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Martin Luther King’s Biblical Epic by Keith D. Miller (review)
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Hans-George Gadamer wrote that “the discovery of the true meaning of a text or a work of art is never finished; it is in fact an infinite process. . . . [N]ew sources of understanding are continually emerging that reveal unsuspected elements of meaning.” Keith D. Miller quotes Gadamer (168), and in fact Miller’s new book does reveal new sources of understanding that disclose unsuspected elements of meaning in King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountain-top.” Miller’s central focus is to highlight and explicate King’s ability to interpret the Bible in support of the Memphis garbage workers strike as strikers seek to claim their dignity and overcome poverty. Given the attention that rhetorical scholars have paid to King’s rhetoric, we might ask about the value of another study or what more might be said. New sources of meaning in King’s rhetoric help us answer, as Miller says, “the single most important question about King: What made his orations so eloquent, so mesmerizing, so persuasive?” (17). One of King’s most persuasive speeches is “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and a full understanding of King’s use of the Bible in this speech helps explain its eloquence and sheds light on his tools of persuasion in the rest of his rhetoric. Although rhetorical scholars have paid attention to King’s political leadership, theology, and oratory, this is the first time that such extensive scholarship is dedicated to King’s use of the Bible. Very few researchers have examined “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” in any detail, and Miller’s work is the first and foundational book on this speech.

Miller fully analyzes and acknowledges King’s treatment of the Bible as the supreme text above all other texts and the source of all meaning for human life. Miller comments that “King engaged the Bible thoughtfully” (18), leading Miller to ask two primary questions: “What overall interpretation of the Bible does King provide? How does that interpretation contribute to his magnetic appeal and his persuasiveness?” (18). Miller suggests that King supplies a “biblical interpretation that is cohesive, organized, even methodical” and labels King’s approach a “biblical hermeneutic” (19). Miller successfully argues that in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” King’s biblical hermeneutic enables him to re-imagine the strike in Memphis. According to Miller, “King defines and enacts his last speech as biblical narrative and biblical prophecy” (21) that allows a reinterpretation of events in Memphis according to a divine contest between good and evil, of which the only result is the victory of right, justice, and freedom.

In the entire book, Miller clearly and concisely illustrates that a stellar orator frequently “rethreads, updates, and re-invigorates a well-known artistic tradition” (50). In the first three chapters, Miller illustrates that King reinvigorates three “artistic traditions.” In chapter 1, Miller analyzes King’s rhetorical journey to Memphis as one that includes the religion of King’s boyhood, “a centuries old tradition of African American biblical interpretation that extended from American slaves and abolitionists to such important twentieth century figures as C. L. Franklin and Fred Shuttlesworth” (22), including a speech by his father. In chapter 2, the focus is King’s relationship to a largely white, liberal pulpit tradition. Miller reveals published sources and sermon texts dating back to 1841 from which King borrows for his explication of the parable of the Good Samaritan in the speech, including texts from George Murray, Halford Luccock, and George Buttrick. In the third chapter, and for the first time in rhetorical scholarship, Miller analyzes the Pentecostal tradition of Mason Temple, which is the physical site of the speech in Memphis. Miller argues that without Mason Temple, the speech would have never occurred and analyzes its architecture and design, the spiritual history of the men and women who built the Temple despite racism and the economic downturn of the Great Depression, and the Pentecostal beliefs and practices that helped shape the delivery and reception of the speech. Miller makes an important contribution by clearly and concisely detailing the threads of these traditions for the reader, and then illustrating their interweaving in King’s final...

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