How Jesus' love and compassion influenced the United States

January 11, 2004|By Dan Cryer | Dan Cryer,Newsday

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became an American Icon, by Stephen Prothero. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 364 pages. $25.

Religious symbols embody a paradox. Though they point to timeless truths, they arise out of cultures that, over time, inevitably change. In the process, their meanings shift considerably, too.

Consider the carpenter of Nazareth who inspired Christianity. What Jesus meant to Christian monks in 13th-century Burgundy, to Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century or to Jesus freaks in 1960s Haight-Ashbury was very different, indeed.

Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became an American Icon examines this phenomenon in the American context, from the Puritans to the present. Prothero, who teaches religion at Boston University, is interested in images. So his focus is not only on religious writings but also on cultural expressions as varied as novels, movies and visual art. Here religion encounters the catalytic effects of a society energized by democratic ideals and a dynamic economy.

Not intended to be encyclopedic -- it notably ignores the Catholic world -- the book is nonetheless persuasive that Jesus has been "a Rorschach test of ever-changing sensibilities." It's a lively, illuminating and accessible survey that takes us into unexpected corners of our shared religious heritage.

The God-fearing Puritans, Prothero notes, represented a harsh, Calvinistic past that would not endure. "Sinners in the hands of an angry God" could find little comfort in their Jesus. He was but a distant symbol of a salvation granted only to the elect.

For Jefferson, who pared down his New Testament to what he decided were Jesus' sayings, the Nazarene emerged shorn of miracles and notions of virgin birth and resurrection. The Southern gentleman could relate to a fellow "Enlightenment sage." This was, however, a distinctly minority view.

By the 1830s, under the impact of evangelical enthusiasm that made Methodists and Baptists the nation's largest denominations, Puritan influence was eclipsed. "The more evangelicals associated God with love rather than wrath," Prothero writes, "the more God the father receded and God the son stood out."

As the century wore on, Jesus increasingly came to be seen as compassionate, gentle, humble and long-suffering. He was the good shepherd gently guiding his flock. In popular hymns, he was that most unusual of divinities, a devoted friend eager to listen to your personal story.

By the turn of the 20th century, backlash set in. Under the impact of Social Darwinian survival of the fittest, previous images of Jesus were deemed altogether too passive and frail, downright feminine. The man with the gown and long hair had to be buffed up.

Even so, "muscular Christianity," which continued well into the century, meant different things to different people. On the left, social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenberg declared, "There was nothing mushy, nothing sweetly effeminate" about the man who drove the money changers out of the temple. On the right, ad man Bruce Barton's best-selling The Man Nobody Knows portrayed Jesus as a savvy chief executive officer who "picked 12 men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world."

Of necessity, Prothero's range is wide, if not deep. He touches on, among other things, the militant Black Christ of Marcus Garvey, the groovy hippie Jesus popularized by the Jesus freaks and the kitschy pop of Jesus Christ Superstar.

The author's most appealing analysis concerns the Mormons, Jews and Hindus. To varying degrees, defining themselves in America involved clarifying their relation to the central figure of America's dominant religion.

Contemporary Mormons may seem unquestionably Christian, but this has not always been so, even to Mormons themselves. In the 19th century, any role for Jesus was subordinate to church hierarchy and innovative ritual. As revered Elder Brother, he was obscured within the church's larger mythology. Only in the 20th century did the church choose to underscore its belief in Jesus as the Christ. In Prothero's view, this was part and parcel of the Mormon campaign to be accepted into the American mainstream.

Judaism traditionally ignored Jesus. But some Reform rabbis such as Stephen Wise praised him as a great rabbi and moral paragon. What outraged the Orthodox in 1925 is by now conventional wisdom accepted by many Jewish and Christian scholars who seek to understand "the historical Jesus" in his ancient time and place.

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