In a book I recently read (that I wish I had read 20 years ago), A Thomas Jefferson Education, the author speaks of national books. “A national book is something that almost everyone in the nation [note the use of “nation” rather than “country”] accepts as a central truth.” Each nation has its own books, although in some cultures the national “books” are (or were in the past) oral traditions. These books have much to do with the establishment of a national identity and culture. They can be good (War and Peace) or bad (Mein Kampf), religious (Bhagavad Gita) or secular (Shakespeare).
The book cites Allan Bloom’s assertion that America’s national books through its first 150 years were the “Declaration of Independence” and the Bible. But somehow in the 1950s and 60s familiarity with these national books dropped off dramatically. The problem this causes is immense—we no longer have these essential works as the foundation of our culture. This begs the question: What has replaced them?
It seems that we don’t have any national books anymore. What books do almost all Americans read in common? I postulate that our new national books are not books at all, but are in fact movies and television. Yes, it’s scary, but I think it’s true. We watch them, quote them, discuss them in our social gatherings and at the water cooler. Do we quote the Bible? I think we, as a nation, quote the Bible very frequently, but we don’t know we’re doing it. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee used a lot of Biblical allusions, but he confused a lot of people with them because of our general biblical ignorance in America.
On the other hand, quotes from recent or classic movies permeate our daily language. “Make him an offer he can’t refuse,” “Luke, I am your father,” “Tina, ya fat lard!” We can give a detailed description of Jim and Pam’s courtship, but not Isaac and Rebecca’s faith-building first encounter. We can name all the contestants on American Idol, but not half of the twelve tribes of Israel. We quote advice given by Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Rush Limbaugh, but we don’t know the Sermon on the Mount—the best “advice” we could ever have for a happy life. We can name more of the last 12 Heisman Trophy winners than we can the original twelve apostles.
So what? What if we don’t all read the same books? Can’t we all just read good books, or even see good movies that reaffirm our sense of right and wrong? Yes, we could, if we talked about them that way. But we don’t. Instead of getting into the details of the morals taught in movies or TV shows, we call them “a triumph of the human spirit” or “a feel-good movie.” Can you imagine a co-worker coming up to you and saying, “Y’know, I was reading in Genesis the other day about Abraham, and I was wondering what he was thinking as he took Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him, knowing that his own parents had tried to offer Abraham as a sacrifice when he was young. He must have had some real certainty of his commandment from God”? I can’t.
What do we do about it? Well, first we return to our national books. When was the last time you read the “Declaration?” Have you read the entire Bible (I know I haven’t) or your scripture? Second, we need to move the current situation in the right direction. We need to talk about those “triumph of the human spirit” movies in terms of right and wrong, good choices and bad. What are the choices characters must make? Why do they choose the way they do, and what are the results? This is most important for children, especially when movies are not as explicitly didactic as Little House on the Prairie was (it’s also a good chance to talk to our kids and to give them a better understanding of our own values, our “family books”).
The concept of a national book is so extremely important. It is a gathering place for the souls of our people. Unfortunately, we as a nation have set our books down and not picked them up again. It’s time to do so—in fact it’s past time. Let’s do it today.