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America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion Paperback – 30 Nov 2018
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In this book you'll rediscover America, the enchanted and cursed. For an age haunted with reactionary nostalgia, Ed Simon haunts readers with an American greatness that is both lovely and perverse, through masterfully told tales that look their subjects' original sins straight in the eye. His America is more than a country, more than an idea or a history or a code of laws; it's a system of worship, hitherto little-known as such to its own devotees. --Nathan Schneider, author of God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet
About the Author
Ed Simon is a senior editor with the Marginalia Review of Books, a Channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a regular contributor on the subjects of literature, religion, culture, and politics at many publications including The Atlantic, The Paris Review and Jacobin. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.
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Simon gives the reader a lot to think about throughout this collection. I found his focused, and on occasion, fiery anger that makes appearances from time to time, to be refreshing and authentic. I personally enjoyed his take on John Knox and other historical figures, although I'm not sure I agreed with a few of the points he made.
Anyway, this one of the surprise reads of the year for me, as I wasn't expecting it be nearly as thought provoking as it was. Highly recommended.
This was an ARC from Netgalley and John Hunt Publishing/Zero Books in exchange for an honest review. With many thanks.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The setting I have described is not unlike the experience of reading Simon’s essays, many of which begin with references to historical or literary figures. It doesn’t take him long to begin the dismantling of the fictions that appeal to our allegiances. The Second Law of Thermodynamics rumbles along the entirety of this book; thunderclaps of violence, war, genocide punctuate the collection. He has written these essays over some period of time. He has collected them in a storm and their blood watermarked pages add to the weight of this work. This is America, he writes. And this. And this.
The breadth of Simon’s perspective from history to literature, culture to religion is remarkable and he uses these narratives in a courageous effort to focus on what is damnable about our history and what is hopeful. Those narratives would be enhanced by a critical engagement of artists like Childish Gambino or the Pulitzer-awarded literary recording artist, Kendrick Lamar. This is pertinent since he admits in his book, “Logic and reason alone will not bring armistice, as it is the language of myth that binds us, it must be the language of myth which ultimately liberates –but I know not what that language sounds like.” It may sound like Lamar’s “XXX” that begins with a sweet croon, “America, God bless you it it’s good to yah, America, please take my hand, can you help me under....” when it is abruptly disrupted by Lamar’s lament. While Simon has missed this opportunity to dig in the quarry of Hip Hop and Rap, he is to be commended for his deep regard for religion. The Sacred is not alien to him and though admittedly not a believer, he is embracive, not dismissive like so many of the cultured despisers of religion in the Progressive Left are. He knows the second Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, was led by a Baptist preacher and the bodies thrown into the gears of racist, violent America, were most often the bodies of believers armed with nothing more than spirituals, songs of freedom and hope throbbing in their chests. That is not to say he winks at religion. He does not. His critical engagement also dismantles many of the fictions of those religious histories.
The read is an uneven one but that is what you get with collections of essays written over time. There are annoying misspellings that litter the book but these are inconsequential to the contributions Simon makes as we attempt to recover an American identity that has now been hijacked by the bigoted, the fascist, the confederate, the religiously intolerant. The problem is, as Simon argues, that so-called identity has since its inception been up for grabs. Slavery could never be reconciled to the Declaration of Independence. We just may be irreconcilable. I hope not and I am hopeful that Ed Simon has provided us language to sort out these fictions and create an identity worthy of the sacred words of the Declaration. The anti-Lincoln is in the White House. Humanitarian principles crash like icebergs into a too-warm sea. What crouches toward Bethlehem to be born, we must wait to behold. General Sherman stands on the porch. Jasper’s banner is raised high above his head. The bells of the church toll. This is America.
Simon presents his views on a wide variety of subjects in this deep and dense collection of essays. Religion and America share many things in common. American History and Religious history has a take what you want and ignore what you want attitude. We think of George Washington as almost a mythical leader. Jefferson and inciteful writing are tarnished by his hypocrisy on freedom in his own life. Famous revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine wrote from a simpler "American" style that spread the revolutionary zeal. His place in history is less secure as he does not have a Monticello or monument in Washington. He died alone in Greenwich Village of cirrhosis with no fanfare or much remembrance.
The topics on religion are nicely tied to politics as Agustine believing men are evil in nature and Pelagius who believed that men were naturally good. This ties in nicely with the modern conservative and liberal theories. Crucifixion is discussed and the variations of the "cross" used to inflict the punishment.
America is more than a country it is an idea that crosses borders although Americans are themselves unlikely to think of Canadians, Chilians, Peruvians, or Mexicans as Americans. American Pie, American Beauty, and American Graffiti portray additional pleasure while American Psycho and American Terror add a deeper level of violence with the addition of "American". For those old enough to remember the Soviet Union there was a demand for Levis, Dallas videotapes, and Voice of America form people who considered America their enemy. America meant different things in different contexts.
Whitman becomes the patron saint of nineteenth-century America. It is not only his words and appreciation for the American wilderness, Whitman was not Christian but still read the Bible to wounded troops on both sides of the Civil War. The uniform color made no difference to Whitman as they were Americans. Reading the Bible was not for Whitman's benefit but for the benefit of those wounded and hurting. Bob Dylan also makes an appearance as a poet and raises questions on his winning the Nobel Poetry Prize. How is a singer a world-class poet? He becomes one when he embodies the spirit of America.
Simon writes a complex mix of subject matter and thoughts. It is not a light afternoon read but something that needs to be thought upon and processed. The information is densely packed and takes much from philosophy, religious and otherwise, to present a picture of America and Christianity without combining the two. A thought-provoking and interesting study of the two ideas.