In Search of Jesus, Part 2

In his book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero embarks on a quest for the cultural Jesus, “specifically…the American Jesus—Jesus as he has been interpreted and reinterpreted, construed and misconstrued, in the messy midrash of American culture." Prothero’s search is an important one, because from the outset he’s honest enough to concede that “Jesus is not the exclusive property of Christians." That’s an unsettling assertion, especially for evangelicals. But according to the polls Prothero cites, “Americans of all faiths view Jesus ‘overwhelmingly in a favorable light’ and that he has ‘a strong hold even on those with no religious training.’ ”

Americans, Christian or not, are obsessed with Jesus. In fact, more than two-thirds of us say we’ve made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ,” and roughly three out of four admit to having “sensed his presence,” whatever that means. And just in case you still doubt our national obsession with Jesus, consider this: the “Library of Congress holds more books about Jesus (seventeen thousand or so) than about any other historical figure, roughly twice as many as the runner-up (Shakespeare).” For better or for worse, Jesus is famous. He even has his own look-alike action figure, a sure sign of his status as a pop-icon.

But what interests me most about Prothero’s work is not his claim that “Jesus is a fixture on the American landscape.” Few would be foolish enough to argue that point. Jesus is everywhere, on “billboards, bumper stickers, and even tattooed bodies.” Ironically, where he may be most unnoticed and unknowable is in the church. And this is where Prothero’s perspective challenges Christianity’s claim on Christ. Prothero argues that “Jesus became a major personality in the United States because of the ability of religious insiders to make him culturally inescapable.” However, the potential downside of our zeal to “know Christ and make him known,” particularly in evangelical circles, is that “no one group has an interpretive monopoly. Everyone is free to understand Jesus in his or her own way.” And as Prothero points out, “Americans have exercised that freedom with wild abandon.”

I guess what troubles me about Prothero’s assessment is my own complicity in the disentanglement of Christ from his church. The fact that Christian insiders like me have unknowingly encouraged “Americans of all religious persuasions (and none)” to “embrace whichever Jesus fulfilled their wishes” is certainly a cautionary tale. Thankfully, it’s not the end of the story. New chapters are still being written. My prayer is that each word will be shaped by an ecclesiology and Christology that are faithful to our resurrected Lord.