Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

Book Review: Myths America Lives By (Oct-Dec 2004)

Filed under: — @ 6:02 pm and

by Greg Taylor
October – December, 2004

Myths America Lives By
Richard T. Hughes

Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Hardback $29.95 ISBN 0-252-02860-0

Richard T. Hughes calls us to see the American creed through the keen eyes of those whose life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness have not been self-evident throughout United States history: African Americans.

In an election year, this twist may serve to jerk us away from the social, ethnic, and political paths too easily taken in favor of what he says is the most compelling path of the twenty-first century: to look empathetically through the eyes of our neighbor, and our enemy. Hughes looks critically at the myths (commonly believed narratives) that shape our self-understanding as “Americans”: that we are a chosen nation, set apart in classes by nature, a Christian nation, and one that will bring the light of liberty to other nations.

But the one he cuts into with the most laser precision is the myth that he believes we must jettison: that we are an innocent nation.

And what a radical path this is for a white history professor at Pepperdine University, who conceived of Myths America Lives By over years of teaching mostly white and wealthy students in Malibu, California. Why does he do this? Because Scripture calls us to see the world through other’s eyes, he says, even our enemies, to put our own interests on the back burner so other’s can flourish. African Americans have suffered perhaps more than any other group in American history and through their laser perception as some of the best social critics of our nation, we can hear the gospel more clearly.

Particularly in an election year, with the United States still at war, Myths America Lives By is a clarion call to see the world through the eyes of another, rather than the party or ethnic group through which one has always viewed life, religion, and politics.

This book is not easy to read or the perspectives easy to hear, because it unsettles the comfortable and those who believe America to be unequivocally compassionate and generous. Those who believe America solely good also tend to be ones who have not experienced its oppression or policies that work against them.

Hughes starts with the assumption that America has made many people free–no doubting that, but in examining our nation’s story, or myths (not to be confused with fiction or things made up but defined as story), he particularly looks through the eyes of a people who have been oppressed by American policies for centuries: African Americans.

The myths are embodied in the words of President George W. Bush, who said, the “advance of freedom is the calling of our time, the calling of our country, the design of nature, and the direction of history. The cause we serve is right because it is cause of mankind.” These myths have been claimed as self-evident from the founding fathers on down.

Most of these myths hold great potential for good. Yet Americans have often absolutized these myths in ways that undermine the virtues that otherwise stood at their respective cores. This is the irony that lies at the heart of American history, as Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out many years ago. In his classic text The Irony of American History, Niebuhr spoke of “the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon.” Moreover, it is precisely when powerful people absolutize their virtues that the interests of the poor and marginalized are most at risk. That is the fundamental premise of this book.
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