Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero - Book Review

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Devide, and Define a Nation by Stephen Prothero (Harper One, $29.00, 533 pages) is not a book to be read. Rather its a volume to keep at your bedside or on the table beside your reading chair, or even in the bathroom to be dipped into frequently, to absorb, and to learn from on a regular basis. What author Prothero has done is to take a number of seminal American documents from throughout our history and surround each one with historical and contemporary commentary shedding light on the meaning of each throughout our entire history. Taking Old Testament scriptural analysis such as is found in the Talmud, where rabbis throughout the history have commented on the meaning of biblical verse sas a model, the book helps us to see how the meaning and understanding of these documents has changed according to the contexts of the time in which they are read. Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, has provided a great service for anyone seeking to grow in their knowledge and appreciation of the great documents which help us form in our imaginations a picture of what it means to be an American as well as to continue the conversation.

Taking its name from its structure, or perhaps vice versa, the book is structured like the Bible. It begins with Genesis (the beginning) and progresses through Exodus (documents of leaving and arriving), the Law (Constitution), Psalms (Francis Scott Key, Woody Guthrie), and on into the New Testament with the Gospels (Jefferson, FDR, and Ronald Reagan). Acts (the Pledge of Allegiance) and concludes with our Epistles (Washington, Jefferson, and King). Each selection is surrounded by commentaries from contemporaries of the work itself. For instance, he uses John Winthrop's sermon to the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in which Winthrop refers to the Sermon on the Mount to picture a “city upon a hill” which
which Ronald Reagan mined so successfully as “a shining city on the hill” as well as John F. Kennedy, Mario Cuomo, Jerry Falwell, among others.

In another segment, Prothero has selected a chapter from The Autobiography of Malcolm X in his chaper called The Prophets (other works in this chapter are culled from Thoreau, Eisenhower, and M.L. King ). After an essay placing Malcolm X in historical context, Prothero presents a fairly lengthy and representative excerpt from the book. (Some samples are heavily footnoted, too, although this one is not). After giving readers a taste of Malcolm's ideas along with his rhetoric, Prothero presents a series of commentaries from as diverse a sample as The Saturday Evening Post, a critic at the L.A. Times who comments, “As a symbol, Malcolm X ought to be examined very, very carefully. For he represents a dangerous, authoritarian impulse in America.” (324) In contrast, Carol Ohman, an American critic, wrote, “...belongs not only in an Afro-American course but in a course in American Literature or American Autobiography. Both Benjamin Franklin and Malcolm X testify to certain strengths and certain weaknesses in our national ethos.” (325)

The chapter on The Pledge of Allegiance is particularly interesting. The shortest of all the works found in The American Bible the Pledge, consisting, in its current incarnation, of 31 words, has a checkered and controversial history. First written in 1892 as a part of the celebration of Columbus “discovery” of America it was amended by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, adding the words, “under God.” President Benjamin Harrison first urged that it be recited by school children, and it has since become part of the daily ritual in most schools as part of the opening exercises, once accompanied (and sanctified) by recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Commentaries range from Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson's 1943 opinion overturning the requirement for students to recite the Pledge to high school student Emma Martens suggestion for an alternative text. Much of the discussion revolves around the implications to include or exclude “under God.” 

Stephen Prothero

Throughout the book, Prothero presents texts and commentaries that have that moved us to cheers, tears, and fisticuffs. They consistently show the power of words to move us to thought and action. The introductory section for each selection is complete and thoughtful without resorting to the cant of partisanship, while the commentaries that are selected for inclusion represent the full range of political and social opinion. Prothero communicates his belief in readers to come to conclusions of their own without relying on him to tell them what to think...Oh, how refreshing. I don't encourage readers to read through The American Bible but to dip into it, sampling whole chapters at a time and reading all the material for each topic. Prothero's introductions are valuable and the commentaries essential. It is available as an unabridged audio book and might be just the stuff to listen to while commuting or exercising.

The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define A Nation by Stephen Prosperso is published by HarperOne (2012) and is 533 pages long. It is available from all the usual sources and was provided to me by the publisher through TLC BookTours. It retails for $29.00, but is deeply discounted. I don't recommend reading this in a Kindle edition, as formatting is important in reading this one. If you want to help support the blog and are interested in the book, please consider purchasing thought the links in this review or the Amazon portal on this site.

Other Stops on The American Bible's Tour

Tuesday, May 29th: blogtrotter
Thursday, June 14th: Noisy Room
Friday, June 15th: Crazy Liberals … and Conservatives
Wednesday, June 20th: What Would the Founders Think?
Thursday, June 21st: Marathon Pundit
Monday, June 25th: Random Thoughts of a Lutheran Geek
Tuesday, June 26th: Gospel Community culture
Thursday, June 28th: Wordsmithonia
Thursday, June 28th: The Future American
Friday, June 29th: 50 Books Project
Monday, July 2nd: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Tuesday, July 3rd: So What Faith
TBD: They Gave Us a Republic