Review of The American Bible

Meet the Author
Stephen Prothero is professor of religion at Boston College, senior fellow at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and bestselling author of two books: Religions Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t (2008) and God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter (2010 – read my review and/or see this book’s inclusion on my top 10 books of 2010.  Additionally, he has written five other books, numerous scholarly articles, and reviews for the New York Times, Wall Street JournalNewsweek, Boston GlobeWashington PostUSA Today, and Los Angeles Times.   More information is available on Prothero’s website.

Book Basics
America is a nation united by words.  While there will never be a consensus regarding the specific words shaping the nation’s identity, Prothero crafts a collection that is fitting for the early twenty-first century.  His grouping draws together diverse texts valued by many that share an ability to create both “controversy” and “conversation” (p.7).  Written with the understanding that American politics is broken, this “Bible” seeks to serve as a resource that can be used toward a more hopeful end.  The word Bible is intended to connote Scripture (stories that shape a tradition); the section titles are formatted to align with sections of the Christian Bible (moving from Genesis through the Epistles) with individual primary texts (including contributions from John Winthrop to Ronald Reagan), serving as chapters.  The chapters follow a basic format: introduction by Prothero, primary text, and noteworthy commentary by multiple people expressing varied perspectives.  As a whole, the work is a living document designed as a work in progress, and well suited as a starting point for discussion.

So What?
The publication of a 500+ page book by a bestselling author and professor of religion that brings together a collection of primary sources under the title of The American Bible necessarily proposes an American canon of sorts.  While Prothero’s previous books helped renew interest in the study of religion, this new text may well be leveraged by the masses to reconsider essential texts in the quest for deeper understanding about the nation’s present and future.  It has the potential to encourage increased American literacy.

While I have read the vast majority of primary sources included as books in The American Bible, my own journey through its pages was a unique learning opportunity.  As a student and teacher of religion, my focus has always been primarily on Christianity and secondarily on other world religions and cultures.  Though a bit forced, the idea that a group of texts effectively functions as Scripture for Americans is compelling.  And, sadly, just as most Christians are largely unfamiliar with the contents of the Bible so also are Americans with their “Bible.”

  • What does it mean to you to “be an American?”  What primary texts have helped to shape your answer?
  • What is the responsibility of an individual to be familiar with the canon of her or his own tradition? does this vary when speaking of religion (e.g., the Bible for Christians) versus citizenship (e.g., The American Bible for Americans)? Why or why not?

 

Stephen Prothero.  The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation (HarperOne, 2012).  ISBN: 9780062123435.

 

Note: This review was written for TLC Book Tours: a virtual book tour site. A full listing of the reviews included in the tour is available here.

Comments

  1. You are so right that many Americans (including myself) have not read a great deal of the books and writings that define us as a nation. I’m intrigued by this book and the way it compiles excerpts from these defining works – I look forward to exploring it myself.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  2. Those are great questions that you pose at the end. I wonder how the answers to your second question would vary depending on what generation you ask.

    As far what documents have shaped my answer for what it means to be an American, I’d say the Constitution has the biggest influence on my thoughts of being an American, though I think it could be argued that the Bible influenced that document.

    Interesting questions to ponder!

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