As the holiest day in the Christian calendar approaches, I have been thinking about some of the books about religion that have stuck with me. One has been God: A Biography by Jack Miles who reads the Hebrew Bible as a literary text and examines the God as if were a literary character. In spite of the religious tenet that casts God as immutable, Miles shows how God develops over the course of the biblical narrative, primarily as a result of His interactions with humanity. God the Creator at the beginning of Genesis changes as He interacts with Adam and Eve. The God who talks to Job is different still. He is lonely; He is jealous; He is vengeful, and so on.
Miles made me reflect on the Jesus of the New Testament. For me, He does not really develop or evolve over the course of any of the Gospels, but neither is He always the same. Instead of character development, the different Gospels give related, but different, conceptions of Jesus. Thus, Matthew’s Jesus is not precisely the same as John’s, and Mark’s is not the same as Matthew’s. Paul’s versions of Jesus further complicate the matter. His depictions often differ from those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but his versions are not always consistent with each other. (I know: scholars say that the same person did not write all of the Pauline stuff). For example, in the Gospels, Jesus says nothing about homosexuality, or about abortion or birth control, but portions of the writings of Paul, who claimed to be furthering the word of Jesus, are homophobic. With these differing versions of Jesus, I felt—and scholars confirm–that those biblical writers either tended to find different characteristics in Jesus or they created a Jesus to fit their own wishes, desires, and agendas.
The possible variations of Jesus’s character were not immutably fixed in biblical times. I know little about the various depictions of Jesus throughout the world, but I know that Jesus has been seen in many different ways 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 a Jesus with 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.
In these incarnations, however, He somehow always seems American. That is hardly surprising. At least in our own eyes and hearts, 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. As H. Richard Niebuhr said in The Kingdom of God in America, “The old idea of American Christians as a chosen people who had been called to a special task was turned into the notion of a chosen nation especially favored.”
As a result, we Americans see a Jesus who 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 could have been a great shortstop. Many American Christians have absorbed without reflection the notion 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, but, of course, since Americans don’t all believe the same things and can be capitalists, warriors, pacifists, joiners, and loners, the American Jesus is not the same for every American.
I learned, however, from Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession that through much of our history, the dominant Christian denominations did not give much thought as to how Jesus looked. Visual depictions of Jesus seldom appeared in Protestant churches or homes. They did though in Catholic churches, making Protestants think such attention to pictures and statues of Jesus was akin to idolatry. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the strictures on the visual depictions of Jesus had faded away, and eventually the picture most favored by Protestants became “Head of Christ” painted by Warner Sallman in 1941, a portrait many of us have seen during our Protestant upbringing.
(concluded April 17.)