AN AMERICAN JESUS?
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’ (Luke 13:31-35, NRSV)
We are created in God’s image. And God is created in ours. It’s only natural. For thousands of years people have created God in their own image. The same holds true for Jesus. For 2,000 years Christians have been trying to get a handle on the person of Jesus. Who was he and what was he all about? Certainly the New Testament, especially the Gospels, offer insight into the life and teachings of Jesus. Sometimes the images clash and so we emphasize the stories and teachings that fit our own view of the world and ourselves. We create a Jesus in our image.
In studying church history and observing centuries of religious artwork a variety of images emerge:
Jesus, the holy son of the Blessed Virgin Mary;
Jesus, God-on-earth; aglow with halos and angels, scarcely human;
Jesus, the beggar of St. Francis and St. Claire;
Jesus, the 5th century sovereign sitting on a throne, wearing
the insignia of a Roman Emperor;
Jesus, the beardless Shepherd of the Roman catacombs;
Jesus, the king once extolled by European Royalty;
Jesus, the man of prayer, fashionable among the mystics
Even in present-day America, different denominations have a different take on Jesus:
the doctrinally-precise Jesus, favored by many
the wonder working Jesus, preferred by charismatics;
the blood of the lamb Jesus, emphasized by evangelists;
the social justice Jesus, popular with mainline Protestant
denominations like ours (Ibid.).
How did we end up with such diverse views of one man, albeit the most famous man in history? How ought we to look at Jesus today? For a glimpse of how we ended up here I recommend the informative and often-times witty book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, by Stephen Prothero, Dean of the Religion Department at Boston University.
Prothero points out that if we visit The Library of Congress and ask for all the books on Jesus we’d find ourselves buried under a mountain of 17,000 plus books, twice as many as the runner up, Shakespeare (Prothero, p. 11).
You might guess that the first major American interpretation of Jesus starts with the Puritans. You would be wrong. The Puritans were obsessed with the wrath of God. They weren’t into the love of Jesus (Ibid. p. 10).
The first American Jesus emerged from the White House in 1804, thanks to the razor of Thomas Jefferson. During the day, Jefferson tied up loose ends from the Louisiana Purchase and monitored the war between England and France. But at night, in his down time, Jefferson used his razor on two King James Versions of the Bible, cutting out what he believed to be the authentic Jesus passages. It only took him a few evenings to complete the job as he found “…the task ‘obvious and easy’; the true sayings he later wrote, were ‘as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill’” (Ibid. p. 24). Jefferson named the resulting thin volume The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. Almost twenty years later, Jefferson compiled an additional volume entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Ibid. p. 25).
Jefferson cut out passages he considered “‘of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications’” (Ibid.). Jefferson wanted to create an idealized portrayal of Jesus without any hint of the supernatural, no Bethlehem manger, no Easter resurrection, no healing of blind Bartimeaus, in fact no miracles at all. To Jefferson, Jesus was an enlightened sage who wandered from place to place teaching ethics, “a great moral teacher who spread the gospel of liberty, fraternity, and equality across ancient Palestine” (Ibid. p. 28).
It’s worth noting that Jefferson did in fact believe in an all-perfect God and in a “‘future state of rewards and punishments’” (Ibid. p. 31). While Jefferson opened the door for Americans to freely assess Jesus for themselves, his cut and paste view of Jesus was never widely accepted.
Jefferson’s presentation of Jesus stood in direct contrast to the Puritans before him who didn’t emphasize Jesus at all. “Prothero observes that Jesus was no big deal in early America. To the Puritans, ‘Jesus was at best a marginal figure.’ Our Calvinist forebears were a ‘God-fearing rather than a Jesus-loving people, obsessed not with God's mercy but with His Glory, not with the Son but with the Father.’ The God-fearing Puritans 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” (Michael Massing, “America’s Favorite Philosopher,” The New York Times Book Review, Dec. 28, 2003).
Not only did Jefferson react against this view, but so did the fervent religious movements spawned by The First and Second Great Awakenings. These whirlwind revivals forever changed America’s view of Jesus. “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” (Dan Cryer, “American Jesus Review,” Newsday, Dec. 24, 2003). Prothero refers to the American Jesus of this era as the “sweet savior Jesus.” As the nineteenth century wore on this Jesus came to represent the Victorian virtues of home and hearth. This feminization of Jesus, as some men saw it, caused a backlash by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century of what Prothero calls Jesus, the “manly redeemer” (Andrew Hudgins, “The Faces of Jesus,” The Raleigh News and Observer, Dec. 21, 2003).
Evangelical preachers like former Chicago White Stockings player Billy Sunday railed against what Prothero referred to as “the sissified Jesus of the feminized crowd.” Billy Sunday preached a macho, muscular Jesus fighting sin and wrestling with wretchedness. According to Sunday, “‘Jesus was the greatest scrapper who ever lived’” (Prothero, p. 94). Once the evangelist prayed, “‘Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked, brittle-boned, weak-kneed, thin-skinned, pliable, plastic, spineless, effeminate, sissified, three-caret Christianity” (Ibid.). Billy Sunday’s Jesus was as tough as Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charging up the San Juan Hill of sin.
Not only did conservatives like Sunday embrace this manly Jesus, but the liberal advocates of the Social Gospel did as well. “Social Gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch declared ‘there was nothing mushy, nothing sweetly effeminate’ about the man who drove the money-changers out of the temple” (Cryer, 12/24/03). Instead of battling personal sin like the evangelical Jesus, the Social Gospel Jesus waged war on collective, social sins like hunger, inadequate housing, and child labor.
These two main views of Jesus, personal savior vs. social reformer, continued to hold sway in one form or another throughout the twentieth century and even today. Prothero’s final American Jesus shines and glitters in the title of the rock musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” It started in California’s Haight-Ashbury district with the Jesus People of the 1960’s. Hippies, Yippees, and various other counter culture types searched relentlessly for new and better highs. Some turned to pot. Some turned to LSD. And some turned to Jesus.
Throughout the mid to late 60’s and into the early 70’s, “Jesus drifted out of the churches and into our culture, becoming a symbol that represents both Christianity and, more vaguely, spirituality itself… As the Age of Aquarius gave way in 1971 to ‘Godspell’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ Jesus became an icon of popular culture. Jesus Freaks formed communes. Walls were plastered with posters of both a hippie Jesus and the swirling colors of a psychedelic Jesus” (Hudgins, 12/21/03).
Today many of us assume the Jesus People made no lasting impact. However, Prothero credits the movement with spawning contemporary Christian music, today’s megachurches, and Christian retailing. While Christian bookstores began modestly in the 1950’s, they boomed in the late ‘70’s and today Christian retailing exceeds $4 billion in annual sales. Where once these stores sold mainly Bibles and other devotional books, today they sell T-shirts, bumper stickers, artwork, Christian greeting cards, homeschooling supplies, and even biblical breath mints. Prothero notes that Jesus went from being a national icon to “a profitable brand, his name and likeness festooned on an endless variety of paraphernalia” (p. 146).
What are we to make of all this? This American Jesus from Jefferson to the Jesus People? How are we, the heirs of this influence, to come to terms with Jesus? For me, the search begins and ends in the same place: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the four Gospels in our New Testament. Yes, there are additional gospels and epistles that didn’t make it into the Bible, that’s another sermon for another day. Yes, there are aspects of the biblical Jesus I find confusing and may never understand. But the Bible informs our Christian faith and lays a solid foundation. It is a good thing to wrestle with our concepts and preconceived notions about Jesus, to check them against the Jesus we find in the pages of the Bible. In the end we’ll find that the diverse images of an American Jesus are rooted in the equally diverse images of the biblical Jesus.
Today’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of Luke demonstrates this fact. In one breath, Jesus is calling Herod a fox to emphasize the danger and destruction posed by this king. In the next breath, Jesus is lamenting the future devastation of Jerusalem and wishing he could gather her people safely under his wings as a mother hen protects her young. Back to back in this passage we see different aspects of Jesus’ personality—strong and defiant in the face of a tyrant, nurturing and heart-broken at the fate of Jerusalem. Jesus was all of this and more.
The history of American Jesus demonstrates what happens when a person or group of people focus on only one aspect of Jesus to the exclusion of the whole biblical story. Jefferson rightly emphasizes the ethics of Jesus, but having stripped him of all things supernatural, we are merely left with a good man, not the Son of God. And who of us understands how Jefferson himself held high the ethics of Jesus on one hand while holding slaves in the other? The sweet Savior of the nineteenth century offers comfort that Jefferson’s Jesus will never muster, but what beyond that? Would this sweet Savior allow himself to get mad at the money-changers and run them out of the temple? Would he turn the other cheek out of marshmallow meekness or out of tough love? On the flip side, the manly Jesus wages war on sin for the evangelicals and societal ills for the Social Gospel movement. Would Jesus exclude one at the expense of the other? And what do we make of the Jesus People and the resulting superstar Jesus? Their emphasis on living out the simple everyday teachings of Jesus is appealing, but the movement as a whole faded quickly from the scene due to a lack of institutionalization, which of course was an important part of its appeal in the first place. The Jesus of “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” certainly challenged popular culture to take a fresh, artistic look at him. But neither of them claimed to be accurate renderings of the life of Christ. In 2004, Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ” focused on Jesus’s suffering. The film claimed authenticity, but scholars challenged that claim.
Every movie, every book, every hymn, and yes, every sermon, reflects a particular perspective. None are truly objective and each reflects the era in which it was written.
This is a problem if we require one final and definitive answer. It’s not a problem if we can admit that we don’t have all the answers. God is not threatened by honest questions. God is not limited by our differences. In the end, there is no one American Jesus just as there is no one Congregational Jesus. In the end, I believe what really matters is that we continue to earnestly seek the Jesus of our faith with open minds and open hearts. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
Edited by Colleen Brown Only
March 17, 2019
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, in the Bible it tells us that we were created in your image, but too often we have tried to create you in our image. We want a God who is convenient; who is comfortable; who does not challenge us. We’ve also tried to create Jesus in our image, to imagine him as a person who blesses our way of life, our choices, and too often our complacency. Help us do better O God. Open our hearts and minds once again to the Jesus of the Bible and may his Spirit live and breathe in us. AMEN.