On American soil, Jesus was the subject of more evangelical hymns than the Father and the Holy Spirit combined. In fact, while evangelical hymns largely ignored the church, the sacraments, and the Trinity, they were obsessed with Jesus.
American Jesus: How the Son of God Became an American Icon
By Stephen Prothero
I resisted reading this book for a year or so because the subtitle and the cover made me think it was likely to be an overview of the silliest aspects of American Religion. The picture on the dust jacket was of a giant hot-air balloon sculpted in the form of a bearded Jesus in a purple robe, floating over a small prairie town. But someone had recommended it, and eventually I got around to it. This volume is about the history of Jesus in America. As a Trinitarian Christian, it surprised me that someone other than the “Jesus Seminar” folks would write a book about “Just Jesus.” Prothero focuses on Trinity Member Number Two, and only in America. His “quest for the cultural Jesus” is fascinating.
Here are some quotations that speak to Prothero’s themes:
- “The Puritans in short, were a God-fearing rather than a Jesus-loving people, obsessed not with God’s mercy, but with His Glory, not with the Son, but with the Father.”
- “Jesus may be ‘the same yesterday and today and forever’ (Hebrews 13: 8), but American depictions of him have varied widely from age to age and community to community.”
- “Thomas Jefferson would have been forced to reject Jesus if he had seen him as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. But Jefferson, as bold in religion as in politics, refused to grant Christians the right to serve as his exclusive interpreters. Christ he could not accept, but he was determined to revere Jesus.”
I know we all tend to re-make God in our own image, but having our self-centeredness outlined so graphically in one volume was enlightening. This book was a stunning revelation to me that there countless ways of understanding Jesus (and the Christian faith) outside our very limited traditions.
Chapter titles such as “Sweet Savior,” “Manly Redeemer,” “Superstar,” and “Black Moses” hint at what you will find inside. I remember very specifically the first time I saw a “Wanted” poster of Jesus, portraying him as an outcast, long-haired, bearded hippie who wore sandals and offended the religious establishment. Indeed, Jesus has been through a variety of incarnations since he got off the boat with Columbus. We all know that our Black friends prefer a Black Jesus and our Oriental friends prefer an Oriental Jesus in the same way we Anglos tend to prefer a blue-eyed Jesus. We are less reflective about our prosperous friends preferring a business-savvy Jesus and our backpacking friends preferring a rugged Jesus. Would the real Jesus please stand up?
Somewhere in the middle of reading the book, I devised an image of Jesus shoved into a railroad boxcar, where he is surrounded by boxes, barrels, baggage, equipment, and paraphernalia of all kinds, ultimately so obscured by the clutter that he cannot be found. Jesus is in there somewhere, but people get so excited by some of the stuff they come across in the search that they are distracted and forget to keep looking for Jesus.
Evangelical Christians are not exempt:
Rather than making America more Christian, the Jesus people, the megachurches, and the CCM [Contemporary Christian Music] industry have tried to make Christianity more American. They have molded Jesus to the world instead of molding the world to Jesus.
Before you despair, here is a more comforting (and gracious) word:
The United States would not have been Christianized as rapidly or broadly as it was if its people hadn’t Americanized the Christian tradition as aggressively as Paul and his successors once Hellenized it.
By the way, that enculturation is now happening in Africa and South America, and those who think they can control these movements, whether are born of the Holy Spirit or of some other spirit, are fooling themselves. We will always be engaged “in a never-ending pas de deux with culture, always seeking the right balance between accommodating too much and accommodating too little.”
(Italics and quotations are from Prothero.)