Thursday, October 21, 2010

Book Review: America's Prophet by Bruce Feiler


I'm a fan of Bruce Feiler, the prolific journalist and author whose recent books Walking The Bible, Abraham, and Where God Was Born reveal his increasing knowledge and commitment to writing about the roots of his Jewish faith and culture. So I happily accepted the invitation to read and review his newest book for the TLC virtual book tour.

His latest work, America's Prophet is a meticulously researched and well written survey of the adoption by America of the story of Moses from the early days of the first Pilgrim settlers to the Revolution, to the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, the eastern European migrations of the end of the nineteenth century, to the civil rights movement of the mid to late twentieth century. America's Prophet is written in a more academic style than Feiler's other popular books.

Feiler reveals how this Moses metaphor was invoked by the early Pilgrims and explicitly used to describe the most revered figures of American history such as Washington, Harriet Tubman, Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Feiler reminds me of Lee Strobel (author of The Case For Christ among other books). Both writers use the journalistic tool of interviewing experts on the subjects they are writing about as well as engaging in personal explorations of their own. For example, Feiler records his observations and emotions while re-enacting the escape of slaves across the Ohio river along the Underground Railroad to safety in Ridley. Then he interviews the curator of the home of an abolitionist who was a conductor of the Underground Railroad and assisted many slaves to freedom.

Three themes are  comprehensively explored in America's Prophet: the courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land, the tension between freedom and law, and the building of a society that welcomes the outsider and uplifts the downtrodden. Feiler speculates that in today's America, with its widespread Biblical illiteracy, Moses is becoming a slogan that embodies these themes without reference to the full meaning of his life.

 One of the sub-texts of the book is Feiler's attempt to  compare the influence of Jesus and the influence of Moses on this country's development. He takes this issue to Professor Allen Guelzo, who teaches Civil War history at Gettysburg College: " I would have thought Jesus was a much more influential figure in America. But I'm starting to believe the themes of Moses may echo more."

Guelzo's response is that the question is not why Christ is so attractive, but "how did Moses get on the stage and why is he still here?" His conclusion is that it is because Moses represents deliverance and Jesus represents redemption. In other words, Moses is a political figure while Jesus is a spiritual one.
As Feiler concludes his book, he says that although he expected to find the themes of Moses' life in America's history, he did not expect to find the extent to which the Exodus story permeates the American experience as Moses has been invoked from the earliest days of the colonies to the present by American political leaders.

Who will be our next Moses? Feiler asks towards the end of the book. I don't know the answer to that, but the next Moses can expect to lead his people into something new and better, to persevere despite complaining from them, and to pave the way forward into the Promised Land but not entering it himself or herself.

America's Prophet is a challenging but worthwhile and thought-provoking. It gave me a whole new perspective on American history and the development of American culture.  I could see it becoming required reading in college courses on American civilization. The book would also make be a good choice for a book club or church adult study group that is interested in tracing the influence of Biblical themes on American history and modern culture.

1 comment:

trish said...

I'd never thought of Moses as a political figure, but the way you say Feiler explains it in relation to Jesus makes a lot of sense.

Sounds like a very interesting book! Thanks for being on this tour.