America’s Prophet: Moses And The American Story, by Bruce Feiler
If you are somewhat familiar with the author’s body of writing or about the relationship between American history and theology , then you have a fair guess as to what you will find here. There will be some dodgy discussion of scripture, a great deal of attention spent to research, and a high amount of travel, all viewed through a somewhat typically left-wing Jewish perspective that is also simultaneously pro-Southern. This was not as enjoyable a book as I thought it would be. As a student of religious history and the relationship between the Bible and culture, I was familiar with a lot of what the author discussed already. Yet, as the author notes when discussing the crisis of American theology and politics in the time of the Civil War, the Bible ceases to be a viable authority for parties in dispute when it is the interpretation of those scriptures that is in dispute. Such disputes can only be resolved by either rhetorical or physical force, as was the case in the Civil War. The author, in many cases, wants to have things both ways, in using the importance of Moses to American history and culture as a way of bolstering the importance of Judaism while simultaneously not viewing the specific content of the laws as being all that important, a fault that was shared by antebellum Southerners who sought legitimacy from the fact that slavery was regulated and permitted in scripture without comparing their own conduct with the content of the laws about slavery.
This slightly more than 300 page book is divided into ten chapters that examine the importance of the story of Moses to American history. After giving a discussion of the story of Moses in the Bible itself, the author looks at the way that Moses has been appropriated generation after generation as a way of providing guidance and legitimacy within the cultural and political sphere. So we have Moses as an example to those Puritans fleeing into the wilderness from the tyranny and corruption of Europe, a Moses as a model of liberation for Americans fighting for independence and then for slaves. A Moses as a defender of the rule of law in the early American republic and as an unlikely defender of slavery in the American South. We see Moses appropriated for the movies, as in The Ten Commandments, and by Communists and civil rights activists. We see the author give the expected praise to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. (even as he admits King’s flagrant plagiarism), and towards the end of the book as the author examines the fractured religious identity of contemporary America the author feels it necessary to note that he was not a fan of George W. Bush, as if that is something to be ashamed of.
This is a book that can be better praised for its content than its approach. On the positive side, the author makes it clear that Moses and the story of the Exodus has been immensely influential as a model for America, and that even in an age like ours a great deal of religious influence through Moses remains. There is a lot about the book that I feel negatively about, though. The author naively claims Moses to have been more important than Christ to American history, and makes a report that simultaneously seeks to insult Christianity, praise the antebellum South for its biblicism, and praise more contemporary leftists in their search for social justice. The author also fails to note that the prosperity gospel and social gospel are equal evils. As someone who expected this book to be a lot better than it was, I found it immensely disappointing, even though one could have guessed how the book would go if you assumed that the author would take the most irritating and offensive aspects of his personal worldview and background and combine them together in a book that manages to collect a lot of facts about the importance of Moses to the American experience and then interpret them without any degree of consistency or godliness.
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