Reading American Jesus, I longed to teach again a course I regularly used to offer on American culture and religion. This would definitely be a required text. It is a spritely, sometimes ironic, truly illuminating overview of Jesus as a national icon, within and outside the organized churches. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, is on a quest less for the historical than for the cultural Jesus.
One American cultural paradox, with our separation of church and state, is that Jesus is a figure with whom every American must sooner or later come to grips. Many of the most intriguing portraits of Jesus have emerged from outside the churches. Because 85 percent of Americans purport to be Christians, as Prothero notes, “Christian insiders have had the authority to dictate that others interpret Jesus. They have not had the authority to dictate how these others would do so.”
There is a subtle yet clear plot line to this cultural-historical retrieval. In the early 19th century, evangelical revivalists liberated Jesus from Calvinism and from historic creeds. They fostered a personal relation to Jesus as companion and friend. For the Puritans, God the Father was the principal personage of the Trinity. Jesus served more as agent of the Atonement than as a person. Evangelical revivalism, in reaction, turned to a kind of solus Jesus, Jesus and only him. The gushy hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855) eclipsed and drowned out the Puritans’ popular “Before Jehovah’s Awful Throne” (1719).
Liberal Protestants sought to disentangle a historical Jesus uncontaminated by any resort to creeds. A popular trope, which runs through American history, distinguished sharply between the “religion of Jesus” and its perversion into the religion about Jesus. As the socialist Eugene Debs put it, he accepted Jesus, but not “churchianity.” It was but a logical step to uncouple Jesus from Christianity entirely. Hence, the United States could be a Jesus nation without necessarily being a Christian one. Jesus has been liberated from divinity, dogma and even from Christianity itself. For many Americans, Jesus is not a Christian at all.
In a fascinating chapter on Thomas Jefferson’s Jesus as a moral sage, we learn how the Jeffersonian version of Occam’s razor excised nine-tenths of the bible. Jesus was admired more for his exemplary life than his atoning death. The Jesus Seminar (with its arbitrary democratic vote as to what parts of the Bible will be cut) continues this Jeffersonian quest. The Jesus Seminar exhibits a prototypical pattern in American culture, by which: (a) Jesus gets isolated from creeds and tradition; (b) some Christian practices or beliefs in the church are alleged to be unreasonable or corruptions; and (c) Jesus’ own authority is invoked to denounce those beliefs and practices.
These multiple permutations of Jesus as cultural icon are fascinating. He becomes, literally, all things to all men. In the 19th century, Henry Ward Beecher, in his bestselling The Life of Jesus, the Christ, saw Jesus as a feeler, not a thinker. Turn-of-the-century social gospellers, in an appeal to muscular Christianity, sought a more manly Jesus. The friendly Victorian Jesus, though something of an aesthete, morphed into an athlete. A 1910 hymnal entitled Manly Songs for Christians could intone about “The Manly Man of Galilee” and view Jesus as a kind of soldier. Muscular Christians eschewed earlier “bearded lady” pictures, championing Warner Sallman’s famous (perhaps the most reproduced image ever of Jesus) “Head of Christ.” Sallman, Prothero alleges, transformed Jesus from the “Logos” to a “logo.”
Bruce Barton’s 1925 runaway bestseller, The Man No One Knows, pictured Jesus as a kind of Madison Avenue ad-man. For Barton, the text to milk was: “Should I not be about my father’s business?” There was even a Ku Klux Klan Jesus. The 1960’s brought us a hippie, countercultural Jesus, with the posters I used to see in Berkeley: “Wanted: Jesus Christ for being a revolutionary.” Christian surfers find in Jesus a companion to ride the perfect wave. Black Christians, starting with Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s controversial assertion in 1890 that “Jesus was a Negro,” have portrayed Jesus as black and assimilated him to Moses. If feminists sought an androgynous Christ in their full-breasted “Christa” hanging on the cross, the black artist Renee Cox did them one better by picturing herself at the last supper in her famous/infamous “Yo Mama’s Last Supper,” shown at The Brooklyn Museum in spring 2001.
For their part, Mormons (whom many Christians—to the Mormons’ chagrin—do not consider bona fide Christians) saw Jesus as their elder brother. James Talmage’s 1917 Mormon book, Jesus the Christ, turned Jesus into a married polygamist! (No wonder so many contemporaries are duped by the dubious Jesus implied in the novel The DaVinci Code.)
Jews, starting with Rabbi Stephen Wise’s famous Christmas sermon at Carnegie Hall in 1925, discovered a Jewish rabbi-Jesus. Some Jewish writers used the teachings of this non-messianic prophet to excoriate churchgoing Christians for their hypocrisy. So, too, the Hindus found a way, in the Vedanta society of San Francisco, to present Jesus the yogi in a famous painting. American Hindus saw in Jesus an avatar of Krishna. Cultural Buddhists often echo Jack Kerouac’s famous line in Mexico City Blues (1959): “I believe in the sweetness of Jesus/ and Buddha.”
In his brilliant Jesus Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan asserted that Jesus no longer belongs to the West. Prothero illuminates amply that he (or the androgyne she) no longer belongs to Christians. Following ironic cues in this book, I went back to recite the Nicene Creed as a way to protect myself from fashioning Jesus in my own or our culture’s too-narrow image. Many of the new nondenominational megachurches have removed all the crosses. I prefer to follow Paul’s injunction: “to know Jesus and him crucified.”
I suspect America—in this ironic period of a proposed new empire—might do better gazing long at the crucified than at any of the polymorphous Jesus images of our culture, intriguing though they might be.