Dr. Malcolm D. Magee
Office: 406F Morrill Hall
Mailbox: 301 Morrill Hall
Office Hours: Tu/Th
11-12 AM, 4:15-5:00 PM and by appointment.
Phone: 517-719-2518


Religion in American Culture and Politics
IAH 211C - Fall 2010
Class meets: Tu/Th, 12:40-2:30 PM 222 Erickson Hall


Syllabus Schedule Online Readings

Group 6 Project
Matthew Russell
Jeff Lucas
Jay Miller
Rhonda Wehbe
Lesley Recker
Brittany McCallum
Tanit Martin
Matthew Fuentes
Aneesha Mandava
Patrick Howard

You will answer questions related to the Stephen Prothero book American Jesus.

1. 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? Brittany
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 guidance.

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 (95)
" Warner Sallman - Head of Christ; American Evangelical artist (116)
" 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 (210)
" Black Jews - Believe they are descendents of the lost tribe of Israel; some believe only black Jews are true Jews (217)
" Jews
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 (271)
" Buddhists - Jesus either fully enlightened or bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be) (287)
" 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
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" (p.162).

Oriental Christ
"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).

Side note:
"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 cool.

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.