Your Own Personal Jesus

American history gives a five-minute makeover to the Son of God

Stephen Prothero
American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Yankee Christendom does not easily accommodate generalities. Our nation's churchgoers and stay-at-home believers are a divided congregation ranging from biblical literalists still pissed off over the Enlightenment to liberals with patchwork theologies that seem like summaries of history's great heresies. But one might say with reasonable accuracy, as Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero does inhis engaging American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, that American Christians are Jesus-centric. This might seem obvious, but Prothero is making an important distinction about the mutability of Trinitarian thought. The Calvinists of early U.S. religious history were God-focused, God-fearing to be precise, and they weren't hugely interested in the kind of "personal relationship with Jesus" that prevails in current Christian dialogue. In simplistic terms, the question was not What Would Jesus Do? but rather What Will God Do to Me?

Prothero's reader-friendly history is at its sharpest in discussing the religious developments of the Victorian era. In the 19th century, evangelicals advanced a loving, intimate Jesus at the expense of the stern God of predestination. Protestant liberals, meanwhile, began to favor Jesus over the Bible as the ultimate religious authority. But this usurping Jesus, Prothero writes, had been "fairly well de-christianized, as liberals had taken away his miracle-making power and distanced him from controversial doctrines such as the virgin birth, the vicarious atonement, and the resurrection." By looking at popular novels, hymns, art, and later scholarship, Prothero tracks this evolution from a God-driven, creedal Christianity to a looser, Jesus-oriented faith, and shows how perceptions of Jesus have both shaped culture and been shaped by it.

In his proselytizing, Paul strove to be "all things to all men" (1 Corinthians 9:22). Likewise, Prothero's book suggests that Jesus has been a chameleon. During the 19th-century peak of "domestic piety," Jesus took on qualities traditionally associated with femininity and inspired iconography that was disparaged by some as "bearded lady" pictures. In the era of Teddy Roosevelt and celebrity industrialists--and in the popular preaching of WWI-era evangelist Billy Sunday--this "sissified" (in Sunday's words) Jesus came in for a macho makeover. Perhaps Prothero's sharpest point is that with the 20th-century culture of celebrity worship, Jesus, like all big stars, has had to undergo regular image changes. Jesus has been depicted as a proto-psychologist, an Aryan man, a black woman, a laid-back hippie, a capitalist, a communist, and even--wonder of wonders!--a mysterious Jewish spiritual leader of the ancient Near East.

American Jesus is cultural history rather than cultural criticism, and though Prothero gets in a few sardonic parentheses, he mostly maintains a distant perspective and seeks to explain more than to analyze. He splits his attention between how Jesus has been viewed and presented by Christian "insiders" and by "outsider communities," which in his limited study include Mormons, the African American church, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists. Prothero also follows the not uniquely American tendency to distinguish between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus, as evinced by the alternative theologies of Jefferson, abolitionists, Mormons, 1960s radicals, and others.

Actually, those others could comfortably number a few more. Prothero says up front that he didn't set out to write anything approaching a comprehensive study of American Jesus thinking (or perhaps we should say "feeling"--another trend in modern religious thought is the move away from theology and toward individual, emotional faith). But his general neglect of Catholicism and modern fundamentalism makes the 300-page book feel a bit unfinished. Yet even if the book might benefit from expansion, Prothero's chameleonic Jesus speaks much about America's individualism and diversity, its activism and, very often, its narcissism. "Though Americans have hailed Jesus as a personality who stood out from the madding crowd," Prothero writes, "they have applauded him loudest when he has walked and talked like them."

 
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