At RNA last weekend I attended a great session on Steve Prothero's new book The American Bible, and since then I've had fun poking around in the volume. For one thing, it has an absolutely gorgeous interior design, and with the contraction of publishing's bells and whistles these days, looking through it is a visual treat.
But it's far more than eye candy for history nerds. Prothero said that he got the idea for The American Bible when working on a book on civil discourse in American history. Our Bible, as it were, is chock-full of core documents that we routinely quote from, rehash, and trot out when politically expedient.
There are two genius innovations to Prothero's book: the first is that he has organized these Urtexts in the manner of Biblical genres (epistles, history, laments, etc.), and the second is that he positions other famous Americans' reactions to those texts as an almost talmudic reception history.
So we have the Declaration of Independence, sure, but we also get snippets of what other Americans did with that famous document. The women of Seneca Falls used it as their model in 1848 when drafting a manifesto for women's rights. Frederick Douglass used it as a means of shaming America for its neglect of the declaration's core principle of equality for all.
I am a quotation person. For years I have collected quotations on post-it notes and in journals, committing some to memory. So I'm exactly the kind of reader who would groove on something like The American Bible. Some of the collection's quotations are surprising, some unsettling, like William Faulkner's reaction to Brown v. Board of Education: "I don't like enforced integration any more than I like enforced segregation . . . . As long as there's a middle road, all right. But if it came to fighting I'd fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the street and shooting Negroes."
Sheesh. Faulkner came down about six notches in my estimation with that wrong-side-of-history zinger.
In contrast, consider the prescience of George Washington who, in his farewell address, warned American citizens of the "danger of parties" in politics and worried aloud that some people would come to put their loyalty to their party ahead of the advancement of the nation. I was thinking of Rush Limbaugh when I read this, and how he openly wished for the failure of President Obama despite the damage it might do to America, but I'm sure there are many examples from the left as well. It would behoove all of us in this election season to take a turn savoring Washington's words.
I am delighted to have this book, which is a jaunt through American history even as it informs us about America's future. Rabbi Hillel once famously said, "You have the law and the prophets; all the rest is commentary." But Prothero's book shows us that commentary can sometimes be even more fascinating than what is being commented upon.