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.