Thursday, April 6, 2017

American Jesus by Stephen Prothero

The subject of this particular story of American religion is Jesus, more precisely Jesus as Americans have understood him.  So on its face, this book would appear to fall in the Christian nation camp.  Yet many of the most interesting appraisals of Jesus have emerged outside the churches: in music, film, and literature, and among Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of no religion at all.  To explore the American Jesus, therefore, is not to confine oneself to Christianity.  It is to examine how American Christianity has been formed by Christians and non-Christians alike, and how the varieties of American religious experience have been shaped by the public power of the Christian message.  Finally, to see how Americans of all stripes have cast the man from Nazareth in their own image is to examine, through the looking glass, the kaleidoscopic character of American culture.

It's easy to imagine that the story of American devotion to Jesus has been singular, steady, and monolithic.  I see it when my students transpose their own perceptions about modern Christianity onto older books, a way of flattening and disengaging not only from the text but from modern religious life.  But did you know that the America of the 17th and 18th centuries wasn't very religious at all?  And that Christianity as it did exist was not very interested in Jesus as a figure, much preferring the stern but guiding God-the-father?

Prothero traces the blossoming of a "Jesus culture" in the United States to the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century.  It transformed American Christianity by emphasizing the importance of Christ, but in doing so it unleashed the figure of Jesus onto the American landscape where it could be reimagined and reconceived.  Prothero covers a number of the various incarnations of Jesus in American culture, beginning by contrasting the loving, feminized Jesus of the 19th century with the masculine Jesus of the Teddy Roosevelt era.  He talks about the friendly, hippie-ish Jesus of the Jesus Movement of the mid-20th century, and connects it to our modern megachurches, which he describes, quite accurately, as "mimicking malls, with their large, open spaces, filled with light."

But some of the most interesting chapters cover the versions of Jesus that come from outside of what we might call the mainstream.  There's black Jesus--bringing to mind an argument I had, baffled, with a friend in youth group decades ago who insisted Jesus was black--but also the "elder brother" of Mormonism, as well as Jewish and Hindu versions of Jesus.  I was surprised to see just how important Jesus is in these communities: the first Hindu evangelists in the United States claimed Jesus as one of their own, and the proper Jewish attitude toward Jesus was apparently a huge controversy in the mid-20th century.  This goy had no idea.

Some familiar patterns recur.  From the moment when Thomas Jefferson took his scissors and snipped all the miracles and mysticism out of his Bible, Americans have gone to great pains to distinguish Jesus the figure from the religion he inspired.  Christianity sucks, the familiar line goes, but Jesus himself was the tops.  Prothero argues that this idea shows us just how attached American culture is to Jesus; even when it seeks to reject the Christian religion, America thinks Jesus is pretty much tops.  But the sheer variety and vitality of the different Jesus traditions is perhaps what makes the book so interesting, and eye-opening.  It's easy to get blinkered by one's own tradition, religious or not, and forget what a multitude of perspectives there are.  And there's something admirable, perhaps quintessentially American, about the diversity of Jesuses in our midst.

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