A Quest for the Cultural Jesus

Prothero, Stephen R. American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

In the context of the present de-centered conception of American Studies, one might logically ask how a scholar might still use a myth-and-symbol approach responsibly to analyze insightfully certain iconic and persistent American themes.  Stephen Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University, in tackling no less a subject than Americans’ conception of Jesus, goes a long way toward answering this question in his American Jesus, which sparkles with wit, insight, and humor.

Perhaps professors of religion learn quickly to be adept at handling topics that members of their audiences might regard with any combination of impassioned devotion or critical disdain.  In any event, Prothero deftly wades through the minefields that sometimes hinder the rational consideration of religion as a potent force in society, neither to be accepted without examination nor dismissed out of hand.

Prothero jumps right into the fray in the first few pages, with the hotly debated question of whether or not America is a Christian nation.  First, he quotes a 1797 U.S treaty with Tripoli (a Muslim nation), which states reassuringly (to liberals), “The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”[1] At the same time (to conservatives), he cautions to avoid “oscillating between the descriptive and the normative, confusing what is (or was) with what ought to be” (5).  He clearly wants to impress upon both sides of this recurring debate that Christianity is one of the central themes of American culture, while still acknowledging that the full spectrum of non-Christian perspectives needs to be explored, too.  One of the fascinating insights of the book is that Jesus does not belong solely to Christians.  His fame has spread in many unexpected ways to include, for example, the recent recasting of a traditional, popular, and iconic Christian hymn to “Onward, Buddhist Soldiers.”

He quickly comes to define his project – a “quest for the cultural Jesus” (7), a riff on the title of a book by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, published in 1905.  Prothero, however, is less concerned with who Jesus actually was and more intrigued by whom he became in the minds of his American interpreters.  He says “the American Jesus has been something of a chameleon.  Christians have depicted him as black and white, male and female, straight and gay, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Ku Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator” (8).  This phenomenon, says Prothero, has cultural value, with something to teach us: “To hold Jesus up to the mirror of American culture is to conduct a Rorschach test of ever-changing national sensibilities” (9).  To do this, Prothero has pulled not only from applicable theological and religious works, but also from the products of American popular culture – “novels, films, biographies, musicals, hymns, spirituals, and the visual arts” (10) – a traditional American Studies approach.

He divides his work in half, with the first half chronicling the development of the American conception of Jesus within mainstream American Christian communities.  This section, called “Resurrections” comes closest to being a traditional myth-and-symbol approach to tracing the iconic importance of Jesus in American life.  The second half of the book focuses on how Americans outside this mainstream have conceived of Jesus.  This section reflects more contemporary concerns – the perspectives of groups previously left out of earlier analyses.

To begin, perhaps surprisingly to those accustomed to a heavy dose of New England Puritanism in the history of American religious and intellectual life, Prothero does not devote too much space to these archetypal American Christians or to their conception of Jesus.  It turns out that Puritans had only the most abstract concept of Jesus, seeing him primarily in Christological terms, the second person of the trinity, pointing toward God the father, whom they accorded unquestioned first place.

Accordingly, Prothero moves quickly on to discuss Thomas Jefferson, probably the archetypal American embodiment of the European Enlightenment, a man whose intellectual curiosity spilled famously over to his views of Jesus.  Seeking to liberate the teachings and life of Jesus from what he considered the superstitions of the past, Jefferson carefully took a razor blade to  the Bible to cut out what he considered extraneous material to create his own, much shorter, “Jefferson Bible,” focusing solely on Jesus as a man and moralist.  Jefferson, for example, excised all the miracles along with the resurrection.  Here Prothero wisely observes, “Everyone reads the Bible selectively, employing a ‘canon within the canon,’ which emphasizes certain books and passages while neglecting others” (29).  In this respect, Jefferson, perhaps, was only more open and honest in disclosing his practice of this tendency.  Jefferson was all too aware that he was breaking new ground and leaving most others behind.  “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know” (32), Jefferson wrote.

Next Prothero turns to a new incarnation of Jesus – quite different from the direction in which Jefferson was going.  Instead of Jesus as an Enlightenment sage, we come to see the Jesus of Victorian, sentimental culture.  Now Jesus is moving into the limelight.  Instead of being the theological abstraction of Puritanism or the (heavily edited) moral teacher of Jefferson, Jesus is taking his place as the primary symbol of American Christianity.  While this assertion may sound strange of modern ears, Prothero reminds us that the ubiquity of Jesus – and the equation of his personality with Christianity – is a relatively modern phenomenon.  In order to make Jesus accessible, Americans increasingly saw him as gentle, meek, and friendly.  Indeed, consistent with the contemporaneous cult of virtuous American middle-class women, American churches became increasingly feminized – and Jesus did, too.  Prothero cites, for example, Horace Bushnell, an influential theologian, who put great stock in the role of mothers to raise good Christian children who would then elevate the moral tone of the nation.  The next step is not hard to divine: Jesus began to take on the attributes of nurturing mothers, consistent, for example, with the elevated views of a mother’s love in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Soon, biographers of Jesus began to emphasize his empathy, not omitting that he wept.  The visual culture of the time, too, took up this theme, with a Currier and Ives print depicting a rather effeminate savior.

The next two chapters deal with the twentieth-century Jesus.  In the early part of the century, in reaction to the earlier womanly Jesus, many Americans embraced a more masculine Jesus.  Remembering the life and views of Theodore Roosevelt – soldier, hunter, politician, and advocate for “muscular Christianity” – helps one to see why this is no surprise.  Employing the aforementioned “canon within a canon” Americans began to see Jesus less as the mild figure who would suffer the little children to come unto him.  Instead, Prothero writes, “the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the Jerusalem Temple became the paradigmatic gospel story” (96) – probably because it portrayed Jesus as someone who could be angry.  In recent decades, some of the visual culture associated with this view has become rather absurd: A 1991 painting shows a beefy Jesus in a boxing ring, with his gloves off and a belt draped over the ropes inscribed “savior.”

The other part of America’s twentieth-century Jesus is well known: He is the counter-culture hero, the inspiration for the Jesus Freaks of the 1960’s and the eponymous lead in Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.  The creation of Jesus as a hippie makes for a good segue to the next section of Prothero’s book, which deals with Jesus beyond the controlling reach of Christianity.

This part, “Reincarnations,” includes some remarkably diverse selections, beginning with the Jesus of the Mormons.  Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints seems to place a higher value on tradition, discipline, and conformism than most any other church in America. Yet, Prothero reminds us of the Latter Day Saints’ countercultural beginnings in antebellum America, when they were considered truly beyond the pale, having their own book of revelation, plural marriage, and a radically different theology from mainline Protestantism.  The transformation to the present conception of the LDS church as a “model minority” now almost thoroughly assimilated to mainstream America is the story that Prothero tells.  It is a reinvention done in large measure by Mormons’ stressing above all their love of Jesus, a posture that has allowed this previously marginalized group of make more and more common cause with much of the “Jesus nation” that Prothero says America is today.

The chapter on African-American conceptions of Jesus also traces a notably varied history with many contending voices.  Stokely Carmichael’s condemnation of white man’s “slave Christianity” (204) sets the stage for various black Americans’ attempts to re-envision Jesus, shorn from the white, feminized ideals of the past, and reincarnated as a black, manly liberator leading a people to freedom – a black Moses.

The relationship between American Jews and Jesus also occupies a fascinating chapter.  Long facing the Christian world’s prejudices, many Jews, especially those in the Orthodox  tradition, were loathe to have any truck with Jesus, preferring instead to ignore him.  Yet by the early twentieth century, some in the Reform camp, like Rabbi Stephen Wise, began to speak out, claiming Jesus as one of their own.  Later, with the rise of fascism and communism, intellectuals reified “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” a concept that emphasized the connectedness of these two religions and the unity of their history.  Now, Prothero points out, Jewish scholars have become widely respected in the study of the New Testament, and many Christians value this perspective as they gain a greater appreciation of the Jewishness of Jesus.

Perhaps most surprising of all are the connections that Prothero discusses linking Jesus to Asian religions.  Beginning with the establishment of the Vedanta movement – an offshoot of Hinduism that taught the unity of all religions – we learn of Indian Swamis who revered Jesus and founded Vedanta Societies in a number of American cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, Providence, and San Francisco.  An illustration of their syncretism is Jesus the Yogi, an image of an “Oriental Jesus,” showing him as a divine incarnation, or avatar, if not the Incarnation of orthodox Christians.  Prothero also links Jesus to contemporary American Buddhism, especially through the writings of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.  Here Prothero notes that “in the United States, Jesus no longer belongs exclusively to Christians” (289).  Indeed, he points out “the audacious efforts of America’s freethinkers and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, who have conspired to steal Jesus way from Christianity, freeing him up to be (in Paul’s words) ‘all things to all people’” (290).

Prothero concludes his work by acknowledging the cultural matrix in which Jesus must always live.  He points out that many churches have railed and continue to rail against a Christianity that they see as captive of worldly – or at least culturally contingent – factors.  Yet Prothero also indicates that such a tension is perfectly natural:

From the perspective of theology, an unchanging Jesus may be a necessity (though the doctrine of the incarnation does place Jesus squarely in the scramble of society).  From the perspective of cultural and religious history, however, Jesus is anything but unchanging.  In the book of Genesis, God creates humans in His own image; in the United States, Americans have created Jesus, over and over again, in theirs. (297-298).

Prothero returns to the provocative question of whether or not the United States is a Christian nation with which he began the book.  He acknowledges that consensus history is dead, though he still sees a prominent place for Jesus in America.  “In a country divided by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and religion, Jesus functions as a common cultural coin” (300).  More to the point, “[t]he American Jesus does not demonstrate either that the United States is a Christian country or that it is a multireligious one.  He demonstrates that it is both at the same time. Jesus became a major American personality because of the strength of Christianity, but he became a national celebrity only because of the power of religious dissent” (301-302).

Prothero’s American Jesus evinces a number of strong qualities.  First, it is informative, telling the stories of many aspects of American life and culture that may be unknown or new to most readers.  Secondly, it is well written.  He manages to write a nuanced scholarly text that is a pleasure to read.  His clarity, precision, and light touch are a delight.  Thirdly, his text sparkles with insights.  He is not only telling stories well; he is shedding light on what kind of place America is and what kind of peoples Americans are.  Finally, American Jesus manages to embody the best of traditional and contemporary American Studies scholarship, ably discussing overarching themes that have historically helped define American society, while also portraying the richness and diversity of multicultural realities in our midst.

-George Walter Born

[1] Quoted in Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), p. 3.

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