Scholars find a unique and varied 'American' Jesus

Posted: Friday, February 13, 2004

BOSTON (AP) There's Jesus the distant symbol, and Jesus the gentle friend. There's Jesus the pacifist and caregiver, and Jesus the gruff, muscular warrior.

There's black Jesus, and white Jesus. Homely and handsome, capitalist and socialist, stern and hippie. Hardworking social reformer, mystical comforter.

Readers looking for the one true Jesus won't find him in two new books about Jesus in America. Instead, they will discover the extraordinary range of identities Jesus has assumed in American history and culture in art, music, literature and more over the past four centuries.

The first, ''Jesus in America: A History,'' by University of Southern California historian Richard Wightman Fox, explores the ways Americans have experienced Jesus, what they believed about him and what he inspired them to do. He tracks Jesus' influence on key events in American history: the Revolution, the Enlightenment, the social activism of the 1960s.

The second, Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero's ''American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon,'' reflects the even broader interests of its author, a scholar of Asian religions who was intrigued by the extent to which he found non-Christian Americans fascinated by Jesus. Even the Dalai Lama has written books about Jesus.

''I kept running into Jesus when I was trying to study Hindus and Buddhists,'' said Prothero, who was partly inspired to write the book after coming across a portrait of a meditating Jesus while visiting a Hindu temple in San Francisco.

In some ways, both books fit into a growing body of literature that is finding new things to say about Jesus, despite all that has been previously written. Elaine Pagels' best seller, ''Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas,'' has attracted widespread notice for shedding further light on the very different ideas about Jesus that some early Christians held.

''I think part of the reason is (Prothero) and some other people as well realize if there was ever a kind of monopoly claim by the Church or churches on who Jesus was, the significance of Jesus, that monopoly is now gone,'' said Harvey Cox, a Harvard University scholar, who is also finishing a book on contemporary depictions of Jesus, due out later this year.

The range of American interpretations of Jesus testifies to a power and flexibility in Jesus' message. It also says something interesting about America, Prothero argues.

''Jesus is on the agenda because of the public power of Christianity,'' Prothero told The Associated Press in a recent interview. ''The kind of Christianity that now dominates is Jesus-focused. But we have the First Amendment. We have a culture that highly values religious toleration and even, I think it's fair to say, diversity. In such a culture, Jesus won't become a national figure unless he can move outside Christianity.''

The new books survey the transformation of Jesus in America from the detached figure of the Puritans more ''principle than person'' in Prothero's words to the rationalist Jesus who survived the Enlightenment to the humane presence dominating the current evangelical movement.

While the colonists were ''God-fearing rather than Jesus-loving,'' Prothero said, they revered Jesus as the sacrifice of an awesome God. But Calvinist theology emphasized the distance between a perfect God and sinful man and a part-divine, part-human bridge did not fit neatly.

Both authors credit Thomas Jefferson for helping to make America the kind of place where Jesus could evolve and flourish.

It was Jefferson who used a razor blade to cut out the portions of the New Testament he couldn't accept, such as the virgin birth. He was left with just one in 10 verses, but he found in them a true Jesus who could be reconciled with the rationalist thought of the Enlightenment.

Similarly, Benjamin Franklin retranslated the Lord's Prayer into a version more compatible with his version of Jesus, as moral exemplar.

''By the late 18th century, Jesus is made into a kind of democrat, and therefore you can keep him,'' Fox said. ''You don't have to throw him out when you throw the established church out.''

Both Jefferson and Franklin, of course, influenced the formation of a republic where there was no established religion in government, which made possible the competitive milieu in which conceptions of Jesus rapidly evolved in popular culture.

Prothero, for example, tracks the softer Jesus who came to the fore in art and literature in the 19th century, a Currier and Ives figure often seen with children on his lap. Driving the change were preachers trying to appeal to women, who predominated among churchgoers.

Inevitably, though, there was a backlash: Jesus became more masculine to coincide with the era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, the rise of football and the fame of military men; Jesus was simply too feminine for male churchgoers. Both traditions, however, have merged in modern evangelicalism, Prothero said, which has also borrowed from other Jesus traditions such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock musical, ''Jesus Christ Superstar,'' which opened on Broadway in 1971.

For Fox, the constant renewability of Jesus speaks to his particular appeal in America a country that celebrates its own constant rebirth and counts among its favorite Gospel verses John 3:16, which promises ''eternal life'' to believers.

''As an American who believes in Jesus you get to have your cake and eat it, too,'' Fox said. ''You get to always change and become something new, but you never have to reject the past, because you always have Jesus.''

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