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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 that "disproved Christianity," that got back to "the real Jesus." Prothero describes the manifestations of the esoteric or Gnostic Jesus in "discovered" or channeled texts like the once very popular Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ. But other discoveries have had a much greater impact on mainstream thought, and have featured extensively as sermon texts. A hundred years ago, vast excitement was stirred by the newly found Gnostic text of the Pistis Sophia and the gospel fragments in the Oxyrhynchus papyri; then it was the Dead Sea Scrolls; today, similar optimism focuses on the Nag Hammadi library.1 Arguably, too, Prothero underplays some of the fictional works that did so much to popularize radical views of Jesus, like George Moore's hugely influential The Brook Kerith (1916) and Robert Graves' King Jesus (1946). Though neither was written by an American, both developed a powerful following on this side of the water, and disseminated news of early "Quests" for an Enlightened or a Gnostic Jesus.

One great strength of Prothero's accounts is that he draws not just on standard and official texts, but on the proliferating manifestations of Jesus in popular culture, in film, novels, and especially in consumerist material culture, often of the very kitschiest. He is especially good on the portraits of Jesus, androgynous or sickly, that many 19th-century Christians realized were becoming a serious obstacle to faith for the intelligent—the sort that Melville had in mind when he denounced a Jesus "soft, curled and hermaphroditic."

Over the past century, popular images of Jesus have tried with varying degrees of success to restore the face of a man and even—a much slower process—of a hard-handed Jewish artisan. The blond Nordic Jesus of the Sunday school pictures has been difficult to eliminate. The story of visual development also tells us a great deal about the changing gender balance of American Christianity, the process of feminization and the subsequent reaction. When I read these accounts, I wonder if the rising churches of Africa or Asia will learn from Western mistakes, or if they will have to go through the whole process anew.

Just how dubious these material objects can be stretches the imagination. My personal favorite involves the popular groups of plastic figures showing a grinning Jesus joining in as children play various sports: Jesus in the Outfield. Looking at such campy items, it would be easy to dismiss them as irrelevant or even blasphemous. I have seen a statuette of Jesus as the base of a thermometer, with the bulb of red alcohol representing the Sacred Heart. But even the most tasteless items indicate the astonishing enthusiasm that exists for the figure of Jesus, the desire to bring Him into one's life and home environment. They also respond to a widespread need for material devotional tools that are not confined to the pages of books. Also, such visuals epitomize stereotypes better than a dozen books. Has trendy ultra-liberal Christianity ever been parodied so ruthlessly as in the loathsome, winking "Buddy Jesus" statue in the film Dogma?

The second half of Prothero's book explores "Reincarnations," versions of Jesus that wander further from the Christian fold. These include the Jesus of the Latter-Day Saints (the "Mormon Elder Brother"); Black Moses; "Rabbi"; and the Oriental Christ. In each case, Prothero shows the immense appeal of Jesus as a model for different faith traditions or ideologies, some of which (such as Hinduism) reject the Christian title. The section on Jewish views of Jesus is timely in light of current controversies over Mel Gibson's forthcoming film on the Crucifixion. (In these debates, it has been fascinating to see how the Gospels are criticized for their alleged anti-Semitism by Jews, certainly, but also by liberal and radical Christians like James Carroll.) All Prothero's discussions are valuable in their own right, and I will definitely use this provocative book as a text in classes on contemporary Christianity.

One broader question raised by American Jesus is just why so many traditions, some avowedly hostile to Western and Christian ideas, feel the need to refer to Jesus at all. Perhaps this indicates the cultural and religious hegemony of Christianity in American society, even among those who reject the religion forthrightly. I think of Garrison Keillor's declaration that the American Midwest is entirely Lutheran. Lutherans, of course, are Lutheran; Midwestern Catholics are also Lutheran; and atheists in that part of the world are Lutheran, since the God they don't believe in is a Lutheran God. In Christian-ascendant America, even social and theological revolutionaries launch their Jacqueries in the name of Jesus. Witness the influence of Christian and near-Christian ideas on Black American Islam, whether from Baptist thought, from the Jehovah's Witnesses, or from early 20th-century esoteric Christianity. But at the same time, the diversity of images is a tribute to America's religious spectrum. "Jesus became a major American personality because of the strength of Christianity," Prothero writes, "but he became a national celebrity only because of the power of religious dissent." This is all the more true in what is somehow at once "the most Christian and the most religiously diverse country on earth."

In modern America, too, the reference back to Jesus usually arises from the quest for secure authority. Many who reject the traditional structures of organized religion do so because of a dislike of hierarchy, dogma, and traditional authority, and prefer to base themselves on principles of individualism, spontaneity, and self-reliance. Yet there remains a residual notion that religion must claim authoritative status, whether that authority stems from tradition, from charismatic power, from revelation, or—a popular option—from alternative scriptural authority. Many Americans unhappy with traditional Christianity look to alternative heretical scriptures like the Gnostic gospels. If religious texts do not exist to justify contemporary trends, then such scriptures are invented or appropriated as needed. The popular Course in Miracles is a case in point, as is The Celestine Prophecy.

Lone thinkers, however brilliant, cannot be expected to produce real religious truths. To use a literary analogy, poets are pained to hear the question, "Is that a real poem, or did you write it yourself?" The implication is that a "real" poem must be old—established, approved, and canonical—and cannot just be produced by one individual. Equally, spiritual things cannot be "invented," a term which suggests making something fake or artificial. Religious truth is transmitted, not invented, and for many of us, still, no more exalted point of origin can be imagined than Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity may be despised by some as a trap for fools, a tool of oppressors; but even for skeptics, Jesus still reigns.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author most recently of The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford Univ. Press).

1. I discuss these ideas at length in my book Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford Univ. Press 2001).

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