in American Culture and Politics
IAH 211C - Fall 2010
Class meets: Tu/Th, 12:40-2:30 PM 222 Erickson Hall
will answer questions related to the Stephen Prothero book American
What makes American Jesus different than that of other countries? Rhonda
To compare the American Jesus to that of other countries would be to
define the American Jesus, which is nearly impossible. The American
Jesus is a paradoxical identity that is the result of America's ever-changing
society, and the myriad of religions within it.
Evangelicals alone have preached a friendly, human Jesus in the mid-19th
century. In the second half of the 19th century they envisioned a combination
of a divine being who could be found everywhere in nature, but is also
a friend or companion; a divine 'American Everyman'. In the Colonial
Period Evangelicals believed in a feminine, maternal Jesus.
At times Roman Catholics and Protestants also believed in the feminine
Jesus. At other times liberal Protestants rejected the divinity of Jesus
and instead focused on Jesus, the historical figure. Christians of all
denominations eventually transformed their feminine Jesus into a strong,
masculine guy (Stephen S. Sawyer's painting, Undefeated, and Harry Emerson
Fosdick's Manhood of the Master depict this version of Christ). Indian
Christians gave Jesus a romantic edge. Ellen Lakshmi Goreh described
Jesus almost as a lover; someone she shares an intimate experience with
in a secret place.
Jews had their own interpretation of Jesus. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise described
Jesus as "a Jew of the Jews, an earnest, high-minded teacher of
the Jewish faith" (247). Rabbi Enelow's A Jewish View of Jesus,
described Jesus as a faithful Jew who had no intention of establishing
a new religion.
Meanwhile Hindu's were claiming ownership of Jesus by describing him
as an Avatar; an incarnation of God, an embodiment of divinity worthy
of worship. Other Hindus depicted an Oriental Jesus, which could refer
to an Asian ethnicity or race, but more likely a Jesus with Oriental
beliefs and values. These Hindus saw Christ as a timeless principle
rather than a historical figure who once lived. Congregants at the San
Francisco Vedanta Society embrace Jesus as a great Yogin with highly
developed psychic powers. Hare Krishnas believe Jesus is the incarnation
of their Supreme Lord Krishna, and Taoists call Him the "Eternal
Tao". Buddhists also lay claim to Jesus; some see Him as a great
master or enlightened being, who also possesses humility. A Buddhist
monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, went so far as to claim to understand Jesus and
the Trinity better than the Pope.
Throughout the ages Black religions of all denominations have portrayed
Jesus in their own unique image. Malcolm X, Henry McNeal Turner, an
African Methodist Episcopal bishop, and Albert B Cleage Jr, a pioneer
for the nondenominational Black Christian Nationalist Movement have
all described Jesus as a black man. James cone, a professor at Adrian
College, wrote that, "Black Power was Christ's message to twentieth
century America" (205). Prothero states that, "African Americans
have transformed the toxin of the blond haired, blue eyed Jesus into
the tonic of a black Moses who delivers them not only from sin but also
from oppression, and not only via his own body but also in the bodies
of the faithful" (228).
Conversely, where Black Christians see Jesus as a suffering servant
who, by carrying their sins onto the cross made salvation possible,
Black Muslims do not believe in the divinity of Jesus. He did not die
on the cross and was not raised from the dead. Jesus was instead the
prophet of Allah, who taught freedom, justice, and equality, and condemned
whites as "a race of devils".
Black Muslims envision Jesus as a Muslim rather than a Christian, Jews
picture Him as a Jew, Christians imagine Him as a Christian, and Hindu's
see Him as a Hindu. The different images of Jesus arise out of the different
religions in America, and within those religions, more versions of Jesus
exist as reflections of events throughout history. To answer this question
is nearly impossible due to the lack of information given on the Jesus'
of other countries and the extensive amount of information, overflowing
with opposing visions of Christ, given on the American Jesus. The best
that can be drawn from Prothero's American Jesus, is how the image of
Jesus varies among the different religions and cultures within America.
2. Why does Jesus become the focal point of the imagery in America?
Prothero suggests Jesus emerged out of a consumer-driven economy and
new middle class during the nineteenth century. Shifting conceptions
of the American self, transformations of the family, developments in
science, biblical criticism and comparative religion led to an emphasis
on Jesus. "Sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century,
however, preachers began to respond to the new Babel of denominations
by offering a simpler message. Instead of marketing predestination of
free will, the Bible or the Baptists, they began to offer religious
shoppers a new relationship with Jesus. This relationship was personal,
so preachers had to make Jesus into a person. And they did so with glee,
disentangling him not only from the complex theologies of Calvin but
also from the complicated polities of the denominations. As evangelicals
placed more of their faith in him, Jesus became more human and less
divine. ...No longer a signpost in a vast theological system, Jesus
emerged...as a living, breathing human being." (55) The figure
of Jesus was to better society and to reveal to the people the loving
character of God, and prompt them to develop that same character in
themselves. Americans saw Christianity as a Jesus faith and transformed
their country into a Jesus nation. They had a "friend in Jesus".
Looked at their Savior as an approachable, loving and sympathetic friend.
Jesus was made available to other religions as a figure of wisdom and
3. Who are some of the main people/groups Prothero uses for his thesis
and who might be left out? Jay
" Jefferson (independent) - Paul & heirs corrupted Jesus' image
through the New Testament. (23)
" Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar - Mainly Unitarians, Reform
Jews, and liberal Protestants. Formulated stances from Jefferson's beliefs.
(32 & 33)
" James Jacques Joseph Tissot - French Catholic artist; wanted
to include Scripture & Tradition in paintings (87)
" G. Stanley Hall & Theodore Roosevelt - Opposed to feminization
of American culture (90)
" Social Gospel Advocates - Washington Gladden & Walter Rauschenbusch
" Warner Sallman - Head of Christ; American Evangelical artist
" Jesus Freaks - Led by Elizabeth & Ted Wise; converts from
drugs to Jesus; disdained institutional church, but offered a personal
relationship with Jesus; Jesus embraced slang, clothes, & music
of hippiedom; Jesus as dropout, revolutionary, & outlaw (126)
" Nondenominational Megachurches - Offer un-churchly alternatives
to denominational bureaucracies (147)
" Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
o Textual Mormonism - Original Moron religion founded by Joseph Smith
in the 1820s; focused on reading scripture (173)
o Temple Mormonism - Also led by Smith; introduced new rituals into
Mormon religion (baptism for dead, "endowment", vows of secrecy,
etc.); blurred distinction between divinity & Humanity (180 - 181)
" Nation of Islam - founded by W.D. Fard; denounced Christianity
as white man's religion; version of Islam; (202 - 203)
" Black Liberation Theologians - Albert Cleage, Jr.; Vincent Harding;
James Cone (205)
" Feminist Theologians - Mary Daly (206)
" Womanist Theologians - Alice Walker; Combined Black Liberation
Theology & Feminist Theology (207)
" Slave Christians - Combined Moses & Jesus into one person
" Black Jews - Believe they are descendents of the lost tribe of
Israel; some believe only black Jews are true Jews (217)
o Orthodox - stay away from Jesus (251)
o Conservative - split between the others (236)
o Reform - Attempt to reclaim Jesus (238)
" Hindus - Worship divine Jesus along with other reincarnated gods
" Buddhists - Jesus either fully enlightened or bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be)
" Ralph Kozak - Jesus Laughing; artist (293)
" Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians,
& Muslims sprinkled throughout text
" Sikhs - believe in one god: Waheguru
(For more, see Timeline 305-310 & Index 349-364)
" N/A (Prothero mentions every main person/group related to the
topic of Jesus in America and also many minor persons/groups)
4. Summarize the various "incarnations" of Jesus according
to Prothero? (Sage, Moses, Rabbi, Superstar, etc.) Tanit, Jeff
The Enlighten Sage
Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of America was able to
admire, respect, and love Jesus as the "first of all sages."
Even though not a Christianity, Jefferson was able to separate the religion
of Jesus from the religion of Christianity. Jefferson saw him more of
a great thinker and a man, "he was not sent by God to die on a
cross and atone for human sins. He came not to save, but to teach"
(28). Jefferson looked beyond the divinity placed on Jesus by religion
and described him as a great moral teacher where his philosophy was
"pure, correct, and sublime than those of ancient philosophers.
And nothing in that philosopher contradicted religion or science."(28)
Jesus reincarnated as a Rabbi was believed to be a "great teacher
of morality and an artist in parable"(pg.231) by his followers.
Many Jews felt strongly that Jesus was a Jew and urged others to follow.
Followers believed that Jesus was a self-confident moralist and world
reformer. Many Reform Rabbi's believed that Jesus was a "high minded
preacher of the Jewish faith" (pg.247) preaching many Jewish doctrines
while following a large code of ethics. While many Jews believed in
this theory, Orthodox Jews strongly rejected it.
Black Moses was a resurrection of a 'black Jesus' resulting from all
the oppression and unfair treatment of Blacks in American history. Black
Moses was more related to black power ideas where supporters believe
"we must put down this white Jesus which white man gave us slavery
and was tearing us to pieces" (202). Cleage, radical theologian
inside black Church believed that "he [Jesus] taught "freedom,
justice, and equality" and condemned whites as "a race of
devils" (203). Therefore, it could be seen that the black Mosaic
Jesus helped transformed black Christianity into a vehicle for political
resistance and social reform.
Jesus the "superstar" takes us from the late 1960s to the
present. This resurrection is influenced by strong popular culture,
the "spiritual awakenings" and the powers of mass media. Jesus
was represented in movies, TVs, and in rock songs. Jesus was even depicted
as a hippie, who was "not a distant figure but a near and dear
friend who they could love and imitate." (130) The changing social
environment influenced Churches to use "Jesus the superstar,"
to attract followers especially the younger population.
Mormon Elder Brother
The New Testament doesn't talk about much of Jesus' life, besides his
infancy and the onset of his ministry. Most Christians have expressed
their frustrations through radical interpretations of the New Testament,
claiming that God has not left Himself without a witness, so they have
uncovered extra-biblical evidence of Jesus. One popular text has a detailed
description of Jesus, "His aspect is simple and mature his eyes
are changeable and bright. He is terrible in his reprimands, sweet,
and amiable in his admonitions, cheerful without loss of gravity. He
was never known to laugh, but often to weep. His stature is straight,
his hands and arms beautiful to behold. His conversation is grave, infrequent,
and modest. He is the most beautiful among the children of men"
"Dressed in a flowing white robe, his long hair pulled back behind
slight shoulders, this holy man sits, half-lotus, eyes cast down, in
meditation"(p.267). This Jesus appears in Hindu homes and temples
across the United States and was painted in the 1920s by Eugene Theodosia
Oliver; the image is called Christ the Yoga. "This Jesus is clearly
at peace with nature, with himself, and with God. He knows precisely
who he is. And who he is, quite plainly, is a Hindu" (p.267).
"Jesus is popular in the United State today in part because the
overwhelming majority of citizens are Christians
But if Christians
had retained a monopoly over interpreting Jesus, he would not have become
a national icon" (p.290).
5. What effect has "Jesus" had on popular culture in America
and what effect has popular culture had on "Jesus" - Lesley:
The two parts of this question definitely intertwine throughout the
history discussed in American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. Jesus really
started change and develop into a "man" around the mid-19th
century (55). Prothero writes that evangelicals, among others from Baptists,
Methodists, Presbyterians (etc.), wanted to offer a simpler message
or "marketing" to "religious shoppers" (55). They
introduced a "personal" relationship with Jesus that made
him seem and become more human and less divine. Prothero explains that
"Jesus emerged in the mid-19th century as a living, breathing human
being" (55). By turning people's minds to think about Jesus as
a guy you would see on the street, a guy you could know and love, I
feel this is popular culture's affect on the biblical Jesus. I think
preachers felt the need to do this because Americans felt compelled
to choose a religion and this may have in turn pushed them away from
religion (55). I think this was a way to get Americans back into religion.
With this shift of Jesus becoming more "human", I think Jesus
became more impressionable on popular culture and vice versa.
I think one more example of an effect of popular culture on Jesus was
the painting Head of Christ by Warner Sallman. Prothero describes the
painting with "Jesus engaged the viewer directly, and he did so
in a way that was inviting, reassuring, comforting, and intimate. His
skin is movie-star perfect. His hair is flowing. And the light that
bathes his beautiful face begs to be described as dreamy" (119).
Sallman created a new Jesus with this, for pictures before showed a
suffering Jesus or incarnation of Jesus. I think Sallman's painting
gave Jesus more of that "human being" feel and people were
able to look at him like a friend. However, about 20 years later this
painting fell out of favor and Prothero writes that they must have forgot
- celebrities need to change their look every few years to stay popular
(122). But the painting by Sallman, and others by his rivals, "turned
Jesus into an American icon" (123).
Then came the 60's. "By 1967, religion was vibrant" (125).
But it was not really to God whom they were drawn to, but to Jesus.
The "Jesus People" or "Jesus Freaks" became know
in the 1960's as well (126). They believed in Jesus as a loving friend,
one who would be there for you and hold your hand (127). They began
to dress as they thought he would - loose clothes and long hair (127).
I think this shows an intertwining of the two ideas, but I feel it was
more Jesus' affect on culture. The "Jesus Freaks" in the 1960's
began by preaching to drug addicts, but it was not rejected because
they taught that Jesus was against drugs but not against "slang,
clothes, and music of hippiedom" (127). By preaching to these people
that Jesus could reach them on their level, Jesus was able to help some
out of their addiction and also show that "hippiedom" was
There are many other examples in the book, but I would like to talk
about Jesus becoming a "Superstar" next. Jesus Christ Superstar
and Godspell came out as two rock musicals in 1971 (132). These launched
Jesus into the pop icon and superstardom. Godspell showed the resurrection
and seemed to "affirm the divinity of Jesus" so it was fairly
well received by critics and some religious groups (133). However, Jesus
Christ Superstar was another story. Superstar is about the last week
of Jesus' life and about the reactions to him (133). Prothero states
that in the play, "He seems to be crucified more for his own failures
than for the sins of others" (134). Prothero adds to the story
by commenting that Godspell seemed to add old-fashioned theology but
Superstar "seems to glory in decimating traditional Christian creeds"
(134). This shows an example of how culture affected Jesus - Superstar
made him into a self-questioning, tormented teenager in order to connect
with that culture (134). An interesting example from the other side
is comments from my mother. She told me that she saw Jesus Christ Superstar
and she felt it was Jesus influencing culture. This is because it was
"rock music" in the show and therefore it "became cool
for people in the 70's to be Jesus Freaks" (Judd). My mother also
told me that the kids in her school - especially males - felt that it
was now okay to show their love for Jesus and began having long hair
and listened to rock music - which parents did not have a problem with
because it was in the musical (Judd).
There were many more examples in the book, but I feel the ones discussed
are strong enough to get the point across.
Prothero, Stephen. (2003). American Jesus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux:
New York. Chapters 2 - 4.
Judd, Marsha. Personal Interview with Lesley Recker. 14 Nov 2010.
6. How does Prothero's Jesus differ from orthodox Christianity? Matt
The way Prothero describes American Jesus is one of many different faces
and personalities. Jesus takes on the appearance of representing different
religions, such as Hindu in the portrait, Christ the Yogi, and acting
in ways not typical with thinking of Jesus, as in Jesus Laughing, by
Ralph Kozak (p.181). On the other side there is orthodox Christianity,
which views Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah. They believe that He is
the Son of Man, or the Son of God. The typical American views Jesus
as one who is a part of their lives, one that has been both white and
black, straight and gay, and a socialist and a capitalist (p.8). While
most people in America believe he has not actually been in America,
He has undoubtedly led many for both good and bad, depending on what
side your view is on. In America, Jesus has become more of a secular
and cultural leader while in the orthodox Christian church he is one
of deep religious study and passion, having attention paid more to him
than anyone else.