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Book review: 'America's Prophet' by Bruce Feiler

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By Stephen Prothero
Sunday, November 15, 2009

AMERICA'S PROPHET

Moses and the American Story

This Story

By Bruce Feiler

Morrow. 352 pp. $26.99

The United States began as an idea. At its founding, its reason for being was freedom from tyranny and the freedom to vote. These freedoms later expanded to include freedom of religion, freedom from slavery and freedom from want, even as the vote was extended to poor white men, women and blacks. So the story of the United States is one of freedom defined and redefined, promised and deferred, hoped for yet never quite realized.

This concept of freedom was bequeathed to Americans by Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Paine, but it derived more fundamentally from Christians, who got it from Jews, who safeguarded it in the Biblical story of the Exodus. Many of the freedoms Americans enjoy today derive not from modern philosophical arguments but from this ancient story of a chosen people delivered by God from bondage to freedom. As a nation we have had our Egypt (Europe) and our Promised Land (the New World). We have put ourselves up for adoption as God's chosen people and drafted our land as God's New Israel. We also have our own sordid tale of slavery to tell. Not without reason has Princeton professor Albert Raboteau called the Exodus story "our nation's most powerful and long lasting myth."

Bruce Feiler is best known for "Walking the Bible," a book and PBS series that had him walking in the footsteps of Bible patriarchs and interviewing experts along the way. In "America's Prophet," he takes his walking shtick to the United States, tramping from Plymouth to Philadelphia to Los Angeles in search of the American afterlife of the leading man in the Exodus drama. A few years ago, in my book "American Jesus," from which Feiler quotes, I argued that Jesus was a key figure in U.S. history -- an "American icon." Here Feiler claims that Moses mattered more: "He is our true founding father. His face belongs on Mount Rushmore."

As this quote suggests, Feiler is unafraid of hyperbole. Still, his argument that Moses played a key role in America's freedom story is convincing. The Puritans read their experience through the Exodus narrative. Patriots (who saw King George III as Pharaoh) and slaves (who saw the South as Babylon) were inspired by that story's promise of liberation. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. have all been feted here as Moseses. Also helpful is Feiler's observation that Moses has provided a vehicle for Americans to come to grips not only with liberation but also with law -- with Sinai moments such as the signing of the Mayflower Compact and the ratification of the Constitution.

Less helpful is Feiler's unfortunate decision to apply the "I was there" formula of his prior projects to this one -- a decision that leads him to devote more energy to the memorabilia of director Cecil B. DeMille than to either of DeMille's two Ten Commandments films. In a book that is longer on chitchat than analysis, Feiler writes in detail about interviews he conducted with this expert or that, but he does little wrestling himself with what our Moses obsession says about American life. One obvious possibility -- that this country is more Hebraic than Christian -- is never taken up.

Feiler's "I was there" formula also leads him to slight the Mormons, who more than any other group of Americans took to reenacting the Exodus story. Brigham Young was, as his biographer Leonard Arrington rightly noted, an "American Moses" who led his people from persecution in Illinois, through plagues in the plains, to the Promised Land of Utah. But this intriguing tale gets only a page in "America's Prophet" -- roughly what Feiler devotes to the moment he tried on Charlton Heston's Moses robe, and quite a bit less than he devotes to a meeting he had in the White House with President George W. Bush.

In a chapter I found embarrassing to read, Feiler plays the part of a runaway slave trying to make his way under cover of night to what was once a safe house on the Underground Railroad. There may be people who find such "re-creations" compelling, but I found myself cringing as I read about a 21st-century white man, his "hands riddled with splinters," climbing "on all fours" to ersatz emancipation. In the end, Feiler's primary concern here seems to be to regale us with back stories about Superman, the Liberty Bell and the Statue of Liberty. People who enjoy that sort of thing will enjoy this book. People who want a sustained and convincing argument about the important role Moses has played in the American imagination will have to look elsewhere.

Stephen Prothero is a religious studies professor at Boston University and the author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't."


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