Every nation has a Genesis story—a story about its origins. This story plays an important role in national identity—the collective sentiment of being a people. Often, this story extends to antiquity. Think of the Hellenic origins of modern Greece, for example. America, too, has a creation story, but it’s tied up with the next book in the Old Testament, the book of Exodus.
So says Stephen Prothero, author of the provocative American Bible we’re discussing this week. According to Prothero, “… the Exodus story may be the American story—the narrative Americans tell themselves to make sense of their history, identity, and destiny.” As described yesterday, Prothero’s American Bible is a set of secular texts organized according to the Christian Bible.
Why would Prothero put Exodus first in the creation story? Because the founding of the nation is a story of escape from bondage. “As a country we have our Egypt (England) and our Zion (the New World). We have put ourselves up for adoption as God’s chosen people and rechristened our nation as the ‘God’s New Israel,’ with its own special covenant to follow and destiny to fulfill.”
Exodus also is an ideal myth of American Genesis, Prothero argues, because the basic story is so adaptable to so many different groups of people throughout our history. In the Revolutionary War era, Britain was Egypt—but Prothero writes: “The identities of Egypt, Pharoah, and the promised land have also shifted dramatically over time. … African-American slaves saw the South as Egypt and looked for deliverance to a promised land in the North or Canada.”
There’s much more to Prothero’s analysis of Exodus, but you get the idea. And, that’s not the only Genesis text in his American Bible. After Exodus, Prothero includes “A Model of Christian Charity” by John Winthrop (1630). The imagery of “a city upon a hill” has echoed throughout American history. It’s a call to America’s moral destiny, as we’ve discussed before.
The third book is Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1776), followed by the Declaration of Independence (1776). The last book in Genesis is Noah Webster’s “The Blue-Back Speller” (1783-). This last one might seem odd. But, as Prothero points out, it was one of the most popular books in America and it successfully defined an American language different from the language of “Egypt” (England).
What do you think of the collection of texts in Prothero’s “Genesis”?
What would you add or take away?
Do you agree with Prothero’s idea that we, in effect, share an American Bible?
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Originally published at www.OurValues.org, an experiment in civil dialogue about American values.