create a sort of American Canon, a collection of texts and commentaries that have deeply shaped the political landscape of the United States.  What I found so accessible in this book is that Prothero crafts and shapes the book in a parallel to the way that the Christian Bible is set up - a sense of beginning in Genesis, the foundation of the law, historical songs (Psalms), influential novels (Chronicles), and a host of other "primary" texts.  Take a look for yourself at the "The American Canon" as found in Prothero's book:
  • Genesis
    The Exodus Story
    John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity (1630)
    Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)
    The Declaration of Independence (1776)
    Noah Webster, The Blue-Back Speller (1783-)
  • Law
    The Constitution (1787)
    Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
    Roe v. Wade (1973)
  • Chronicles
    Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
    Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
    Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)
  • Psalms
    Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner” (1814)
    Irving Berlin, “God Bless America” (1938)
    Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land” (1940)
  • Proverbs
    Benjamin Franklin, “Remember that time is money” (1748)
    Benjamin Franklin, “God helps those who help themselves” (1758)
    Patrick Henry, “Give me liberty or give me death” (1775)
    Abigail Adams, “Remember the ladies” (1776)
    Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a woman?” (1851)
    Abraham Lincoln, “With malice toward none, with charity for all” (1865)
    Chief Joseph, “I will fight no more forever” (1877)
    Calvin Coolidge, ” The business of America is business” (1925)
    Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people” (1932)
    John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” (1961)
    Ronald Reagan, “Evil empire” (1983)
  • Prophets
    Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849)
    Dwight Eisenhower, Farewell Address (1961)
    Marin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” (1963)
    Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
  • Lamentations
    Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863)
    Maya Lin, Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982)
  • Gospels
    Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address (1801)
    Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address (1933)
    Ronald Reagan, “The Speech” (1964)
  • Acts
    The Pledge of Allegiance (1892, 1954)
  • Epistles
    George Washington, Farewell Address (1796)
    Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to the Danbury Baptists” (1802)
    Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)
What is so interesting is that Prothero himself admits that these are not necessarily the books that he would have chosen for himself to include, but are instead an attempt at compiling the texts, speeches, and writings that have truly shaped the American nation.

The other advantage to the way that Prothero has shaped this book is that each of the primary texts is surrounded by an introduction from Prothero and followed by several "commentaries" on it.  These are instances where the primary text influences other famous texts or speeches.  What I found so fascinating is that similar themes and texts were used by both political parties for their own means.   The Exodus Story for example influenced the rhetoric of both the Confederates wishing to leave the Union (making Lincoln into Pharaoh) and the slaves wishing for freedom (making the Confederates into Pharaoh).  This happened quite a bit, primarily in the earliest defining texts of America.

What this book gives is a lens from which to view things from a historical and intellectual perspective before leaping into the partisan politics that so dominates our political landscape today.  It is helpful to know that both JFK and Ronald Reagan quote from John Winthrop's, “A Model of Christian Charity (1630) for their own political gains.

Much like religious issues between the right and left are becoming increasingly polarized, so are political ones.  For me it is essential to go back to the primary texts (the Bible in religious instances) and the various texts that Porthero includes in his book, to seek out what the original historical context for something was, as well as the model of how that writing has later been shaped our religious or political history.

The goal of Prothero is not to get all American's to agree, the goal is to encourage dialogue.  One of the key elements that Prothero used to pick his texts was "the ability of a given text to generate controversy and conversation." (p. 7)  After all, it is the conversation and controversy that is foundational and essential to the American experience.

I think by reading the American Bible you won't always agree with Prothero, but that is the point.  However, I do think that your view of the American landscape will end up more nuanced and better able to recognize the themes and rhetoric that still dominate the American political scene today.

1 comment:

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

This book would certainly give readers a great deal to discuss, and perhaps that is the simplest solution to the polarization you mention.

Thanks for being a part of the tour.