Thursday, June 16, 2011

Moses: America's Prophet

That's the title of Bruce Feiler's fun little book. He details how the character and actions of Moses run throughout American history-- from Columbus and the Pilgrims to Hillary & Obama in the Democratic primary, including George Whitefield, Thomas Paine, Harriet Tubman, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, LBJ. He was the subject of a Thomas Mann novel and a famous film by Cecil B. DeMille. He's in Washington's letters; his writing is on the Liberty Bell. Moses is even a long-lost cousin of Superman. ("Americans may or may not have noticed Superman's Jewish identity, but Hitler sure did." [p. 225]) It's been used to promote civil rights and gay rights-- and it's been used to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. It's been used to describe Bill Gates against IBM and then, Steve Jobs against Microsoft. Reagan was the Moses of conservatism and Clinton had his New Covenant. And so on.

Feiler argues that "no single thinker has had more sustained influence on American history over a longer period than Moses...You can't understand American history...without understanding Moses. He is a looking glass into our soul." 

Off-and-on throughout the book, Feiler wrestles with why the touchstone is Moses more than Jesus. He provides a few reasons-- his humanness, his universality, and specific references like Washington crossing the river as Moses had crossed the Red Sea and Lincoln sees the Land but is unable to cross over to the other side. He even provides data on, for example, pastors who invoked Moses vs. Jesus after Lincoln died (34 vs. 16 with 113 vs. 42 references). 

My favorite quote on this comes from his interview with Allen Guelzo, responding to whether he would have eulogized Lincoln with Jesus or Moses: "If Lincoln's greatest achievement was emancipation, then we're going to talk about him as Moses. If we think Lincoln's greatest achievement was redeeming the country from the onus of slavery, then we're going to talk about him as Christ...The Moses-Jesus track comes down to which is more important: deliverance or redemption...The private Lincoln is more like Jesus, but the public Jesus is more like Moses."

Feiler points to three themes that underline his application: "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." (298-300). On freedom and law, Feiler describes this combination as covenant vs. freedom, responsibility vs. bondage, law vs. slavery, the desire to build a just society while holding onto the importance of individual responsibility.

Feiler concludes with three lessons he learned about Moses and those who invoke him: the power of story; the American narrative of hope; and the need to act (306-308).

A few other nuggets: 

-I was not aware that American Jews had invested so much in the Civil Rights of African-Americans. It is that much more bizarre that there have been a handful of notable awkward moments between African-American leaders and Jews (253-256).

-A great observation and quote about Thomas Paine (60): "Paine was the anti-religious zealot who continually cited religious examples. He hated Scripture but quoted it relentlessly."

-Union troops were buried at Gettysburg with their feet pointing downhill, so that when the dead were resurrected, they would overlook the field where they had died.

-After averaging one per year, in the decade after the Civil War, there were 94 books published on heaven.

-DeMille had Paramount put granite monoliths of the Ten Commandments on public property to promote the film. The one in Austin later became the basis for the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case that banned such displays in courtrooms.

-DeMille opens his film with an extended monologue, comparing Pharaoh to the USSR and Moses to America. (I remember being shocked when I saw that on video!) 

-More evidence that the 1950s were a period of spiritual lukewarmness. Eisenhower once said: America "is deeply founded in a deeply felt religious faith-- and I don't care what it is." In the 1950s, "under God" was added to the pledge and "in God we trust" was added to the money. Which God? The god of civil religion opposed to godless communism. 

It's an easy read. If you like history with a little bit of religious and cultural flair, pick it up!


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