The American Bible -- A Review

Review of an important new collection of American texts with commentary to open a discussion on American values.

                Since it’s the holiday season and people are buying gifts for one another, why not gift friends and loved ones with a book that brings together key documents and excerpts of documents from American history, documents that have served both to unite and divide our nation?  If you’re intrigued, then check out THE AMERICAN BIBLE:  How our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation, by Boston University Religion Professor Stephen Prothero (San Francisco:  Harper One, 2012, 533 pages).

                Jews and Christians accord the status of sacred text to the Bible (the canon/list of sacred books is longer for Christians than Jews).  Many look to it for an authoritative Word from God.   The word Bible, which comes from the Greek word for book, has taken on the status of “authoritative word,” and so we have all kinds of bibles that deal with topics ranging from cabinet making to using social media. So what is The American Bible?  What status should we accord it? 

If you pick up Stephen Prothero’s lengthy book, and I encourage you to do so, you’ll find texts that have taken on a quasi-sacred character such as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  You’ll also find bound up with such documents excerpts from definitive American stories such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and important letters to the American people – epistles you might call them – such as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”     

                Prothero opens the collection by noting that “Word’s matter.  They move individuals to tears and to action.  They make or break communities” (p. 1).  The words found in this collection do just this – the move us, they empower us, they unite us, and they divide us.  Ours is, Prothero writes, a “republic of letters” and thus a “republic of conversation, constituted, divided, reconstituted, and maintained by debate over the meaning of ‘America’ and ‘Americans’” (p. 2).   We may agree on which symbols represent us, but disagree heartedly on their meaning. 

                The themes that emerge in the course of this conversation include race, the meaning of liberty, gender, nationalism, and what it means to be an American.  Of course, in a book entitled The American Bible, one would also expect to find religion front and center, and it is one of the key themes over which Americans have debated, and continue to debate.   What we discover as we peruse this collection is that American life and thought is complex.  We’re not of one mind, even as we seek to be one nation (whether under God or not).

                Prothero, being a scholar of religion, understands the importance of sacred texts, and understands how they function.  He writes that at the start of the project he envisioned an American Talmud, but eventually chose the image of the Bible, especially the Catholic Bible, which includes introduction, text, and commentary.  He notes that his intention wasn’t to “create a canon,” but rather to “report upon one.”  He gathered texts that have accrued a certain sense of importance to the American conversation.  Readers might dispute some choices, but then we sometimes dispute the biblical canon.    He then organizes them along the pattern of the Christian Bible – under categories that begin with Genesis and ends with letters.  Interestingly, there isn’t a section of apocalyptic writings.

Under the   “Genesis” category we find works such as the biblical Exodus story, which has served as a defining image throughout American life, along with works such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence.   There is Law – the Constitution and two important Supreme Court Cases, Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.   Chronicles contains excerpts from three influential works of fiction that have influenced American political and social life – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Atlas Shrugged – and have obtained a certain level of controversy.  There are three Psalms – “Star-Bangled Banner,” “God Bless America,” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”   There are Proverbs, ranging from some of Ben Franklins famous quips to Ronal Reagan’s comments on the Evil Empire.  Prophets are recognized, from Thoreau to Malcolm X.  Two works of Lamentation are included – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Moving forward, there are three Gospels, including the inaugural addresses of Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as Ronald Reagan’s famous speech from 1964 that launched his political career.  Under Acts, he places the Pledge of Allegiance, in its various forms.  Then the collection concludes with three Epistles – Washington’s Farewell Address, Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury Baptists,” and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” 

Prothero provides an introduction to each document and then provides two forms of commentary.  There are comments from interested parties to specific words and sections interspersed with the text, as well as a representative set of commentaries following the text, allowing us to see how persons received and interpreted these texts.  As with the Bibles of Judaism and Christianity, words must be interpreted to be understood and applied.  And, as with these Bibles, even if we accord them canonical status there isn’t any unanimity of interpretation.  There’s not just one “American” perspective, which is why American life can be messy.

In this collection we have both the patriotic and the prophetic.  We see ourselves as we have been, as we are, and as we could be.   As we read these documents, Prothero’s admonishment that Americans are at their best when they (we) see themselves as “almost chosen” rather than chosen.  We’re at our best when we face hard facts and make tough choices.  Americans have never agreed on everything.  There has always been debate, and as Prothero notes – “it is not un-American to criticize any book in the American Bible.”  You have the right and the responsibility to engage, and that is the American privilege.

Agreement cannot hold us together, because we do not agree.  Not even the Constitution itself can constitute America.  What constitutes us is this ongoing conversation about our law and our prophets and the many questions they left unresolved (p. 489). 

                So, I invite to you join in an important conversation about what it means to be part of the American community, doing so by picking up this book and taking into consideration the possibilities it engenders.  You won’t be disappointed – even if you don’t agree with everything.   


Abridged version of review posted at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.


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Dale Murrish December 11, 2012 at 10:39 PM
Only an unbelieving religion professor would have the audacity to call his book “The American Bible.” A better title would be “The American bible” if such a word is used at all. I’m surprised that a Christian pastor would promote such a blasphemous idea while criticizing Mayor Daniels’ use of biblical imagery to defend herself – an apt analogy for the situation she found herself in. Many of the writings in it can be found in William Bennett’s books, The Moral Compass, The Book of Virtues, Our Sacred Honor etc. The former Secretary of Education and Morning in America radio host wouldn’t dream of calling his collections a Bible: they are simply what he had edited. These are indeed important American writings, but they are opinions of men and women. The Roe v. Wade decision was a flawed opinion holding a woman’s right to privacy above the rights of her baby, contradicted by science (sperm meets egg = new DNA) and the real Bible (Psalm 139, among other passages). It may someday be overturned, if not by our Supreme Court, hopefully in the hearts of men and women who once again value human lives made in the image of God above their own. To call something written by people the Bible is to place people’s thoughts on the same level as God’s thoughts and insult believers who hold it as the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
John December 12, 2012 at 03:26 AM
Dale, Could you clarify why you find the use of the word "bible" so offensive? The use of the word "bible" to denote a compendium is quite common. In a quick search of Amazon.com, I found "The Writer's Bible" by Anne Hart, "The Freelance Writer's Bible" by David Trottier, "The Law School Bible" by Peter Loughlin, and "Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible" by Nolan Ryan. Are each of these examples of "blasphemous" behavior? I find nothing in Mr. Cornwall's review that places the contents of the book on the same level as the Christian bible, nor do I see any suggestion that Professor Prothero intending to mock or revile religious beliefs.
Bob Cornwall December 12, 2012 at 03:38 AM
John, my sentiments exactly!! I was thinking of noting something similar. I expect Dale knows this, but the word Bible is simply a transliteration of the Greek biblios -- or book.
John December 12, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Bob, Not only is the word "bible" a transliteration from the Greek, but the bible is fairly clear in its definition of blasphemy, is it not? (I defer to you on the subject, you're the one with the PhD in historical theology.) It's my understanding that "blasphemy" is defined as an indignity directed at God, e.g., using God's name in vain. Blasphemy is reserved for a failure to honor someone, like slaves failing to honor their master or people dismissing the existence of the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the Bible, it's contents are sacred but the book itself is not. And certainly not the word "bible." It's a subtle distinction. Am I on the right track?
Bob Cornwall December 12, 2012 at 04:09 PM
John, If you look at Dale's comment, it's clear that for him the book has taken on a divine status. Thus, to use the word in a way that slights the divine, is blasphemous. But consider a parallel issue -- the name -- Jesus. With Dale's understanding, one would assume that to use the name Jesus -- whom many Christians believe to be divine -- would be blasphemous. And since Jesus comes from the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Yeshua/Joshua, we would assume that the use of that name would be blasphemous as well.
Sue Martin December 12, 2012 at 04:16 PM
I suspect Dale may need a grammar lesson. In book titles, the first and last words and all important (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.) words are capitalized. Thus, in this book title, it is both fitting and correct to capitalize it. The word "bible" is a common noun and is used to refer to literary resources that are considered authoritative. The word "Bible" is a proper noun, and it refers to the inspired word of God. To denigrate an author, a pastor or anyone on simple basis of the capitalization of a book title on a website seems...well...rude.
John David December 12, 2012 at 05:47 PM
What Pastor Cornwall, John and Sue have pointed out about the use of the word bible is all correct. Dale's umbrage is misplaced. And accusing Pastor Cornwall of promoting blasphemous ideas is something that would be done by religious police in a theocracy, not in America. However, Pastor Bob's last sentence in his review of this book is wrong. At least one person would be disappointed if he bothered to read this book. These particular "bibles" may be of interest of an engineer, and show how the use of bible as the title of a type of book is common, and non-blasphemous: SolidWorks Surfacing and Complex Shape Modeling Bible by Matt Lombard AutoCAD 2013 and AutoCAD LT 2013 Bible by Ellen Finkelstein Antique Tractor Bible: The Complete Guide to Buying, Using and Restoring Old Farm Tractors (Motorbooks Workshop)by Spencer Yost Reliability Engineering Bible The Complete Guide to the CRE by Bryan Dodson and Dennis Nolan Quality Engineering Bible by Thomas Pyzdek Designer's Packaging Bible: Creative Solutions for Outstanding Design by Luke Herriott
John December 12, 2012 at 09:42 PM
Bob, Thanks! I've always found it strange that naming children "Jesus" is verboten in Germanic based languages (like English) but not in Latin based languages (like Spanish). Something isn't blasphemous because of linguistic rules. I would think that confusing the divine for something that talks about the divine would be a form of idolatry.
Dale Murrish December 13, 2012 at 10:56 PM
Maybe I was too quick to judge Professor Prothero, since I’ve not read any of his writings. He was wise to exclude apocalyptic writings. He could have included excerpts from Al Gore’s global warming manifesto. It highlights the need for governments to control people’s actions by raising the price of fuel and thereby harming the global poor through higher food prices. That, of course, would not only have been a theory but like Roe v. Wade and Obamacare, “bad public policy” (Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts as he declared it constitutional) and not have fit with the non-fiction nature of the book. :-)
Dale Murrish December 13, 2012 at 11:08 PM
Thanks for the grammar lessons. I'll try to clarify my thoughts. I feel offended as a Christian when some misuses the name of my King - as a common swear word. I'm not going to riot and kill people, however, or compel them to not burn Bibles. It's the Word of God and will survive any attempt to destroy it or minimize it. My point was there is a wide spectrum of belief or non-belief in the Bible. I'm puzzled by people who claim it as the inspired word of God but teach principles that directly contradict what it clearly teaches: Theistic Evolution The Sancitity of Human Life Pro-choice --> Pro abortion Redefinition of Marriage If you view it as a collection of important religious writings of men that can be ignored as opinions, that's fine. I can understand that. But to say it is the inspired word of God and teach against what it clearly states requires a dualistic logic that I don't understand. My point was that the thoughts of God are higher than the opinions of people (all of us, no matter how learned). I believe that the Bible contains the thoughts of God, and its teachings should be honored above ideas of people.
Dale Murrish December 13, 2012 at 11:09 PM
By the way, I’m criticizing inconsistent ideas, not making personal attacks on those who have the ideas. Pastor Bob and I are both trying to improve people’s lives by standing up for the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised. We just have different views of history, the Bible and who is truly oppressed. Our Creator will take our best efforts, flawed with sin, and work them out for His purposes in the end.
John David December 13, 2012 at 11:17 PM
With all humility, Luke 6:37.
Dale Murrish December 14, 2012 at 11:44 PM
Yes, I view the Bible as a divinely inspired instruction manual from our Creator and try to follow its principles. Just as a Muslim believes the Koran, an Orthodox Jew believes the Old Testament, Hindus and Sikhs believe their Scriptures, etc. How do you view the Bible, Pastor Bob? Divine origin or a collection of important religious writings? Do you believe all of it or parts of it are divinely inspired? Or is there another option I haven’t considered? That would explain our different interpretations of its contents.
Dale Murrish December 14, 2012 at 11:53 PM
John, are you John Kulesz?


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