Today’s installment of the Sunday’s Good Book series of reviews was meant to be about Robert Alter’s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, but I’ll confess I didn’t get around to finishing the admittedly slim volume.
It was recommended to me by the professor of my oratory class, but I misunderstood the nature of the book. I had thought it was a series of case studies of biblical rhetoric in American political language, or American culture broadly. It turned out to be a study of the use of biblical language in American literature, which was where it all went wrong for me.
I don’t always like reading literary criticism, and I absolutely cannot enjoy it when I haven’t read the books being discussed. Of the six Alter studies, I’ve only read Moby Dick and even that only once in high school. And as far as I can tell, I read it wrong. I didn’t care about Ahab’s quest or any facet of the plot or characters. I preferred the infodump chapters on the history, culture, and precise terminology of whaling.
This book didn’t suit me, but I thought it might be of interest to some of the readers of this blog, and, if it turns out to be of great interest to any of you, email me to arrange to give it a proper review in a guest post. If you’re very interested in reading it and sharing your thoughts and live in the continental US, email me at leah (dot) libresco (at) yale (dot) edu and I might send it to you if no one at school puts in a claim. With a senior essay to draft and plenty of other theological works (and just plain novels) piling up, I don’t think I’ll return to it in the foreseeable future.
I am still interested in reading the kind of book I thought I was getting: a study of religious motifs in political discourse, so if anyone’s read something good along those lines, drop me a note in the comments. The closest I’ve gotten is Drew Westen’s The Political Brain. Westen’s major focus is using neuroscience to guide new strategies in political messaging, and, to put it bluntly, I came off the book with some major suspicions about his conclusions. However, he also spends a fair amount of time talking about using religious rhetoric to promote policies in the public sphere, and even includes some examples of how to appeal to shared religious values on several contentious issues. Some of the case studies were interesting, and I’d be interested in more works on that topic.
When Westen gave a talk at my school, he admitted that he felt he had no future in politics as a career because, as a Jew, he couldn’t appeal to his mostly-Christian constituents in the vernacular that had the most resonance for them. I’m not sure if he’s correct to write himself off. Since starting to blog about religion and reading theology in books and other blogs, I’ve picked up some of the thought and language of the Catholic tradition, even if I’m not fluent.
No worries I’ll ever be able to turn that knowledge into political capital. After all, I run a public blog about religion.