National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 14, 2004

By Richard Wightman Fox
HarperSan Francisco,
496 pages, $27.95
By Stephen Prothero
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
376 pages, $25
Jesus in the likeness of Americans

Two books analyze Jesus' importance to U.S. Christians and non-Christians alike

Reviewed by JAMES FISHER

One of the many debates swirling about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” concerns the film’s “historical accuracy.” This controversy reveals the ongoing desire of many to isolate a definitive account of the Christ of history. Yet as these two fascinating new books show, the “quest for the historical Jesus” is itself part of a much broader tradition of imagining and representing Jesus, a process with deep cultural and spiritual significance that in America has not been confined solely to Christians.

Richard Wightman Fox and Stephen Prothero share methodological locations at the intersection of cultural and religious history as well as a conviction that Americans have continually reshaped their image and their understanding of Jesus in ways that reveal far more than theological conflicts. Both authors, for example, identify an enduring strain in American thought that distinguishes between Jesus as exemplar of divine virtue and the human institutions that sought to contain him or speak in his name. Both depict Thomas Jefferson, “razor in hand” (Prothero), making a “surgical strike on the gospels” (Fox) in order to “excise from the New Testament the corruptions of Paul and his ‘Platonizing successors’ ” (Prothero). Later, in 1896, writes Fox, “workers attending a clergyman’s speech hissed every time he uttered the word ‘church’ and cheered whenever he said ‘Jesus.’ ” Even mid-20th-century American Hindus of the Vedanta Society got into the act, according to Prothero, by dividing Christianity “into a true and false form: ‘the religion of Jesus Christ’ and ‘Churchianity.’ ”

Christological history

While it may not be surprising to learn that Jesus has often been more popular than the churches in a culture of individualism, Fox and Prothero effectively show just how much he matters in the life of the nation. Fox, in particular, offers a virtual reinterpretation of American history from a Christological perspective, beginning with the earliest contact of Europeans and Native Americans when “Spanish and French Catholics and English Protestants all saw Christ as a gift they could bestow upon the Indians.” Jesus “was always tethered in the end to the campaign for European control” of Indians, writes Fox, just as he would later be enlisted in the cause of abolitionists from William Lloyd Garrison to John Brown. A century later the civil rights movement grew out of the “latent national conscience of an overwhelmingly Christ-worshiping country.” Jesus “permeated” Martin Luther King’s self-understanding, Fox writes, adding that King “performed essential cultural work in mid-20th-century America by mobilizing a new imitation of Christ for the broad goal of Judeo-Christian citizenship.”

Jesus in America is ultimately concerned less with Jesus as an American icon than with the process by which American Christians struggled to reconcile his message and his sacrifice with their broader religious and political concerns. Fox is highly attentive to tensions between Christian communities, beginning with “the Catholic-Protestant split in theology and piety [that] has remained the central fault line in American incarnations of Jesus ever since the 17th century.” Later, evangelicals, liberal Social Gospelers, Pentecostals, modernists and Niebuhrian realists (Fox, a historian at the University of Southern California, previously wrote a biography of Protestant “neo-orthodox” theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) all vied for cultural authority in a contentious religious marketplace pervaded by images of Jesus as personal savior. Fox covers such a wide swath of the American religious landscape that his book often reads more like a survey of American Christian thought than a focused account of Jesus in America, though his point may be that these are virtually one and the same.

Welcoming Christ to cinema

A striking exception is his fascinating treatment of Jesus as portrayed in early films, from an 1898 movie of a Bohemian Passion play exhibited before a rapt Boston audience to “the first feature-length film of Jesus on American screens, ‘From the Manger to the Cross’ ” (which in 1912 depicted the Passion “in disturbingly graphic detail”), to Cecil B. DeMille’s “King of Kings” (1927). Fox explains that even Protestants who abhorred representations of Jesus in theatrical productions “joined Catholics in welcoming Christ to cinema,” in part at least because the magic of film lent an “element of mystery” lacking on the stage.

Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus is a sharply focused exploration of “reawakenings of Jesus among Christian insiders, especially white Protestants,” as well as “rebirths of Jesus in outsider communities, including the black church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and American Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.” Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, first shows how American Protestants evolved from a predominantly “God-fearing rather than a Jesus-loving people” of the Puritan era to devotees of a nurturing “personal savior” in the decades after the Civil War, when liberal Protestantism flourished. Subsequent fears of a “feminized” Jesus gave rise to images of Jesus as a scrappy “manly redeemer,” captured most memorably in Bruce Barton’s 1925 bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows: A Discovery of the Real Jesus. Prothero quotes Barton’s oft-cited claim that Jesus was a shrewd executive who “picked up 12 men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.” He then astutely rescues Barton from his many critics by noting that his intent was not to reduce Jesus but to infuse daily toil with the presence of the sacred. “All work is worship,” Barton wrote, “all useful service prayer.”

Prothero’s narrative diverges sharply from Fox’s when he turns his attention to religious communities outside established Protestant traditions. His account of the Mormons’ contemporary emphasis on “a dynamic personal relationship with Christ” recovers the Christology present in Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s earliest teaching, a tradition that was displaced for half a century by “temple Mormonism” and in turn gave way to “a third period of Mormon history, which once again put Jesus front and center.” Prothero notes that Christians from Southern Baptists to Roman Catholics continue to place the Mormons outside of Christian tradition. He does not seek to resolve the controversy but does note that the “Jesus-centric arguments Mormons now advance for their Christian status” are “close to irrefutable” if only because in American Christianity “Jesus has replaced the churches, the creeds and even the Bible as the key authority in belief and practice.”

Jesus ‘reincarnated’

Prothero also shows how African-American artists and writers -- from poets of the Harlem Renaissance to womanist theologians of our own time -- have similarly pursued “a Jesus they could call their own.” Whether depicted as a “Suffering Servant who by carrying their sins onto the cross made salvation possible” or as merged with a “Black Moses who cares about this world as much as the next,” Jesus is “reincarnated, over and over again, in the experiences of African-Americans.” Prothero goes on to argue provocatively that Jesus has also been “reincarnated” by non-Christian Americans as well, from Jewish writers like Sholem Asch -- whose controversial 1925 novel The Nazarene depicted Jesus as “the finest Jew that ever lived”-- to Buddhists and Hindus who view Jesus as an exalted master or incarnation of God. Prothero insists that “if Christians had retained a monopoly over interpreting Jesus, he would not have become a national icon” even in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Christians and non-Christians alike, he concludes, “are making Jesus in the likeness of America.”

Such a move might of course be viewed as idolatrous. Prothero acknowledges that “from the perspective of theology, an unchanging Jesus may be a necessity (though the doctrine of the incarnation does place Jesus squarely in the scramble of society). From the perspective of cultural and religious history, however, Jesus is anything but unchanging. In the book of Genesis, God creates humans in his own image; in the United States, Americans have created Jesus, over and over again, in theirs.” Read from this perspective, both Fox’s Jesus in America and Prothero’s American Jesus do not reduce Jesus to culture so much as they prompt respect for the infinitely varied perspectives from which Americans seek him.

Both books would have been enriched and complicated by a deeper consideration of American Catholic traditions. Fox does note that since the Second Vatican Council “Catholic theology and practice stresses more clearly than before the centrality of Jesus” while acknowledging that “his comings and goings into and out of human hearts are less important than his continuous physical gift of himself in the Eucharistic ritual administered by his one holy and apostolic church.” Yet the overwhelming popularity of Gibson’s “Passion” among Catholics and evangelical Protestants alike suggests that American religious scholarship would benefit from an even deeper comparative perspective than is currently in general practice. Fox’s “fault line” separating Catholic and Protestants “in American incarnations of Jesus” may in fact have shifted dramatically, if it has not been blurred almost beyond recognition. These two fine books certainly inspire us to ask such questions that might otherwise seem wildly impertinent.

James Fisher is codirector of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 2004

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