Richard Gamble, my colleague in history and fellow elder in the OPC church plant in Hillsdale, has a new book, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth. It is a deconstruction of the Puritan and American abuse of the biblical metaphor when applied to either Massachusetts Bay or the United States. Here’s a tantalizing excerpt (thanks to our friends at The Imaginative Conservative):
Whether Jesus had in view only his chosen disciples, his followers in general, or the universal Church he promised to build, he clearly did not address the metaphors of salt, light, and city to the Roman Empire of his day. He could have done so. Others living during roughly the same era did just that. A century earlier, the Roman statesman Cicero combined two of these three images when he warned his fellow Senators at the time of Catiline’s conspiracy that he “seem[ed] to see this city, the light of the whole world and the fortress of all the nations, suddenly involved in one general conflagration.” Centuries earlier, the Athenian general and statesman Pericles had praised his city as a model to all the Greeks. Jesus, in contrast, gave these metaphors to his Church and not to an earthly kingdom. At some point in history—we will never know when—someone first applied the city metaphor to something or someone other than Jesus’ disciples, to something or someone outside the boundaries of the Christian church. That may not have happened for many centuries. It may not have happened first and only in America. But along the way it became commonplace to talk about America as the embodiment of Jesus’ hilltop city.
It is not natural or inevitable that America should have been given this sacred identity. The path from first-century Palestine to twenty-first century America is not an obvious one. Nor is the path from a sermon about life in the Kingdom of God to blogs about national destiny. Along that path, individual Americans did something to Jesus’ metaphor that changed it. Gradually or abruptly, intentionally or not, they helped remake the “city on a hill” from “a metaphor into a myth,” to borrow a phrase from historian Michael McGiffert. Even if we cannot pinpoint the exact moment of transformation, we will see in the following pages that at one time Americans chiefly used the “city on a hill” to describe something transcendent and theological, and then at a later time chiefly to describe something earthly and political. The transition required nothing less than the unmaking of a biblical metaphor and the making of a national myth.