Ecce homo. “Behold the man!” Pontius Pilate exclaims in the Gospel of John, referring to the scourged Jesus of Nazareth standing before him, clad in purple cloak and wearing a crown of thorns. Which man, however, are we to behold? The anointed one of God — the Messiah, the Christ — proclaimed in the ancient Christian creeds as the incarnate God and second person of the Trinity? Thomas Jefferson’s Jesus, recast as the Enlightened Sage and shorn of his miracles, resurrection and divinity? Or the amiably countercultural hippie-cum-rock-superstar whose personality cult, fostered by the “Jesus freaks” of the 1960’s, was marketed by their slick boomer counterparts in the 70’s?
Do we prefer to contemplate the nurturing, gentle, humble, passive, willowy “sweet savior” depicted in the lithographs of Currier & Ives? Or in macho reaction to this “feminized” Jesus, do we take as our model “Jesus the scrapper” — the “manly man of Galilee,” as a 1910 songbook described him?
Stephen Prothero, chairman of the department of religion at Boston University, has written a cultural history of Jesus as American image and icon that presents such options, and many more, in vivid, engrossing detail. In the service of the all-American thesis that his sojourn in these parts has “liberated” “Jesus the person” from “Christ the theological sign,” Mr. Prothero charts stages in the cultural revolution that freed the Lord of Hosts to become “a hero to those who could not embrace the beliefs and practices of traditional Christianity.”
First to fall, at the hands of the original Protestant reformers, were the ponderous metaphysical abstractions of Catholic and Orthodox Christology concerning the natures and person of the Christ. This left Jesus, a century later, still confined within the alienating theological architecture of Puritanism. To the rescue rode an unlikely alliance of Enlightenment-influenced Unitarians, skeptics and deists like Jefferson, who literally took a razor to passages of the New Testament that portrayed Christ as superhuman; and a generation of populist preachers, who replaced Calvinism’s predestination with an offer of personal redemption from “our friend” Jesus.
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These evangelicals of the Second Great Awakening, while not rejecting Christ’s divinity, transformed him “from a distant god in a complex theological system into a near-and-dear person, fully embodied, with virtues they could imitate, a mind they could understand and qualities they could love.”
The way was now paved for subsequent assaults on Christian tradition. The biblical foundation of the evangelical empire began to disintegrate in the decades after the Civil War, when Darwinism and modern scientific method, historical consciousness and textual criticism of scripture combined to undermine belief in the literal truth and scientific-historical accuracy of the Holy Book. Despite reactions from fundamentalist Protestants, who insisted on the “strict inerrancy” of the Bible, most American Christians moved on. They replaced the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (the Bible alone) with solus Jesus.
The subsequent movement from theologies of salvation to models for imitation strengthened Jesus’ hand. “The Man Nobody Knows,” Bruce Barton’s phenomenally popular attempt to Christianize capitalism in the 1920’s, portrayed Jesus as a kind of spiritually enlightened and morally robust salesman for God. Such works of fiction, which reimagine Jesus for contemporary America, doubled as how-to books for those who sought to emulate the Master.
As an author Mr. Prothero is nothing if not sly. Within his narrative, ostensibly a popular and often entertaining account of the rendering of Jesus in song, story and spirituality, he has embedded a fairly detailed history of American religion itself — one of the subtle achievements of “American Jesus.”
Equally subtle is his judgment that the persistence of Jesus’ presence in American culture, in whatever form, is proof that the United States is not a secularized nation. Yet Jesus’ success in insinuating himself into television, movies, popular song and the marketplace does not mean that he has transformed or even significantly influenced secular institutions and practices. Indeed, the influence has often worked in the opposite direction: American markets, politics and philosophy — not least, the perennial pull of pragmatism in all things — have pushed Christianity in the United States into forms and expressions unrecognizable to previous generations of Jesus’ followers.
More than one-third of “American Jesus” is devoted to the appropriation of Jesus by Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, the Dalai Lama and the Nation of Islam. In itself, this is fascinating and instructive material. For Prothero, the diffusion of Jesus into the thought worlds and sensibilities of non-Christian Americans constitutes the great triumph of the protean Jesus. Unfortunately, the celebration of Jesus’ ubiquity occasionally echoes a tired mantra: “Church bad, American individualism good. Religion bad, spirituality good. Christianity oppressive, other religions lighthearted.”
Tellingly, Catholics, who constitute the largest single denomination, do not fit Mr. Prothero’s version of “the good news.” Dogmatic to a fault, they insist that the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, far from being a metaphysical abstraction, roots Jesus’ self-giving nature, character and personality at the very center of the Godhead. The love of the other, which Americans find so endearing about Jesus, says something definitive about Jesus, of course. But Christians also hope that it says something definitive about the nature of reality and the meaning of existence, not least about human nature created in God’s image. The ancient creedal affirmations that attempted to link Jesus to “being itself” were on to something.
Throughout most of American history, the Catholic Jesus has been the suffering servant, the compassionate victim and wounded redeemer whose identification with the poor and the forgotten is an act of identity, not charity. Yet the suffering Christ makes few appearances in Mr. Prothero’s account. One worries that this Jesus, the Lord of the marginalized and forlorn, may soon become the man nobody knows in 21st-century America.
R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, is co-editor of the forthcoming volume, “Creative Fidelity: American Catholic Intellectual Traditions.”