Ask the average American for the most influential person in the Bible and you'll likely hear "Jesus." Not so, says Bruce Feiler, who has made a career of bringing new life to old (but beloved) texts. Feiler keeps his wandering closer to home this time (he has traveled religious lands extensively) as he explores in America's Prophet the importance of Moses in American history. Actually, importance is an understatement. According to Feiler, "you can't understand American history ... without understanding Moses." He misses little ground in laying out his case, tracing the role of Moses in the Pilgrims, the Revolution, George Washington, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, the Statue of Liberty, Hollywood, Superman, and the Civil Rights Movement.
One of Feiler's strengths as a writer is seeking out new perspectives and discounting no one. He learns as much from scholars as he does from random conversations in part because he is interested in how issues impact people. Some of his ground here is well trodden, such as the United States founders interpreting their story as that of Moses, or seeing how the slaves found inspiration in the Moses story. But Feiler notes the slave owners used the same story for inspiration, especially as the Civil War approached.
Therein lies a crucial argument for Feiler to address. Just because people have taken on the Moses story does not mean they were inspired by it. Indeed, some of what we see here is one of most common misuses of the Bible, where we appropriate scripture to justify whatever issue we wish to address. There is no doubt some of this is occurring with some of these examples, but that does not lessen the overall argument. But it is what makes Feiler's unusual subjects all the more interesting. His discussion of Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments shows how this was not just another movie for the famed director, but a chance to use the story of Moses to move American forward (as he felt it should). Even more interesting is the too short section on the creation of Superman as a modern-day Moses, a connection not missed by Hitler who banned the "Jewish" comic book.
By the end of America's Prophet the natural question is, so what? What do all these connections mean? Feiler anticipates the questions and summarizes his argument with three main themes. First, the story arises again and again because it tells of "the courage to escape oppression and seek the Promised Land." This aspect of the Exodus story is why so many people around the world can relate to the story. Anywhere and any time people are oppressed, the story of a people who break free from that oppression against all odds is inspiring.