Jesus as cultural icon

Christian figure transcends religion in U.S.

Honk if you love Jesus? Then there’ll be a whole lotta honkin’ goin’ on because everybody today loves Jesus.

You don’t even have to be Christian – indeed, mainstream Christianity has become rather suspect as a home for Jesus – as Stephen Prothero ably and wittily demonstrates in “American Jesus.”

Jews, secularists, Hindus, Buddhists and Americans of 101 other stripes not only lay claim to Jesus but also claim they understand him better than anyone else.

In short, Jesus has become, as the subtitle states, a “national icon.” To find out how and why, Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, goes on a quest “for the cultural Jesus.”

Prothero’s first major starting point is Thomas Jefferson, who revered Jesus as “the first of human Sages.” Our third president reduced the New Testament to what he saw as the essentials of Jesus’ teachings.

Except that Jefferson’s paring-down was not figurative but real, and with it he sat down and personally cut up the Bible, pasting into another volume those verses he considered to be the authentic core of Jesus’ story and letting the superfluous rest fall to the floor. It was a slim volume.

And that describes, essentially, the process that has continued down to this day – ne of liberating Jesus from the churches, creeds and even from Christianity itself. Like Jefferson, others (including Frederick Douglass) would distinguish between the false Christianity of the churches and the true Christianity of Jesus, until Americans of all religious persuasions (and none) “felt free to embrace whichever Jesus fulfilled their wishes.”

Throughout the 19th century the quickening trend was toward a Jesus-friendly religion, Jesus-centered, not creed-centered. It was market- and consumer-driven, not hierarchy-driven, Prothero says, and what prevailed was what the “audience” wanted, not what church authorities wanted.

Within this trend Jesus grew more and more human and less and less divine. By the time of the Progressive era in the early 20th century, Jesus was a personality, even a celebrity, aided by faster means of communication.

This boiling down of Christianity reached the point, in the 1960s, during which the only important thing was to have a personal relationship with a hippie Jesus, the rebel with a cause. Both “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” propagated Jesus-piety and a disdain for “Churchianity,” an attitude reflected today in nondenominational megachurches that focus on Jesus and, in some cases, replace the symbol of the cross with a dove.

The book is usefully divided into two parts, Resurrections and Reincarnations, each with four sections. The first encompasses how mainstream Christianity has periodically renewed its conception of Jesus – Enlightened Sage, Sweet Savior, Manly Redeemer, Superstar – though the actual renewal might be done by persons other than mainstream Christians.

The second part, Reincarnations, takes up the views of “outsiders,” those not Christian or whose connection to Christianity has been in some way unorthodox: Mormon Elder Brother, Black Moses, Rabbi, Oriental Christ.

In reality, the author says, both sides “fail to see how extensively insiders and outsiders are improvising on one another – how Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims are adopting Christian norms and organizational forms, and how Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians are taking up, however stealthily, the beliefs and practices of Asian religions.”

Mormons, of course, consider themselves Christians (although many Christians do not). The author takes no stand on this but merely tries to reflect Mormons’ peculiar place in our national life. Actually, the fierce commitment of present-day Mormons to Jesus demonstrates Prothero’s point: “the importance of Jesus in American Christianity, where Jesus has replaced the churches, the creeds, and even the Bible as the key authority in belief and practice.”

The fact is, Prothero writes, in the early days Jesus was not central to Mormon worship but subordinate to “temple Mormonism.” Just as, in most Protestant worship before the early 19th century, he often lagged in importance behind God the Father and the creeds.

Religion scholars may harrumph that “American Jesus” is based largely on other scholarship, and adherents of this or that religious camp may cry heresy because they perceive that their sacred cow is a gored ox, but most readers will find little to complain about. They will come away from the book delighted with the journey – including several pleasant side trips – Prothero has taken them on, showing how the United States, “secular by law and religious by preference,” has somehow developed into “both the most Christian and the most religiously diverse country on Earth.”

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer and reviewer for several publications.

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