Book Review: Much to savor, and debate about, in American Bible

By David N. Mosser, Special Contributor…

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation
Stephen Prothero
HarperOne, 2012
544 pages, hardcover

May we quickly disabuse ourselves of two notions pertaining to the title of Stephen Prothero’s new book The American Bible? First, some readers may be irked because they’ll assume that Dr. Prothero’s perspective presupposes that “American” is purely a Christian ideal. Why not The American Koran or The American Torah?

This is not what the title implies. Rather, Dr. 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 probably accounts for why this book came into my possession to review. When seeing the title The American Bible, I jumped to the 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 Dr. 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.

David Mosser

Dr. Prothero—professor of religion at Boston University and author of the bestseller Religious Literacy—uses “bible” as a religious metaphor to suggest that, although this is not a religious book, it is nonetheless full of religious ideas. Dr. Prothero writes: “The conversation [about America] is spirited because the United States isn’t just a country; it is also a religion of sorts.”

The religion of which he speaks is not that of Yahweh, Moses and Jesus, although in some American quarters this may be true. Rather, Dr. 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 Dr. 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 he creates a book that highlights “books of all time.” Of course, as Dr. Prothero himself admits, what he calls “books” may include poems or songs or narratives—but he collapses all these literary forms into the generic term “book.”

Dr. 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 architect Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Dr. Prothero has 10 such categories.

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

In this book America can be seen through the keyhole of its formative writings—things that have 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.

Comment by Carters

Dr. Prothero allows a wide assortment of critics to weigh in on whatever the selection puts forth. For example, in the chapter titled “Roe v. Wade,” critiques come from, among others, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Mother Teresa, and President Obama. Many of the commentaries on the primary sources are fascinating and run the whole gamut of American history—from very early to quite recent.

Although there are many anthologies that collect American documents, I am familiar with none that offers this one’s range of authors with respect to gender, time and political perspective. The American Bible truly allows many voices into the conversation that are uniquely American. In addition, the commentary as well as the introductions to each entry helpfully set the historical context. But more than that, it is fascinating in one book to have access to both Stephen Carter (law professor) and Jimmy Carter (former President) commenting 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-plus 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 should still be a place where we talk seriously about such matters as the relationship of individual 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 Dr. 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.

Dr. Mosser is pastor of First UMC in Arlington, Texas. He’s the author of A Stewardship Companion (2007) and edited Transitions (2011), both books from WJK Press.

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