I went to church recently. This may not be noteworthy for you, but it is for me. It came about because of a visit to Al and Lynn, both of whom are smart, funny, gracious, and charming. This long-time friendship began before Al made a career switch and became a minister, but it has continued on. He is now Pastor of a Congregational Church in Florida.
The sermon on the Sunday of my attendance was on Jesus’ words, as recorded by Matthew, about lust in the heart and plucking out your eye. These are troublesome verses (go ask Jimmy Carter), but Al’s sermon was informative and thought-provoking. This got me thinking about religion and some books on religion that have stuck with me through the years.
In God: A Biography Jack Miles reads the Hebrew Bible as a literary text and examines the character of God. In spite of the religious piety that God is immutable, Miles shows how God developed over the course of the narrative, especially as a result of His interactions with humanity. God the Creator at the beginning of Genesis changed as He interacted with Adam and Eve. The God who eventually talked to Job is different still. And so on.
At least for me, however, the Jesus of the New Testament does not really develop or evolve over the course of the scriptures. Instead, different writers have related, but different, conceptions of Jesus. Matthew’s Jesus is not precisely the same as John’s. Paul’s versions of Jesus are not all consistent (I know: scholars say that the same person did not write all of the Pauline stuff), and Paul’s depictions differ from those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each writer has either tended to find different characteristics in Jesus, or the writers have created a Jesus to fit their own agendas.
The possible variations of Jesus’ character were not immutably fixed in biblical times. They have certainly continued in America as Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon discusses. The American Jesus has supported slavery and desegregation; capitalism and socialism; bombing Iraq and pacifism. He has been a go-getter who would be comfortable at a Rotarian meeting. The muscular Christianity of Theodore Roosevelt had its Jesus, who perhaps had six-pack abs. But Jesus has also sweetly taken His place at love-ins. He espouses Reverend Ike’s or the Osteenian gospel of prosperity but also a Rauschenbuschian social gospel.
But in all these incarnations, He was somehow always an American Jesus. He had to be. We Americans and our beloved land are blessed; we live in an America that is exceptional, and surely that must mean that Jesus has a special affinity for America. Jesus could be right there with us on the Fourth of July enjoying a hot dog (not necessarily kosher) and apple pie. If He had wanted to, he would have played a great shortstop. Many American Christians have absorbed without reflection that Jesus looks out especially for America. Americans, it seems, are lucky in another way. We don’t really have to seek to be like Jesus because our Jesus is like us.
He is like us also in his physical manifestation, as indicated by our pictures of Him. He seems to be of above average height, but not so tall as to be disconcerting. His skin, while not a sickly pale, is a version of white. He is not blond, but his hair is not too dark—a pleasant brown, often with highlights. His face looks like one who has immigrated to the U.S. of A. from some Northern European locale. His eyes might even be blue. Except for his clothing and that his hair might be a bit long, he would not be out of place in many American living rooms or corporate offices. (It is not surprising that different cultures have created different portraits of Jesus. The Ethiopian or Russian Christian has a Jesus who looks different from the American one, but one that seems more than a little Ethiopian or Russian. A Renaissance Jesus tends to look, how shall we say, “renaissancey,” and even a Korean or Chinese Jesus tends to reflect a Chinese or Korean culture.)
The historical Jesus, of course, was a Jew from the Middle East—a Semite. Recently forensic anthropologists have tried to figure out what Jesus really looked like. If you look at these depictions, you see something much different from the American Jesus. The odds are overwhelming that Jesus was not very tall with dark eyes, almost black hair, and a swarthy skin. He was much more likely to have short hair rather than flowing, shoulder-length locks. And, of course, he likely had what might be described as a Jewish nose. The looks of the real Jesus were unlikely to be of the kind that would fit easily into a Kiwanis meeting, or more to the point, most Sunday services in America. He didn’t look so much like our imagined portraits. He looked like a Mideast terrorist.
So my thought experiment: Imagine that every existing picture of Jesus in America was replaced with a more historically correct one. We hang up pictures that look like, shall we say, Yasser Arafat’s nephew. How would this change American Christianity? Might this even change American’s views of the world or America’s foreign policy? Would our faith in Christianity be changed? How?