Friday, June 29, 2012

The American Bible by Stephen Prothero

"…There is no American creed. What brings us together is a common practice. To be an American is not to agree with your fellow citizens about a set of propositions. It is to agree to argue with them, and to argue passionately. More often than not, our key words are fighting words. Here, citizens disagree fiercely, even about “truths” that are supposedly “self-evident.” And they do so in public, with the volume up."

When I received The American Bible, I had no idea I’d be reviewing it the day after the Supreme Court voted to uphold “Obamacare”, one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in years. After the ruling came down, my Facebook wall exploded with political commentary from both sides, often delivered with a not insignificant amount of vitriol. It would be easy—is easy—to cynically conclude that political discourse has become a morass, a toxic swamp of dogmatic ideologies and partisan hackery hardly worth spending time on. In that regard, Stephen Prothero’s book caught me at the right time.

The goal of the Bible is no small thing: Prothero wants nothing less than to raise the level of public discourse and civility. His approach is to take the reader through the “texts” of American history—books, letters, popular sayings, songs—and to demonstrate that disagreement is not a new or negative phenomenon. He argues instead, as in the excerpt above, that it is foundational. Both to prove his point and to offer direction toward his high ideals, he provides not only the texts themselves but period and contemporary commentaries on each one.

I'm concerned that such a description makes The American Bible sound dull, but it isn't. Apart from containing excerpts from some of the greatest writers America has produced, it's sometimes amusing (as when one commentator says “I cannot meet with a man who loves [the Constitution].”), and sometimes eye-opening--for example, Lincoln held the Declaration of Independence as a higher document than the Constitution, and used it's proclamation of equality to justify the Civil War. There are snide dismissals of some of the greatest speeches ever delivered, disappointments, as when Lincoln says, while debating Douglas,

"...there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

There is a real danger, which the Bible exposes, of taking second-hand sources and making them fact. The American Bible seeks to avoid this by placing the texts themselves side-by-side with reactions to them, and letting the reader suss out his own beliefs. This can be a challenge: does the Declaration contradict the Constitution? Can Ayn Rand (whose estate wouldn't allow Prothero to print an excerpt) and Mark Twain both embody the American ethos? Are our founding documents unchangeable scripture, or malleable guidelines, written by fallible men who didn't expected them to be eternal? And what has our country traditionally believed about racism, classism, religion, abortion? Well, the answer to all these questions is, it depends on who you listen to.

Prothero himself appears in the book infrequently. He generally provides historical context for the text in question, provides a broad overview of the perspectives given in the commentaries, and signs off. That’s not to say that a strong authorial hand isn’t present—the balance provided by Prothero’s selected commentators is extremely impressive, and it must have taken forever to compile—but it does show a willingness on his part to practice what he preaches. Prothero resists the temptation to editorialize in a book with such heavy political overtones; indeed, after reading it, I couldn’t tell you his stance on any of the issues discussed.

Prothero’s even-handed approach enlightens just how deeply entrenched our disagreements are, but also serves as an example of time healing wounds. Reading the vehement objections to the Declaration of Independence, the National Anthem, and especially the Constitution (“one consolidated government… will be an iron-handed despotism”) is jarring now that these documents are largely accepted and sometimes even wielded as weapons themselves. Seeing the path they took to get there is encouraging because it points to an eventual resolution of current controversies, but it also serves as a wake-up call to those who feel that anything less than absolute agreement is unacceptable—it has never, and, as the Bible aptly demonstrates, should never, happen.

Apart from content, it’s worth noting that The American Bible is a beautifully designed book. The different typefaces, font sizes, and extensive footnotes could have turned the volume into an uninviting mess. Instead, it makes even flipping through the pages a joy. I don’t have any complaints with The American Bible. It upholds the high standards of American Jesus, the other Prothero book I’ve read, and was well worth the time. Now, to find someone to fight with.

Disclosure: I received this book from TLC Book Tours. They did not attempt to influence the content of this review in any way. I appreciate the opportunity to participate, and encourage our readers to check out theother reviews on this tour.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for mentioning the physical description of the book. I love a book that is not only an interesting read but also interesting to look at.

Thanks for being a part of the tour.