In his book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Stephen Prothero embarks on a quest for the cultural Jesus, â€œspecificallyâ€¦the American Jesusâ€”Jesus as he has been interpreted and reinterpreted, construed and misconstrued, in the messy midrash of American culture." Protheroâ€™s search is an important one, because from the outset heâ€™s honest enough to concede that â€œJesus is not the exclusive property of Christians." Thatâ€™s an unsettling assertion, especially for evangelicals. But according to the polls Prothero cites, â€œAmericans of all faiths view Jesus â€˜overwhelmingly in a favorable lightâ€™ and that he has â€˜a strong hold even on those with no religious training.â€™ â€
Americans, Christian or not, are obsessed with Jesus. In fact, more than two-thirds of us say weâ€™ve made a â€œpersonal commitment to Jesus Christ,â€ and roughly three out of four admit to having â€œsensed his presence,â€ whatever that means. And just in case you still doubt our national obsession with Jesus, consider this: the â€œLibrary 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).â€ 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 Protheroâ€™s work is not his claim that â€œJesus is a fixture on the American landscape.â€ Few would be foolish enough to argue that point. Jesus is everywhere, on â€œbillboards, bumper stickers, and even tattooed bodies.â€ Ironically, where he may be most unnoticed and unknowable is in the church. And this is where Protheroâ€™s perspective challenges Christianityâ€™s claim on Christ. Prothero argues that â€œJesus became a major personality in the United States because of the ability of religious insiders to make him culturally inescapable.â€ However, the potential downside of our zeal to â€œknow Christ and make him known,â€ particularly in evangelical circles, is that â€œno one group has an interpretive monopoly. Everyone is free to understand Jesus in his or her own way.â€ And as Prothero points out, â€œAmericans have exercised that freedom with wild abandon.â€
I guess what troubles me about Protheroâ€™s assessment is my own complicity in the disentanglement of Christ from his church. The fact that Christian insiders like me have unknowingly encouraged â€œAmericans of all religious persuasions (and none)â€ to â€œembrace whichever Jesus fulfilled their wishesâ€ is certainly a cautionary tale. Thankfully, itâ€™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.