Since Thomas Jefferson first recorded those self-evident truths in the Declaration of Independence, America has been a nation that has unfolded as much on the page and the podium as on battlefields or in statehouses. Here Stephen Prothero reveals which texts continue to generate controversy and drive debate. He then puts these voices into conversation, tracing how prominent leaders and thinkers of one generation have commented upon the core texts of another, and invites readers to join in. Few can question that the Constitution is part of our shared cultural lexicon, that the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision still impacts lives, or that "The Star-Spangled Banner" informs our national identity. But Prothero also considers lesser known texts that have sparked our war of words, including Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In The American Bible Christopher Hitchens weighs in on Huck Finn, and Sarah Palin on Martin Luther King Jr. From the speeches of Presidents Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan to the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ayn Rand—Prothero takes the reader into the heart of America's culture wars. These "scriptures" provide the words that continue to unite, divide, and define Americans today.
"Stephen Prothero has done it again. This is a powerfully-written, paradigm-shifting book. How religious differences can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a bomb of destruction is one of the most important challenges of our era, and Prothero is as good a guide as you will find."On my last visit to Jerusalem, I struck up a conversation with an elderly man in the Muslim Quarter. As a shopkeeper, he seemed keen to sell me jewelry. As a Sufi mystic, he seemed even keener to engage me in matters of the spirit. He told me that religions are human inventions, so we must avoid the temptation of worshipping Islam rather than Allah. What matters is opening yourself up to the mystery that goes by the word God, and that can be done in any religion. As he tempted me with more turquoise and silver, he asked me what I was doing in Jerusalem. When I told him I was researching a book on the world’s religions, he put down the jewelry, looked at me intently, and, placing a finger on my chest for emphasis, said, "Do not write false things about the religions."
- Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core and author of Acts of Faith
As I wrote God Is Not One, I came back repeatedly to this conversation. I never wavered from trying to write true things, but I knew that some of the things I was writing he would consider false.
Mystics often claim that the great religions differ only in the inessentials. They may be different paths but they are ascending the same mountain and they converge at the peak. Throughout this book I give voice to these mystics: the Daoist sage Laozi, who wrote his classic the Daodejing just before disappearing forever into the mountains; the Sufi poet Rumi, who instructs us to "gamble everything for love"; and the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, who revels in the feminine aspects of God. But my focus is not on these spiritual superstars. It is on ordinary religious folk — the stories they tell, the doctrines they affirm, and the rituals they practice. And these stories, doctrines, and rituals could not be more different. Christians do not go on the hajj to Mecca; Jews do not affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; and neither Buddhists nor Hindus trouble themselves about sin or salvation.
Of course, religious differences trouble us, since they seem to portend, if not war itself, then at least rumors thereof. But as I researched and wrote this book I came to appreciate how opening our eyes to religious differences can help us appreciate the unique beauty of each of the great religions -- the radical freedom of the Daoist wanderer, the contemplative way into death of the Buddhist monk, and the joy in the face of the divine life of the Sufi shopkeeper.
I plan to send my Sufi shopkeeper a copy of this book. I have no doubt he will disagree with parts of it. But I hope he will recognize my effort to avoid writing "false things," even when I disagree with friends.
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Do you get tongue-tied when asked to name the Twelve Apostles? Do you think Adam's wife was Joan of Arc? If so, join the crowd. The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of religious illiterates. Many Protestants can't name the four Gospels, many Catholics can't name the seven sacraments, and many Jews can't name the first five books of the Bible. And yet politicians and pundits continue to root public policy arguments in religious rhetoric whose meanings are missed, or misinterpreted, by the vast majority of American citizens. This is in my view a major problem in contemporary civic life. "Religious Literacy," which will be published by HarperSanFrancisco on March 1, 2007, explores this problem, pinpointing key moments in U.S. history that spawned our current epidemic of religious illiteracy and offering practical solutions to remedy this problem, including mandatory religion courses in the public schools. The book also includes a Dictionary of Religious Literacy with key terms, beliefs, characters, and stories that every American needs to know in order to make sense of religiously inflected debates: from abortion and gay marriage to Islamic terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Everybody who's taken high school American history knows that the United States is a nation of immigrants, but it is also a nation of religions in which Muslims and Methodists, Buddhists and Baptists live and work side by side. This book (which I edited) explores how four religious communities in this nation of religions (Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs) are shaping and being shaped by American values. Instead of taking U.S. religious diversity as a proposition to be proved, this volume's contributors take it as a starting point. The United States is, as Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark once put it, "a nation of Buddhists, Confucianists, and Taoists, as well as Christians." But how is this diversity affecting U.S. public life? Contributors explore how how religious diversity is changing the public values, rites, and institutions of the nation and how those values, rites, and institutions are affecting religions that are centuries old yet relatively new to America. Contributors include James Davison Hunter, Gurinder Singh Mann, Vasudha Narayanan, and Robert Thurman.
This book first took shape when I started noticing American Hindus celebrating Christmas and Buddhists referring to Jesus as a bodhisattva. This happened around the same time that George W. Bush was referring to Jesus as his favorite philosopher. The book that emerged out of these curiosities looks at the many ways that Americans, both Christians and otherwise, have made Jesus over in their own image, eventually turning him into a national icon. Along the way it contends that the United States is a "Jesus nation" in which virtually everyone reveres Jesus, yet everyone reveres him in their own way.
Albert Schweitzer famously compared those who tried to reconstruct the Real Jesus to a man looking into a well, who sees the reflection of his own face staring up at him. In American Jesus, Stephen Prothero catalogues the dazzling array of Jesus reflections that Americans have contemplated over the years. Let me say at once, with no disrespect to Prothero's impressive scholarship, that the resulting book is enormous fun. It is well written, and offers a host of insights even on topics that the reader might think are thoroughly familiar.For more reviews of American Jesus, click here.
- Philip Jenkins, Christianity Today