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by Philip Jenkins


Behold the Man

American Jesus

Albert Schweitzer famously compared those who tried to reconstruct the Real Jesus to a man looking into a well, who sees the reflection of his own face staring up at him. In American Jesus, Stephen Prothero catalogues the dazzling array of Jesus reflections that Americans have contemplated over the years. Let me say at once, with no disrespect to Prothero's impressive scholarship, that the resulting book is enormous fun. It is well written, and offers a host of insights even on topics that the reader might think are thoroughly familiar.

Prothero first describes the standard contemporary images of Jesus that more or less remain within the Christian framework—Jesus as Enlightened Sage, as Sweet Savior, Manly Redeemer, as Superstar. In these chapters, he ranges widely and entertainingly over the past two centuries: Thomas Jefferson naturally features prominently as a pioneering well-gazer. The virtue of these studies is that they often force the Christian reader to define his or her image of Jesus, and perhaps even to see afresh the historical roots of that particular stereotype, how it emerged from a recent and specifically American context.

One theme Prothero understates is the changing nature of the sources for the various Jesus images, and the belief that somewhere out there, possibly in the Egyptian desert, one would find a new gospel that would infallibly prove whatever the person in question wanted it to prove. Facing a crisis of faith, Charles Darwin "often invent[ed] daydreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels." Or, as many others have wished, challenging all that was so written. You want a feminist Jesus, or a Buddhist, or an advocate of reincarnation or vegetarianism? Then somewhere, a text is awaiting you.

In the absence of such a discovery, people have simply acted as if such documents had been found, ancient manuscripts ...

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