“American Jesus,” A Book Review

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2003 (364 pp., including index)

In one of several enlightening passages, Prothero discussed how Vedantists, exponents of an Indian philosophy, approached Jesus:

While they accepted his miracles, they downplayed their importance, noting that miracle-working was something of a pedestrian skill among Hindu yogis. And while they quoted the Bible repeatedly, they did not typically believe it was divinely inspired. Echoing Brigham Young (a Mormon leader), Swami Abhedananda gloried in the fact that “the light of scientific investigation” had been shed on the “absurd and meaningless” myths of the Bible. Of course, these views neither distinguished him nor his colleagues much from their liberal Protestant colleagues, who themselves had little interest in miracles or biblical inerrancy. When Vedantists called for a Christianity shorn of empty rites and outmoded creeds – a religion of Jesus alone – they were consenting to the Protestant mainstream, not dissenting from it (278)

It reminds me also of some things we heard from the last of the Marist Brothers. One of them was speaking about how some wonderful priest had come out from the USA and was “demythologizing Jesus.” I remember him saying what a breath of fresh air it was. I was only a high school student, but I realised that they were remaking the faith in a manner that suited themselves. What they couldn’t accept was called a “myth.” By de-mythologising, they could remove. The “fresh air” was their wind of their own self-congratulation.

Perhaps this is really the story of the “American Jesus,” the attempt to paint culturally acceptable pictures and tell palatable stories about the Lord in the service of a sentimental inability to dispense with the faith altogether. That is, when a person finds the contemporary culture too strong to be resisted, he may remake Jesus in terms he hopes the culture will accept, rather than strive to remake the culture in accordance with Christianity.

Prothero refers to “postmodern faddishness” (indeed, it seems a “philosophy” that effectively seeks to be faddish, and hence is no real “philosophy” or “love of wisdom”) and to “the modernist impulse” (8 and 154). He notes that one scholar identified “the conscious, intended adaptation of religious ideas to modern culture” as “one of the hallmarks of Protestant modernism.” [Incidentally, the word “hallmark” comes from “Goldsmith’s Hall” in London, which would stamp objects of precious metal with a mark guaranteeing their purity.] “It should be no surprise,” he writes, “that liberal Protestants shaped Jesus in their own image. And as they disenchanted the cosmos, the disenchanted Jesus too” (83). What Prothero does not say, although he probably understands it, is that the reverence of sacred tradition helps us prevent making the Lord look like ourselves.

If we think of what is most distinctive about American Christianity, we may be tempted to think of the Evangelical Awakenings, and preachers who muster up for their congregations that “holy knock-‘em-down power” (48), in or outside of Megachurches. I tend to think, however, that it is the refusal to recognise any difference between the sacred and the secular, or between the natural and the supernatural (83). The thing is, however, that while liberal American Christians failed to recognise the difference in the direction of making everything natural, including religion and their “American Jesus,” Evangelical Christians went in the other direction, making of everything a moral and religious issue. It is not so easy to hold the true Catholic and Orthodox doctrine, and to teach that there is such a thing as the sacred, and there is such a thing as the secular, and we should seek to redeem the secular by infusing it with the supernatural. My own view is that the sacraments are the guarantee of this sane and sound position: without them the danger of running into one extreme or another are so great as to be practically impossible of avoidance.

Prothero may be correct to see the very heavy investment in Jesus by Protestants as a way of compensating for the rejection of Christian doctrines: if you downplay the sacraments, the Bible, or both, you have to build up something else – and what else did they have but the figure of the Lord? (155)

A deep point is made about faddishness (a “fad” is a pet notion, or a temporary craze): an extremely popular life of the Lord by H.W. Beecher appeared in 1871. It was a tremendous success, but is barely at all known today because, as Prothero says: “he seems to be one of those figures who fits so precisely his own time that he is out of place in any other” (71). That does not necessarily mean that he is wrong, but it does not give us reason to think he had discovered anything of abiding value. So the lesson is be careful in adopting new fashions, especially in questions of eternal truth. See also p.105, “Works of art become popular when they express the inchoate sentiments of their public – which brings me to art.

One of the many fascinating aspects of this book is its treatment of how Our Lord has been treated in art (I use the term loosely). Some of them are stomach turning in their pandering to sentimental notions of the Lord (see El Senor, among the plates, but only if you have not eaten any bacon that morning). Others are so sweet they would turn Bundaberg into a ghost town if they could be sold in crystals (Christ the Yogi, where He is depicted in the wilderness with wild beasts, i.e. sitting on a yoga mat meditating with birds flying around him, a bunny rabbit at his feet, and a serpent departing from Him). But others, such as Sallman’s Head of Christ were far more successful and more insidious. Less obviously absurd, their portrayal of the Lord as a white European with a trimmed beard effectively denied the true cultural context of the faith, and hence denied the tradition. It is little wonder that Catholics detested the feminised Jesus of Protestant art (until some of them adopted it) (p. 120).

As with the Vedantists, the approach taken by non-Christians is significant: but I think part of its significance is that the non-Christian take on Christ and Christianity is sometimes later influential on Christians. The prime example is perhaps that of Thich Nath Hanh, whose ideas on Jesus and on inter-religious dialogue were once widely thought to be both wrong and arrogant, but now do not seem so very different from some Catholic views. The story of Thich taking John-Paul II  to task for being blind to the true mystery of the Trinity is concisely set out (287-289). Part of his criticism of JPII was his assertion that of course Jesus was unique – we are all unique! Further, he added for good measure, to teach that Christianity , only way to salvation “excludes dialogue and fosters religious intolerance and discrimination. It does not help.”

The book is recommended for people interested in understanding how the tide madness and extremely bad art that surrounds us came to rise. It is in eight chapters: “Enlightened Sage,” “Sweet Saviour,” “Manly Redeemer,” “Superstar,” “Mormon Elder Brother,” “Black Moses,” “Rabbi,” and “Oriental Christ.” So pervasive has been the influence of the American Jesus that I am sure I do not have to say anything about the contents of the chapters: you can guess them already.

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