Moses at Christmas

Moses at Christmas
by Ed Blum

I tried to ruin the blockbuster film Avatar. Not for everyone, mind you, just for my new brother-in-law, David. "Jen and I just got out of Avatar," I texted falsely. "Can you believe the Jackneff … is that how you spell it? … destroyed the village at the end. Jen figured out way early that Halpha was a traitor." I hadn't seen Avatar. There's no Jackneff; no Halpha. It was my brilliant way of tricking and hopefully irritating David, an animator who had been Facebooking about his excitement for Avatar for weeks.

"Bro, haven't seen it yet," David texted back immediately, "Not cool." I laughed and laughed. He fell for it. I called and explained that I was teasing and that I hadn't seen the movie. David mustn't have been too upset with me (or perhaps he had already purchased my Christmas present), for in my stocking he placed
America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story by Bruce Feiler. I had seen the book at Barnes and Noble and determined to get it at the library. Instead, I had my own Christmas copy. Flying home from the east coast, all hopped up on Bayer because of my sprained ankle, I had my dose of religious history to read.

Feiler's work passed the time well. It's a quirky, but fun, book.

Pitched to a general readership, I can only imagine scholars enjoying it. Feiler oscillates between historical analyses of Moses at various moments in American history to Feiler's personal experiences or interviews. So he jumps from Puritan sermons to his observations of Pilgrim reenactors, or from the words of the Founding Fathers to what the Liberty Bell sounds like to him. I had a great time venturing with Feiler to Cincinnati where he raced across the frozen Ohio River at midnight as if he was fleeing from slavery. But sometimes the personal anecdotes seem ridiculous. There's no one chasing him through the streets; the drama is fake and the reader knows it (just as it is in Dan Brown's disappointing The Lost Symbol). Feiler is probably at his best when interacting with director Cecil DeMille's descendants and piecing together the personal and social origins of his 1950s epic The Ten Commandments.

Feiler concludes that Moses taught American's a series of lessons. He taught them to have the courage to hope and rebel (in Exodus liberation style) and how to consolidate as a community (in law-giving and law-abiding style). He taught Americans how to form identities in difficult times (like massive immigration moments), how to fight the Nazis and Commies (with superheros and Charlton Heston), and how to deal with devastation (by accepting that sometimes you don't make it to the Promised Land).

And finally, Feiler proclaims that more than any other figure, Moses is the man - even more than Jesus. "Moses was more important to the Puritans, more meaningful to the Revolution, more impactful during the Civil War, and more inspiring to the immigrant rights, civil rights, and women's rights movements of the last century than Jesus," Feiler shouts. "Beyond that, Moses had more influence on American history than any other figure from the Bible or antiquity."

These are bold words. In modern America, it takes a lot of guts to challenge Jesus. Sure, two thousand years ago you could get away with arresting him or crucifying him pretty easily. But throughout American history, as Stephen Prothero and Richard Fox have shown brilliantly, Jesus has been a force. Prothero even suggests that the United States can best be understood not as a "Christian nation" or as a "pluralistic nation" but as a "Jesus nation." Now we have a challenge: Moses or Jesus. Historians, marshal your evidence and make your choice.

I'm not sure why Feiler insists on comparing Moses to Jesus in American historical influence. Perhaps it's his way of divesting American history of some of its overly Christian emphasis (like how some of my colleagues have quietly balked at Prothero's claim about the ubiquity of adoration for Jesus in American culture, explaining "I'd never put this in print, but I have always hated Christmas. You can't say that, though."). Do we need some statistician to quantify the number of books on Jesus and Moses in the Library of Congress or how many paintings there are of each one or of how many times members of Congress have referenced either one? Do we need to compare the box-office numbers of The Ten Commandments with those of Passion of the Christ? Do we need "Touchdown Jesus" to square off with Charlton Heston in a cage match?

It may be better to think of Moses and Jesus as tag-team partners in American history than separate entities. I'm guessing that the folks who want huge blocks of the decalogue inside and outside of courthouses tend to be the people who pray to Jesus. But I'm probably being too harsh. We historians are often found debating whether economic or political or cultural or religious forces were the most important in an era, as if any of these can neatly be separated. So perhaps we have Feiler to thank for a new scholarly discussion - which biblical character was the most important in American history - when, where, how, to whom? Regardless, thanks for the great present David.


Randall said…
Enjoyed reading the post, Ed. I had never thought about some of this stuff relating to Moses. I'll have to check out the book. (When I first saw the title of the post I was thinking of Moses Malone opening a very large gift-wrapped shoe box next to a Christmas tree.)

Jesus and Moses as tag teamers, huh? I've always thought they were a little bit at odds or on opposite sides of a sheckel. But seeing how you put it in the final para, I get your point.

Now I want to read a book about how the apostle Paul has been read, misread, or ignored by Americans. Or, maybe an article about what Onan meant to Victorians.
David said…
Wait a minute... Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol" was a disappointing read? Again, you ruin it for me!

Glad you liked the present.
Christopher said…
Thanks for the post, Ed.

I couldn't help but chuckle the other day when I caught Glenn Beck plugging Feiler's book on his special on Black conservatives in America:,2933,575301,00.html

If Feiler manages to please both academic historians and the historically ignorant (Glenn Beck) with his book, he has seemingly accomplished the impossible. A "general readership," indeed.