The American Bible: A Review

THE AMERICAN BIBLE: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.  By Stephen Prothero.  San Francisco:  Harper One, 2012.  533 pages.

        The Bible is the sacred text of Jews and Christians, though Jews have a somewhat briefer Bible than Christians (and Catholics have a longer version than Protestants).  While the Bible has traditionally been received as the Word of God, it’s not a straightforward revelation of God.  It is a mediated revelation that emerged over centuries and takes a variety of literary forms.   In one sense it’s an anthology, but it’s more than simply and anthology.  There is a sense of purpose to the over-arching story that binds its seemingly disparate parts into a unity.  So powerful is the hold of this collection on our imagination that Christians, Jews, and others spend countless hours consider, debating, and even praying from its contents.

                If the Bible is sacred scripture, what status should one accord The American Bible, Stephen Prothero’s collection of definitive and influential collection of texts that represent the varying voices of American life?   As one peruses this lengthy book, one will see texts that have taken on a quasi-sacred character – the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, for instance.  While they’ll find other other texts that don’t seem to be as sacred, but which are illustrative of the American narrative – such as the excerpt from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.   As one reads these various “books” of this Bible, a conversation begins – within one’s self and with others.    

                The author/editor of this American canon is a Professor of Religious Studies at Boston University and author of a number of books, including Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't.  He opens the collection with these words:    “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 heartily 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 Ronald 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.” 

Each document, whether brief or lengthy, receives an introduction that sets it in context and identifies the players.  Then, interspersed in the documents are notes – comments that pertain to specific words or phrases in the text, and then following the text itself one finds further commentary drawn from historical responses to these words.    In this commentary we see the varied responses and interpretations that have accrued.  And this is the key.  Even if we assume that these texts have a certain canonical status there has never been unanimity of interpretation.  There’s not just one “American” perspective, which is why American life can be messy.

To give a taste of this reality, consider the Declaration of Independence.  Most Americans see it as one of, if not the primary, founding documents of the nation.  Having been to the National Archives and having stood before it, I know the feeling of the power of a document like this.  Being in that place you get the sense of its sacredness.  But while these texts have obtained a certain sacredness, we’re not all in agreement as to its meaning and purpose.  There have been from early on questions as to who it speaks for.  There were questions about whether people or states were declaring independence, and then there was the status of slaves.  John Quincy Adams, son of one of the founders and later President himself spoke in 1837 of the portending danger of an interpretation of the Declaration that suggested that the intention was for thirteen separate sovereign states.  He wanted to make certain that, in the face of sectional tension, that the nation understood itself to be one nation and not a confederation of nations.  He also spoke of slavery as being inconsistent with the premises of the Declaration, that even slave owners understood this to be true.  And for him, the time of its demise had come.  Fifteen years later, however, Frederick Douglass could declare, with reason, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.  You may rejoice, I must mourn.  To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony” (pp. 92-93). 

This isn’t necessarily the kind of book that one sits down with and reads from cover to cover.  Rather it’s the kind of book one might wish to sit down with, choose a portion, and then read and reflect.  I found it to be a fascinating project that offers more than a mere anthology of documents.  Like the Bible itself, there is a certain unity to the book that melds together the various and disparate parts.  It invites interpretation.  Indeed, the commentary is permissive of this opportunity.  We might disagree as to why one document made it in and another is left out, but the same is true of the Bible.  There are texts that make us uncomfortable and those that challenge.  We’re reminded that the Declaration functions differently than the Constitution and that at points they stand in tension with each other.   

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 the conversation 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.


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