Thursday, June 28, 2012

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero

Part Of The Synopsis From Dust Jacket:

Since Thomas Jefferson first recorded those self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence, America has been a nation that has unfolded as much on the page and the podium as on battlefields or in statehouses.  Here Stephen Prothero reveals which texts continue to generate controversy and drive debate.  He then puts these voices into conversation, tracing how prominent leaders and thinkers of one generation have commented upon the core texts of another, and invites readers to join in.

I love politics.  I don't think there is anyone around me who doesn't know that fact.  I follow it as much as I can, as much as being a single father with a full time job will allow me to.  I know enough to follow elections and debates with a degree of understanding.  Hell, I follow it enough that I'm pretty sure I could identify every sitting Senator, if not by name, by face.  I volunteer for campaigns.  I wear campaign shirts.  I voice my opinion, sometimes too much. I have never missed an election, primary or general, since I turned 18.  I take politics seriously, but not personally.  What I do not do, is make a religion out of my political, national, or world views.  What's more, though they don't realize it, I think the vast majority of Americans do make a "religion" out of their beliefs.  I'm still debating in my head, if this book simply reflects that, or if it glories in it.  I am leaning towards the reflection side.

By the way, I have a feeling this is going to be a rather long review, so for that I apologize.  You guys won't hurt my feelings if you don't feel like reading the entire thing.

From the title to the layout (more on that later), it seems as if the author is glorifying the idea that nationalism and our identity as Americans has turned into a quasi-religion.  All you have to do is turn on cable news for anything longer than 30 minutes to understand that for a lot of us, being an American has taken on some rather overt religious tones.  A lot of us consider this nation and, by default, ourselves as God's chosen.  It's a concept I have serious issues wish, least of which is that when you think you are doing what God wants you to do, or that you represent God's chosen, it's a little hard to have a serious debate that may actually change hearts and minds.  It's a concept that has set into stone, certain ideas and beliefs that doesn't allow any room for growth or compromise.

The book itself is broken down into chapters that mirror the Bible.  It's starts with Genesis and ends with Epistles.  I must admit that part of me was awfully glad that it didn't end with Revelations.  And it's in the way the author structures these chapters that redeemed this book for me.  Each chapter follows the same basic flow.  He introduces us to the topic, giving us a brief background and history on it.  Then, except in one case, gives us the material in it's entirety or if it's from a longer work, an excerpt of it.  That is then followed by commentary, both past and present.  Other than in the introductions, where some of author's biases come through (I dare anyone to write a book like this and not have that happen), the material is presented in a pretty straightforward manner.  The commentary we are presented with comes at the subject from all angles and all political persuasions.  I think he did a rather admirable job at giving the reader a cross section of opinion, allowing the reader to take everything in.

As you may suspect, Genesis, starts us off at the beginning of our nation.  It delves into the idea of how The Exodus Story has influenced our history and our present political climate.  It moves on through "A Model of Christian Charity" by John Winthrope, Common Sense by Thomas Paine, The Declaration of Independence, and The Blue-Black Speller by Noah Webster.  In each of these cases, the author makes a compelling argument for how each speech or book influenced the way Americans viewed themselves and the country at the beginning of our history.  He makes the cases that these are the foundations of what an American identity was built upon.

Law, introduces us to The Constitution, a document that many of us revere but have never read all the way through.  It's, in my view, one of the pillars of our country, but it's not widely read or understood.  You don't need to watch cable news to discover a lot of Americans not only don't know the history of The Constitution or the fights our founding fathers had in crafting it, but they really don't know what's in it.  Outside of the Preamble and the first 10 amendments, our schools really don't cover it enough to allow our children to really have a grasp on not only what The Constitution says, but what it doesn't say.   This chapter also delves into two Supreme Court decisions that altered society in ways that we are still fighting about, Brown V. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

Chronicles, delves into the novels that have formed and changed the way Americans relate with each other, racial minorities, and their government.  Of all the chapters in this book, this is the one that seems to be the most subjective in terms of what was included and left out.  It only lists three novels, Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  Now that first two books I get.  I can understand how both books fundamentally changed the way society understood and changed in regards to race in this country.  I don't think either book worked alone in that aspect, nor did either one work miracles, but they both got a conversation started.  It's the third book I find to be an odd choice.  Don't get me wrong, I love Atlas Shrugged, and despite how it conflicts with my politics, it's one of my favorites.  And maybe when it first came out, it helped to define the current conservative movement in this country, but I think that's where it ends.  I think the politics and beliefs behind the book have a rather powerful cult following, but I think it's small.  I actually wonder how many people underneath the age of 40 have even read the book, outside of a college campus that is.  I'm not saying it shouldn't be included because it has made an impact, I'm just thinking there were other novels that should have been included before it.

The musical heritage of our country is diverse and strong, so I think it's fitting that there should be a Psalms chapter.  And while I think the three songs included deserve to be there, I'm not so sure they are the only three songs that have shaped our nation's identity.  Nor do I think they are the only three songs that have shaped our view of our place in the world.  "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key, "God Bless America", Irving Berlin's response to the national anthem, and Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" are important songs.  I'm just not convinced, even after reading this book, that there shouldn't be an entire book on this subject alone.

Proverbs was by far the quickest chapter to read and one of the most entertaining.  Here is where we are introduced to one line sayings from Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Abigail Adams, Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Chief Joseph, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Regan, but the author lets us in on some of the background and history behind the words.  They are all sayings we are familiar with and I must say I'm amazed by the staying power of some of them.  There can be a pretty strong argument made in regards to how some of these proverbs have shaped the American identity in ways unrivaled by any other aspect of this book.

Of all the books I've read before this one, I don't think I've ever had Henry David Thoreau, Dwight Eisenhower, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X put into the same section before.  In Prophets, the author makes a compelling argument for lumping these men together.  Whether it's in Thoreau's treatise on  "Civil Disobedience", Eisenhower's farewell address, King's "I Have a Dream" speech, or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, these four men were giving us a glimpse into the future of this country.  In some cases they were meant to serve as a warning, in others, a celebration of where we were going.  But in all cases, they were men who were trying to give us their vision of our country's future and for the most part, they are visions that have stuck in our collective minds and hearts.

Lamentations is the one chapter that surprised me the most.  There are only two subjects discussed in the book,  Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial designed by Maya Lin.  I guess what surprised me the most was the controversy that both of those things stirred up and how both of them were used in such ways, by people who should have know better, to score political points.  When it comes to mourning our dead and how we choose to remember them, I think it should be off limits.  Sadly it never is, and this chapter made that all too clear.

Thomas Jefferson's and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address and Ronald Reagan's speech that introduced him politically to the nation are what the author set as the Gospels.  They are three speeches that changed the way Americans viewed themselves, their government, and their role in the world.  They were speeches that tried, and in large degrees managed, to shape the country's attitude and direction.  They were speeches that told a story, whether true or not, in order to alter the political landscape.

The shortest chapter, and the one chapter I could have done without, was Acts.    Apparently the only thing that warranted inclusion was The Pledge of Allegiance.  Now I don't want to rehash the fights we have had in this country over the Pledge, but it's not something I'm ever been comfortable with, especially after I learned the history of it while I was still in high school.  I'm not going to give my opinion of how I view it, I would just hope that everyone takes it upon themselves to find out where the Pledge came from and why it was altered to fit a certain narrative during the 50s.  Now with that being said, I'm not sure what else the author could have included, but I would be curious to find out if anything else was considered.

And that leaves us with the last chapter, Epistles.  Of all the chapters, this was the one I paid the most attention to, reading it twice.  The author includes George Washington's farewell address, Thomas Jefferson's "Letter to the Danbury Baptists", and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."  This chapter, more than the others, though only by a small degree, allowed me to get behind the eyes of the three men as they wrote down their words.  I was familiar with all three works, some more than others, but this book allowed me to look at them in a way I haven't done before.

I'm still not sure how much this book will allow people to be more open to political dialogue in this country, but I think the author has made a good opening move in that direction.  We seem to be living in a time that doesn't allow people to view those with opposite viewpoints as anything else but evil.  I live in a state where I'm in the political minority.  I have been called a communist, socialist, and been told I was going to Hell.  Granted, it's normally by people who don't really know the definition of the words they are using, but that's beside the point.  I guess my point is this, no matter how bad the discourse seems to be now, it's been worse.  As a country we have always been able to figure out a way to come back together and do the right thing for ourselves and the future of our country.  I have no doubt that though we deal with forces (cable news, blogs, talk radio) that seem to divide us even further apart than we have ever been, that books like this will have their own impact.  That eventually, especially after we remember where we have been, that we will figure out how to keep moving forward.  We just need enough people who are open enough, that aren't dogmatic in their beliefs, to reach across the political divide and get back to work.

I would like to thank Jordan of TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read/review this book.  Please visit the tour page to read other reviews.


Man of la Book said...

I also follow politics, but unlike you I don't volunteer. To be honest, I cannot see any major policy difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. When I watch the "news" (there really aren't any news shows anymore, they are entertainment/propaganda) and see all the people who, as you mentioned, politics is their religion, I'm amazed at how stupid they are.

Sounds like a great book, I couldn't fit the tour into my schedule.

JaneGS said...

What an interesting concept for a book--this definitely goes on my TBR list. I've been reading a lot of American history lately and this is an interesting way to wrap a concept around it.

With regards to Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged--I personally loathe both and philosophy behind them, but I have to agree about their influence, although I think it's more oblique. I think the influence lies in the relationship between Rand and Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her editor and possible co-author of the Little House books. I do believe the LH books had a profound affect on 20th century life and politics. Little House, Long Shadow goes into this idea in detail.

Thanks for reviewing such an interesting book--looking forward to reading it.

Susan said...

Although I never Read much about Religion This Book does have my Curiosity peaked..If not for me a Definite Gift for 2 friends..for the Holidays...Politically Speaking..I have my opinions and Am never lost for words..I think we share that passion.."Name of The Rose" Umberto a Book I would like to recommend to you.Have a Look at it and see if it interests you...

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

Politics and religion can be so polarizing in today's world. Maybe, just maybe, getting people to read a book like this and them agree to discuss it in a civil manner would be a way toward reducing that polarization.

Thanks for being on the tour Ryan!

Staci said...

This book sounds interesting actually. I think the political dialogue would be easier to deal with if people quit calling each other names just because they believe differently. There's no reason to demean others just because they hold a different viewpoint. I fear that rational talk will never happen. We are very very divided as a nation.