Sunday, December 5, 2010

America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story

by Bruce Feiler
New York, William Morrow, 2009

Week 49   Religion

Although Bruce Feiler’s book, Walking the Bible, has looked intriguing to me as it sits on the church library shelf, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story is the first of his books that I have read. Feiler uses a chatty style, with a lot of interviews and first-person travel to support his thesis, which is that American history is full of the story of Moses and the Exodus.
He outlines three themes of the Moses story and how they have influenced American life. The first theme is the courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land. The second theme is the tension between freedom and law (liberty and order). The final theme is the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden.

To this end, he tells several stories of Moses in America beginning with the Pilgrims and their journey to the Promised Land. He then moves on to stories about George Washington and liberation, and Harriet Tubman and slavery. A major chapter concerns Abraham Lincoln, who comes to mind, of course, as the Moses of his generation. The last major story is about Martin Luther King and his sermon the night before his death—a Moses who did not get to the Promised Land. Along the way, he discusses the symbolism of the Liberty Bell, the Statue of Liberty, and even Superman. One interesting side story concerns Cecil B. DeMille and his creation of the movie, The Ten Commandments.
It is fascinating to read about the many, many times in our history that Moses and the Exodus stories have been part of the rhetoric of the great speeches of American history. “The promised land,” “flowing with milk and honey,” “let my people go,” “Uncle Tom.” Feiler speaks of slavery, freedom, and covenant as being aligned with Egypt, Red Sea, and Sinai. Because the story of Moses transcends one particular religion—in ways the story of Jesus cannot—it can be told again and again, can be applied to many different scenarios, and can even be used in two conflicting situations. He suggests that the Moses story was used by both the North and the South prior to the Civil War. The South used the story to point out that Moses delivered the law to the people with a set of rules to be obeyed. They emphasized that slavery was maintained throughout the story. The North spoke of the freedom aspects of the journey and the fact that all people are created equal. He says, “If North and South could not agree on the same Bible, they could not sit in the same pews, and if they couldn’t sit in the same pews, they couldn’t stay in the same union.” “What started in religion happened next in politics.”

This is not an exhaustive study, nor is it academic or intellectual. After I read it, I wondered why Feiler chose to discuss Cecil B. DeMille but not Brigham Young. Perhaps that was too big a can of worms! At the same time, I believe that he made his point. Moses is a better model for America than Jesus, because his story has universality to it with broad themes and is the one Bible story that most Americans know and can relate to. One can invoke Moses’ name without being called religiously biased. I kept seeing the men’s book study group at church reading it for it has great potential for book discussion groups.

I was amused that concurrent to reading this book, I was reading my new copy of The New York Review of Books (December 9), which included a review of the Stewart/Colbert rally in Washington. It contained a portion of Jon Stewart’s speech at the end of the rally when he spoke as himself and not his character. He said, “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the Promised Land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey.” In the same issue, an article about Glen Beck quotes him calling for a third great awakening because “God is not done with you yet, and he is not done with man’s freedom yet.” So, the story of Moses lives on.

A review in the Washington Post:

An interview on CNN:

Bruce Feiler’s website:

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