Jesus in America: his changing image

Every group in America - Christian or not - must deal with Jesus

The Gospel of John concludes by claiming that if all the things Jesus did were written down, "the world itself could not contain the books that should be written." Unfortunately, the writers of Christmas music seem determined to meet John's challenge. Anyone who's endured the Cajun polka version of "Away in the Manger" knows that the world itself could not - and should not - contain any more of these things.

Dec. 26th will silence the Christmas muzak for 11 months, but the more complex issues raised by this inescapable holy din extend beyond the commercialization of Christmas and point to what Stephen Prothero calls the universalization of Jesus. Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, has published an engaging book called "American Jesus" that documents how the Son of God became the nation's most ubiquitous and flexible celebrity.

While acknowledging the extraordinary religious diversity in the United States, Prothero reminds us that America now contains more Christians than any other nation in history. And despite periodic jeremiads about our hedonistic society, Americans are vastly more interested in Jesus than their Puritan forefathers, who were, as Prothero writes, "a God-fearing rather than Jesus-loving people." Indeed, what's even more striking today is the faith of non-Christians: Nearly half of them believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead.

But don't gloat, Prothero warns the pious. Jesus may rule the country, but the country rules Jesus right back. Members of every group - Protestants, Catholics, Pentecostals, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, gays, blacks, feminists, hippies, atheists, rappers - have felt either empowered or forced to define Jesus in their own image. "While 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."

In the first part of his book, Prothero traces that remarkable dynamic from the founding of the Republic to the present day. He begins with Thomas Jefferson's hands-on approach to the Bible. The author of the Declaration of Independence was also an aggressive editor of the New Testament. Disgusted with what he considered the miracles and dogma cluttering Jesus' wisdom, he took a razor and cut away about 90 percent of the text.

In this bold act of selection, Prothero sees a model for all future American redefinitions of Jesus. Indeed, the president's methods and results bear an uncanny resemblance to Robert Funk's Jesus Seminar. In 1993, this strangely eclectic group produced a color-coded New Testament that represented how members voted on the reliability of each verse. Like Jefferson, they dismissed anything that sounded physically unnatural or theological.

The meat of Prothero's study lies in showing how America moved between these two similar points from 1800 and 2000. In the marketplace of ideas that America created, he argues, preachers competed for parishioners as never before: Bible stories sold better than dogma, and a personal Savior was more cuddly than a sovereign God.

As liberal Protestants accommodated modern science and social activism, they were forced to discard old creeds and much of the Scriptures, but they still had a friend in Jesus. However, by this time, Prothero asserts, Jesus was a feminized character designed to appeal to American women who, in the Victorian era, took charge of the home and the molding of character.

When that shift inspired a crisis of masculinity, Jesus bulked up in response. Billy Sunday, a retired ballplayer for the Chicago White Stockings, became the hottest preacher in the country, insisting that Jesus "was the greatest scrapper that ever lived." As sports and Hollywood created a culture of celebrity, Jesus became the world's Superstar, signifying nothing but himself robed in glory. "All you need is Jesus," we now hear from every divergent quarter.

Prothero claims that through this 200-year process, creed, theology, even meaning continued to fall away or be completely revised, but Jesus gained greater and greater cultural prominence. By the 1970s, he was the Coca-Cola of divine nature, "more logo, than Logos."

Prothero moves breezily through this history with an encyclopedic command of others' research and popular culture. His survey of novels about Jesus provides a particularly illuminating gauge of changing thought. And, most originally, he studies portraits of Jesus, finding in this mass-produced art a graph of American attitudes about the Savior.

The second half of the book considers four cases of what Prothero calls "reincarnations": Jesus' role in Mormonism, the Black Pride movement, Judaism, and Hinduism. Even in groups with no obvious connection to Christianity, the strategy he sees is always the same:

1) Separate Jesus from "corrupt Christianity."

2) Use this "cleansed" Jesus to critique the church or the culture.

3) Justify one's centrality by aligning with the "real" Jesus.

These four chapters are bristling with provocative insights and curious historical notes, and if they don't treat such vast subjects with sufficient depth, they do lend more entertaining support to the book's primary thesis about the function of Jesus in America as a great sliding signifier.

Cultural histories of religion are - by design - spiritually tone deaf. Some readers will object to Prothero's tendency to regard everyone's concept of Jesus as motivated by cultural and economic forces. The historian who approaches Jesus in this way risks trying to explain the power of a symphony by analyzing the construction of each instrument.

It's good to remember how wisely Prothero limits his ambitions, disavowing any attempt to describe "the living Christ of faith or the historical Jesus of scholarship." Instead, he uses the image of Jesus as "a Rorschach test of ever-changing national sensibilities." The results of that test, carried out with such energy and wit, will make it impossible to tolerate simplistic references to America's Christian or secular character ever again.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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