Author: Mason, Patrick Q
Date published: March 1, 2010
doi:10.1017/S0009640709991703 Homeland Mythology: Biblical Narratives in American Culture. By Christopher Collins. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007. xxiii + 263 pp. $29.95 cloth.
In his unabashedly presentist book. Homeland Mythology: Biblical Narratives in American Culture, Christopher Collins seeks to analyze how biblical narratives have been used by Americans to "justify their conquest of North America and their hegemony abroad" (ix). From the outset, Collins reveals deep disappointment about the Bush administration's ability to dupe the country into living in a perpetual state of fear and supporting an unjustified war in Iraq. Asserting that "the unexamined issue we now need most to explore is not the mendacity of the few but the credulity of the many (xvi), Collins places blame squarely on the continuing influence of biblical narratives, which help conservative politicians and religious leaders manipulate the gullible Biblebelieving public to support their illiberal and violent ends.
Homeland Mythology is strongest when it restricts itself to narrative analysis and not history. It begins by analyzing the rhetoric and meaning of "home" and "land," teasing out the more sentimental notions attached with the former and the political and territorial aspects of the latter. In describing the master narrative of history as portrayed in the Bible, Collins models his analysis on a five-part narrative cycle drawn out by Tzvetan Todorov. Furthermore, Collins helpfully reveals the disparities between national and individual morality; in particular, he shows how various actions that are seen as virtuous when performed by governments would be prosecuted as criminal if done by individuals. States are able to do this, in part, because of the narratives they tell their citizens about themselves, thus reinterpreting "govemment-as-community, land-as-home" (215).
The book's real intent, however, is not simply to analyze biblical narrative, but to identify how and when and where it has shaped America's putatively secular national myths. In so doing, Collins contributes to the evolving scholarly conversation about the interpénétration of the "secular" and the "religious," suggesting (much to the chagrin of secularization theorists) that there never was, nor could there be, an absolute "wall of separation," and that God was never really dead nor even dying. Collins demonstrates how narratives - stories - are central to Americans' self-understanding, as well as the ways that political leaders shape their messages so that the public will accept them. In documenting the powerful role of biblical narratives in American culture, the tone in Homeland Mythology often veers toward lament rather than objective analysis. Collins sees contemporary Americans as living in an Orwellian society that privileges perception over reality - what Stephen Colbert described as "truthiness" ( 1 59). According to the author, this nightmarish situation can be blamed directly on "Christian conservatism and the imperial presidency" (217).
Collins's treatment of religion, however, is seriously flawed. Some of his problems arise from faulty historical analysis. Homeland Mythology goes from Puritans to Herman Melville to Jerry Falwell and back again, with no sense of historical development or change. Collins often reads seventeenth-century texts through twenty-first-century lenses, arguing (sometimes explicitly, as on 73) that a straight line can be drawn from Puritan millennialism to neoconservatism. The author's latent hostility toward religion comes out ?? his denigrating depictions of believers. Puritan luminary Cotton Mather, for example, is maligned as possessing a "benighted or perhaps diseased mind" (212). Furthermore, because the book of Revelation portrays Jesus in his millennial return as a violent avenger, in their imitano Christi Christians must according to Collins, act in lockstep as "instruments of divine judgment" (154).
In Collins's telling, biblical narratives are directly responsible for the deplorable - but none of the praiseworthy - elements in American history, including slavery, land theft, imperialism, and genocide. Apparently surrendering all agency in the face of biblical narrative, Americans participated in these ugly acts because they felt a "need to reenact" the stories of the Bible (72). For some reason that is never explained; Americans are compelled to reenact the scenes from Revelation but not the Sermon on the Mount and other narratives of grace, mercy, and providential plenitude. Slavery is attributable to biblical discourse, but anti-slavery apparently is not; here the Exodus becomes a narrative of dispossession and imperialism, not emancipation. Ironically, Collins argues for the Christian origins of the nation, assuming a kind of Protestant millennialist hegemony that belies the ideological and religious diversity of early America. Although Collins acknowledges in his preface that "not all American Christians are social conservatives" (xvi), his primary examples of American Bible-interpreters are Puritans, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Hal Lindsey, Anglo- Israelites, and Reconstructionists. The likes of Jane Addams, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and Jim Wallis apparently do not apply biblical narratives to American culture.
Homeland Mythology portrays religion as primarily a tool of social manipulation, used by scheming political and religious elites to create and re-inscribe hierarchy. Religion is inherently intolerant; foreclosing the possibility (let alone historical reality) of ecumenism. Collins states that "no single religion . . . can abide a tolerance among its members for beliefs other than its own" (183). Collins argues that religious belief is a vestigial relic of medieval superstition, and explicitly intends his book to provide a needed "modemist critique of premodem medievalism" (190). In one sense, by examining the interplay between the secular and religious in modem Western discourse, Homeland Mythology echoes Charles Taylor, José Casanova, and other scholars reinterpreting secular modernity. Collins, however, assumes a single, secular modernity, disregarding prevailing contemporary theories of multiple and alternative modernities. He sees the continuing strength of religion in public life as an anti-modern anachronism, not an interesting historical development to be studied on its own terms.
To be sure, Americans have repeatedly employed biblical narratives in justifying their various (mis )behaviors. This is not in itself surprising - as the most profound single shaper of public discourse in the West, the Bible is simply unavoidable. But the narratives told by Americans have highlighted the Good Samaritan's compassion as often as, if not more than, Joshua's genocide. In caricaturing American religious discourse as angry, apocalyptic, and violent, Homeland Mythology too often appears - beginning with the cover image - as little more than a screed against George W. Bush and the Republican Party's conservative religious base. Readers interested in the influence of religion on public discourse and culture in America will be better served by turning to more subtle and historically nuanced treatments.
Patrick Q. Mason
University of Notre Dame