Now I'm getting the chance to read books I didn't have time for before. Think of me whenever you see the slogan "So many books, so little time!" Now I've got the time.  Cheers, Fred.

The American Bible: Whose America Is This?: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
October 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Stephen Prothero
Total Pages: 

Stephen Prothero, the bestselling author of Religious Literacy and God Is Not One, is a professor of religion at Boston Univ. and a senior fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. (For his books I've read, click on his name.)

Amazon’s website for the paperback edition I was given is

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief summary (click on 'Read more’). For more information about him, the home page has More About the Author. I recommend using Amazon’s option to ‘Look inside’ and read the better summary (from the Front and Back Flaps of the hardcover edition). Then read the 2-pp Contents to examine the material he covers. Although he uses biblical titles for the ten parts of this ‘bible,” the material consists of 38 chapters. Each chapter consists of his important context discussion of the item, then the item itself, followed by a Commentary, which consists of selections of comments that the item received over time. I chose the word item here because of the various types of communication (newspaper articles, speeches, songs, etc.) seemed to me to cover the spectrum of important items that an American comes to know during a reader’s education in American history. The initial comments are the earliest but there are later comments, some quite recent, that Prothero chose to show the history the item received, both positive and negative comments, and how one’s views about how the public's view of this item changed over time.

The Contents may show a reader that nearly all of the 38 items are familiar ones to most Americans. Besides the 38 items, the book has a 15-pp Introduction and a 7-pp Epilogue. Since three pages are omitted in the Amazon preview of the hardcover or paperback editions, I recommend the reader go to the Kindle edition which covers the very important Introduction in full, plus the first chapter in full.

As I first looked over these items, I recalled a large majority of them but realized that I had not read many of them recently. This motivated me to ask for this book as a gift – and asking worked! I recalled the idea behind most of these items, but I had recognized that reading this book would do more than refresh my memory – far more – because of Stephen Prothero’s opening words about each item gave me a much better ‘refresher’ than I would have gotten if I only reread an item. This was very important to me because I could only rarely recall the introduction I had been given when I first learned about the item. What I do recall for many of these items is that it was assigned reading which we (the high school or college class) only discussed after reading it. And I also do not recall much discussion of the variation of the value of the item that Prothero provides us in the Commentary he gives us in this book.

The 7-pp Epilogue is a condensation. Here I give two paragraphs that reflect Stephen Prothero’s view of this book. “The American Bible is amorphous. No convention met to decide, once and for all, which books are ‘in’ and which are ‘out.’ But its canon is clearly open, with books coming and going with the shifts in the political and cultural winds. The Constitution allows for new amendments. If a new speech is given which resonates like Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ it can become American scripture. So can a new novel or a new song. But the American Bible adapts first and foremost by reinterpretation. In fact, many of our past additions are themselves reinterpretations. The Gettysburg Address amends the Declaration of Independence, and ‘I have a Dream’ amends the Gettysburg Address.

“It is not un-American to criticize any book in the American Bible. Look Lincoln in the eye and tell him you don’t give a hoot about equality. Tell King you have a different dream. More power to you. No one here is divine. No idea is dogma. But as you criticize Lincoln or King or Bush or Obama, know what you are doing. You are not opting out of America, you are opting in. Americans speak different languages and worship different gods. They join competing political parties. But they come together to argue. This is our shared practice, and it makes us a community as surely as the Mass brings together Catholics or the sermon beings together Protestants. 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.” These are his closing words of his powerful Epilogue.

I thoroughly enjoyed my relearning or refreshing my mind about these various items that Stephen Prothero has chosen to present to us, the American public, about key items that helped make us who we are. It was a hard-to-put-down book, but I forced myself to pause in my reading at the end of most parts so as to spend some reflecting on the just-finished part. I highly recommend this wonderful American history book. I rate it as five stars, but add my comment to ‘think six stars.’