In this latest literary effort credited to dc Talk members Tait and Mac, compiler LeAnna Willis ferrets out many of the lesser-known stories of courageous Americans and gives them equal billing with those we know --- or think we know --- all too well. The point, of course, is to show the faith of the people and the faithfulness of God throughout our nation's history, and having been exposed to way too much revisionist Christian history, I was fully prepared to dislike this book. But I couldn't help myself; I ended up liking it even though I know full well that many of the founding fathers and influential mothers featured in the book were not the kind of people who would feel welcome at a typical evangelical church in 21st century America.
No matter. This is a beautiful book, rightfully nominated for an ECPA Gold Medallion Award in the Christianity and Society category (with the winners to be announced in July). And while many of the stories are about people who have become household names to most of us --- Nathan Hale comes to mind --- there's nothing ordinary about the way the writer, who I'm assuming to be Willis, presents those stories. They're out of order chronologically, which actually serves the book well. Each entry is best read on its own, without any thought to where the subject fits in to the preceding or following entry. That eliminates any chance that you'll confuse this book with a comprehensive outline of American religious history.
Those readers who are expecting the usual rehashed stories should be pleasantly surprised by the book's many entries devoted to the Native American and African American struggles for rights and equality. Even those who think they're well-acquainted with U.S. history will likely find a host of unfamiliar accounts, stories about people like "Crazy Bet," a Richmond woman who used her reputation as an eccentric to shield her work as a spy for the North during the Civil War; her determination to see the end of slavery in her lifetime compelled her to take risks few "sane" women would take in the South.
Interspersed throughout are numerous sidebars featuring such writings as the full text of the Gettysburg Address, information on the background of Negro spirituals, a table outlining the history of the abolition movement, and quotations and scripture verses. The ragged-edged pages and background illustrations enhance the "antique" feel of the book --- a perfect way to present the kind of stories and other text that UNDER GOD contains.
As impressed as I was with the book's design, layout and writing, I have to admit that the feature that positively took my breath away was the index. An index in a CBA book! I was so astounded that I nearly stopped reading to send an email expressing my gratitude to Bethany House. And then I discovered the timeline and an extensive bibliography right before the index, and I positively swooned in my spirit. At that point, I needed to get back to reading the actual text, but the index loomed large in my memory. I referred to it even when I had no need to. Yes, I was sold on the book for good.
Maybe all that blinded me to the problems I had with the content, mainly problems of omission. But in the end, I realized I really didn't care all that much about the problems. This is not a history book; it's a tribute to people who in many cases put their lives on the line to make our country a better place in which to live. Whether they succeeded, or whether we agree with their methods, is the subject for another book. This one does what it set out to do --- stir the hearts and spirits of contemporary Americans through the stories of those people who have gone before us.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on October 1, 2004