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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
"Why allow John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi to dominate your book club when Jefferson, Lincoln, and King are in the room?" To arrange such a conversation, Stephen Prothero compiles our nation's "core texts" from our "de facto public canon" into an "American Talmud," offering speeches, songs, stories, and sayings to spark discussion and debate as primary "books." Following each inclusion, he chronologically arranges dissenting and affirming comments from activists, lawyers, politicians, writers, and scholars. Ten "scriptural" sections comprise this biblical inspiration, mixing at first predominantly religiously infused arguments with, as the nation evolves, more secular and diverse texts. Furthering this Boston University professor's survey of contributions to our public discussion of issues that matter, it's a logical follow-up to his 2007 study (see my review Aug. 2011), "Religious Literacy."

Professor Prothero aims "not to create a canon but to report upon one." He seeks to overcome our bipartisan antagonism and our weariness with policies, parties, and principles which seem to shift. Returning key texts that matter to our public conversation, he hopes to renew hope among Americans. In this affordable, thoughtful, and balanced collection, Prothero invites us to listen to what our fellow Americans have discussed over almost four centuries as our necessary exercise in self-government, an experiment as open-ended as any ever attempted by citizens anywhere, anytime.

The book begins, logically, with "Genesis": colonial calls that often reenacted the Exodus story. "Law" follows as constitutional traditions and Supreme Court decisions from Brown in 1954 and Roe v. Wade in 1973. "Chronicles" relate "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Huck Finn" excerpts on slavery neatly, while a telling absence of an intended excerpt, denied by the estate of Ayn Rand, allows "Atlas Shrugged" to enter only in its commentaries, not the original text! Surely a moral lurks in this refusal.

Songs as "Psalms" follow, and for "God Bless America," even an Indiana billboard attests to its power, alongside "This Land Is Your Land" for a sharper counterpart to jingoism and patriotic cant. "Proverbs" places aphorisms around a Talmudic pattern of surrounding voices, before "Prophets" announces "Civil Disobedience," Eisenhower's farewell address about the military-industrial complex, King's "I Have a Dream," and Malcolm X's autobiographical defense of his "demagogue" role with a predictably if astutely chosen chorus of dissenting as well as assenting voices joining in as commentary in the decades since, with our current president among poets, pacifists, and preachers.

Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" opens "Lamentations" fittingly; Prothero prefaces this with an exegesis of how this "new gospel" elevated the Address above not only the "letter of the Constitution" but the "spirit of the Declaration of Independence." It redefined America as more revolutionary than conservative, in the professor's perspective. He then juxtaposes this with another dramatic response to war, Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and ends that section with Bill Clinton invoking in turn Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address to heal the damage of the Vietnam War.

Appropriately after this division, the book breaks into its "Gospels" with inaugural addresses by Jefferson and FDR, before a surprising entry by Ronald Reagan. Not from his presidency, but from nearly two decades earlier, when on television he endorsed Goldwater and argued against LBJ's Great Society, to set the course for the resurgence of his own career and that of the GOP. Prothero tips his hand perhaps away from the expected tilt of many in academia towards the left. Although his sympathy may hover, he does take pains to present the views of conservatives fairly in such chapters. Examining the comments appended to "The Speech," from Reagan's demythologizing biographer Lou Cannon to his memorialist Sarah Palin, the sharp voices for these polarizing texts prove lively.

After the figures of such bold presidents, "Acts" may seem anticlimactic. Yet, the Cold War insertion of the "under God" clause into "The Pledge of Allegiance" merits extended analysis in one of the most informative segments. "Epistles" from Washington's "Farewell Address" prove relevant in terms of both the rise of the Religious Right and the controversy over "entangling alliances" as foreign policy. Lesser known one may hazard to nearly any reader than other entries: Jefferson's "Letter to the Danbury Baptists" in 1802, over the separation of church and state. At the time of this letter, a national church was prohibited by the First Amendment, but not by states. The "establishment clause," articulated here by Jefferson, became long a tenet of Democrats--at least until the past decade's return by even many liberal candidates towards espousing in public their own faith.

Faith supports the second document from King, "Letter from Birmingham Jail." No book of revelation or apocalypse concludes this compendium, although the Civil Rights Movement has its own eloquent speakers in the commentaries that follow, if oddly nearly all after the initial unrest during which King's letter was delivered. The epilogue wraps up the presentation with more on the race question, which Prothero emphasizes as the key question in all the "American Bible," as a melting pot has not endured as a model, but a fiercely partisan, multicultural, and multiethnic polity.

Prothero reminds us of competing readings we bring to this anthology's issues. Dissent erupts, even as it's channeled into conversation, as heroes rise and fall and politicians come and go. This dynamic, as this edition represents handsomely (even if the parchment-type of background for primary texts may jostle aesthetically against the brown-on-beige commentary footnoted therein), may not resolve these worthwhile wrangles Americans love to engage in, but they stand for our "shared practice" to argue the public good (I think of the ideal of the founders, a "res publica") as regularly as some go to Mass, attend sermons, or visit temples.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I read a number of these chapters before they were published, and I think this is an incredible way for everyday readers and college students to learn United States history. It has liberals like FDR and conservatives like Reagan; it has Washington and Jefferson, along with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King Jr. We get everything here: primary documents (such as memorable speeches from Abraham Lincoln) and expert analysis from Prothero, one of the finest scholars distilling complex concepts into understandable points. I plan on using this in my courses on American religious history and having students select a document to fit into one of the categories (Genesis, Law, Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Prophets, Lamentations, Gospels, Acts, Epistles") and then write their own commentaries. I'm a longtime fan of Prothero's work and this seals the deal.

Edward J. Blum, co-author of "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America"

[...]
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Since Toqueville penned Democracy in America everyone in the world, including Americans themselves, have been trying to understand what constitutes America. Admittedly, Prothero compiles this literature not in an effort to provide the "canon" of America, but rather to provide a lens by which to read, see, and engage the American experience. To leave it at that, however, leaves too much to be desired and does no justice to Prothero's work.

Stephen Prothero (click for website)
From the statehouse to the church house Americans have fought, sometimes literally, for the definition of America. Prothero asserts that the fabric of our American identity, the ability to disagree and wrestle with difficult questions, has waned considerably. Those that dare engage Prothero's words will find a calm, steady voice challenging Americans to reflect upon our current societal situation and our place within it.

From the Constitution to Martin Luther King Jr. I found myself reflecting upon how and why we are who we are. Prothero's work is far from nostalgic, but it signals that something fundamental has changed. An atmospheric shift has occurred in all sectors of American life. Prothero's work, in my mind, implies a loss of American pragmatism--the ability to engage differing ideas and move forward for the common good.

All too often the word pragmatism remains seen as a foul, odorous word singeing our idealistic nose hair. Yet this spirit, the spirit of engage different ideas and hearing various opinions, constitutes American experience. As Prothero asserts how we participate in life constitutes who we are as Americans. We have lost the art of conversation and value in differing opinions.

Whether or not this identity crisis can be corrected remains to be seen. If it is to be corrected The American Bible will remain a vital and integral conversation piece. Scholars and students of religion, sociology, politics, or history will find this an invaluable resource. Yet so too will every American representing every creed and race. For future generations, for past travails and triumphs, and for our present maladies Prothero's words are worth the read.

And his words, I'll make the closing words: "American politics is broken. As the culture wars drag on and on, Americans have forgotten how to talk with one another."
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover
For me, it was educational to read cornerstone documents from American history. It was a good overview.

As an agnostic, I was not put off by the biblical structure. I thought the approach was creative. Interweaving of religion with government has indeed been an American phenomenon. And certainly not all of the passages in The American Bible promoted religion.

A few things that caught my attention:

1. How some of the documents seemed so verbose, as though the writers found verbosity necessary for credibility.

2. The parallel drawn between the Israelites of the real bible and European settlers of America, suggesting that they were both God's chosen people who had an innate right to brutally displace an indigenous population.

3. Harriet Beecher Stowe's suggestion that African Americans be repatriated to Africa. For me this added to the evidence that while Northerners might have wanted to end slavery, they were not particularly happy with the idea of former slaves migrating northward.

4. How Malcolm X, despite being a voracious reader, still took so long to realize that the Muslim teachings he received in the U.S. didn't match the teachings in the Middle East. But at least he was ready to change his mind when presented with new information.

5. George Washington's caution about becoming entangled with other nations at the expense of U.S. interests. I immediately thought of our current relationship with Israel, and then I saw the comment by George Ball confirming this concern.

6. Past parallels to current controversy, e.g. the liberal/conservative conflict and blaming the financial community for the country's ills.

7. How some of the documents presented as sacred to school children were resoundingly criticized at the time they were written.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
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
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I use this book in leading an adult group studying documents in American history. It is a superb tool for such collaborative learning since everything in the book is designed to stimulate discussion, and the variety of topics is as wide as the Grand Canyon. The very layout with it's format of introduction, short excerpt, and 8 and 10 short commentaries, almost forces discussion. In fact, unlike many other books, if you read it as a solitary experience, you are depriving yourself of a major portion of it's value. The volume is somewhat unique in how it invites reasoned controversy. Seeking to teach another course, I look for a similar book. I found none.
The only drawback centers upon its unfortunate title. Calling it "The American Bible" leads a casual buyer to think he's buying a book on religion. I see Amazon itself makes this error in showing related books as being about Jesus or other primarily religious topics. Although a few documents in this book do touch on religion as one component of American history, it isn't a major theme. When religion does come up, it is treated in a very secular way and in the context of something that influences American history. This book is neither a theological one nor does it advocate any particular religion.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I belong to a Sunday School class which studies unusual subjects and we have enjoyed this book. All of it is not religious in nature of course, but the story, "psalms", sayings and speeches referencing the Bible have been food for thought. It has opened our eyes as to the nature of our words and how Christianity has influenced the words upon which our country bases much of its image, policy and upon which we base our beliefs.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover
The American Bible features the very best of the American canon, from the overlooked to the overused.
The book contains some of the most important theological and ideological texts that have sparks some of the most heated and defining arguments of our national identity. The list of texts is impressive and vast. Spanning from Noah Webster to Malcolm X to Dwight Eisenhower (and a pleasant surprise visit from Woody Guthrie, a personal hero). For many texts, it displays them in their fullness or the book offers a relatively comprehensive description of the artifact and then lets the culture wars rage. Prothero has gathered responses, articles and sound bites from people all over the theological and political spectrum weighing in on some of the most important artifacts in the American canon.

In The American Bible, Prothero has captured the spirit of the culture wars without saying much at all. Like a photojournalist, Prothero doesn't need to say much at all to make his point clear. His point being, we need to talk to each other again. This volume is a call to civil discourse. If anything, that we could learn about those on the other side of important issue and not demonize them but dialogue with those who hold to different beliefs. Prothero is asking that we put off our airs of superficial politeness and put down our weapons of cultural trench warfare in favor of conversation. Few texts have done this as well as The American Bible. It is not like the book inspires you to go sentimentally hug a fellow American as much as is prompts you to tackle the tough stuff within our cultural identity, particularly our relation to the Divine God. Unlike many well-meaning Evangelicals, Prothero does not insist on crusading our way back to a "Christian nation" nor does he suggest we throw away Christian theology or morality like many liberals. He simply presents undeniable realities of faith, disagreement and the American way of life.

I would certainly not say this is a perfect book, the structure was a bit choppy trying to read all the way through, and sometimes I felt like he represented Christians a bit too politically with his choice of contributors and commentators. It does not flow supremely well, making it a difficult "read", but excellent for reference or select topical reading.

But overall, it is one of the best things that I have read in a while and kindled quite an aesthetic nostalgia for the rich Americana stories that so mystify me. It also gave me hope that the gospel can be a part of the American discussion. Not just in a "keep `Christ' in Christmas" sort of way, but in a truly radical, intellectual and dialectic way. I plan on keeping this book as my coffee table book and returning to it somewhat frequently for reference. Very rarely do I come across something as unique and important as The American Bible.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 3, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
I like what this book is trying to accomplish. Pundits and politicians of all stripes have long appropriated a few key texts, speeches, and phrases throughout American history for their own purposes - the Constitution, Jefferson's separation of church and state, John Winthrop's "shining city on a hill", MLK's dream, Reagan's evil empire. What do they really mean and how and why have they been used as ammo for both sides of the spectrum?

This book offers some well needed non-partisan context. At first, I found the format a bit tiresome and wordy: a short background section, the original text reprinted, and a bunch of commentary from various sources about the text. At times it seemed like the author was trying too hard to appear nonpartisan by treating everyone's commentary with equal weight. But then I realized it's not so much about whose interpretation is right and wrong. It's about how many different interpretations people have.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on August 13, 2013
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I bought the book for an adult discussion group, and we all oved it! I teach school, and it is a great book for any teacher who teached any level of Amerian history. My fellow teachers and I will be using parts of it in our curriculum this year.
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