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Book Review

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a
National Icon
by Stephen Prothero

I. Introduction (p. 3-16)
II. Part One – Resurrections
A. Chapter One – Enlightened Sage (p. 19-42) – Theology  Morality
1. “First of Human Sages” – Thomas Jefferson’s goal to take “real” Christianity from
the Church which had perverted it.
2. Jefferson’s Razor
a. The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth (1804)
b. The Life and Morality of Jesus of Nazareth (1819/20)
c. Jefferson’s only guide was his own presuppositions about reality
3. A Great Moral Teacher
a. Jeffersonian Creed (p. 31)
i. That there is one God, and he all-perfect.
ii. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
iii. That to love God with all they heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is
the sum of religion.
b. Jefferson’s firm beliefs
i. Nominal religion that distilled true religion down to God,
ii. The afterlife, and
iii. Moral living
4. The Jesus Seminar
a. Robert Funk – heir of Europeans Ernest Renan, David Strauss, and
Rudolph Bultmann, but especially of Thomas Jefferson’s Razor
b. Founding and work of the Jesus Seminar
5. The Jesus Wars – Jesus Seminar vs. the W.W.J.D. Culture in the 1990’s (my
time at TCU)
6. Jesus Nation – Legacy of Thomas Jefferson – People mould their religion to their
minds, not their minds to their religion.
B. Chapter Two – Sweet Savior (p. 43-86)
1. The Evangelical Century – XIX Cent.
a. Emergence of a “democratic and republican religion,” which we now call
Evangelicalism (p. 48)
b. Restorationists – “No creed but the Bible”
c. “Sovereign Audience” (p. 51)
2. Solus Jesus
a. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Unitarian)
b. “Doctrinalism” of the Calvinist Puritans  “Devotionalism” (p. 53-54)
c. “Sola Scriptura”  “Solus Jesus” (p. 54)
d. Human Jesus – Seen as immanent, not distant; more Friend than God
3. Feminizing American Religion (This is a vast oversimplification of a much more
complicated process, but it follows one thread of thought)
a. After the industrial revolution, men worked away from the home – rather
than on the family farm – and expected to earn money.
b. Women were left at home to raise the children to be “good Christians.”
c. Business “ethics” and religious morality were thus separated and split by
gender lines.
d. Religion was thus seen as a feminine pursuit, and it started to resemble
Victorian, feminine values.
4. Feminizing Jesus
a. Henry Ward Beecher – brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (quote on p. 60 –
Christ equated more with mother than with father)
b. Growing iconography in revolt against Calvinist/Zwinglian tradition – Jesus
portrayed as more feminine in art across denominational lines
5. Christian Nurture – Horace Bushnell
a. “Character” used to describe Protestant morality
b. Imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ)
c. Thinking  Feeling
6. “Mad for Stories” (phrase coined by H.B. Stowe)
a. Drama over Dogma – People preferred allegory to the real story
b. Dawn of the Religious Novel/Bestseller – Led to Left Behind and the
numerous Peretti novels
c. Most famous, probably Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Stowe (1852)
d. Downplays the Vicarious Atonement
7. Lives of Jesus – Quest for a historical, biographical account
a. H.W. Beecher’s Life of Jesus
b. Jesus, not creeds, became the central Christian teaching
c. Sacrifice  familial fulfillment
8. “What a Friend” – the Music of the Church
a. Though each denomination had its own hymnal, the music was largely
shared across the board
b. Father, Spirit, Church, Trinity, sacraments, etc.  Jesus
c. Heavy emotionalism employed
d. Individualism/Personal Relationship emphasized
e. Much of the music even had erotic connotations
9. Liberal Protestantism
a. Based on Modernist ideals (p. 79)
i. Goodness of humanity (contra Total Depravity)
ii. Inevitability of progress
iii. Necessity of good works (contra Sola Fide)
iv. Immanence of God in culture, nature and the human heart
b. Jesus is the “rule and norm”
c. Evangelicalism split into two groups, which even now stand opposed to
one another:
i. Conservative Right
ii. Liberal Protestantism
d. Scientific Faith of Higher Criticism
10. Jesus Wept – Feminist Jesus – Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
11. Androgyne – lit. Yin Yang personality of Jesus
a. By and large, Jesus was portrayed as a Man with many perceived
feminine qualities
b. Beecher called Jesus a “Lamb” but also “the Lion of Judah.”
C. Chapter Three – Manly Redeemer (p. 87-123)
1. The Curse of Femininity – backlash against the “Sweet Savior” mentality
a. Boy Scouts of America founded in 1912
b. Rise of “Social Darwinism” – duty to society to be strong to survive
c. Growing Middle Class – Make-it-on-your-own-ism
d. Pious Women  Passionate Men
2. Jesus the Scrapper – Use of sports stars (Billy Sunday) to portray a more rugged
3. The Social Gospel – Christian Life = Valiant Fight
a. Masculine ethics still based on Jesus alone
b. Catered to “aggressive” aspects of masculinity
c. Slightly greater attention paid to the Father
4. Beyond the Bearded Lady
a. Influence of Freud
b. Bruce Barton – Young Man’s Jesus (1914)
c. G. Stanley Hall – Jesus Christ, in the Light of Psychology
d. Presents Jesus in every vocation
5. The Unknown Man – Jesus becomes CEO
6. The Real Thing
a. Barton tries to adapt faith to society
b. Attempt at Christianizing capitalistic America which actually succeeded in
further secularization by rationalizing shady capitalistic practices on
religious grounds
7. From Character to Personality – Conformity  Nonconformity
8. From Personality to Celebrity
a. Celebrity = Personality + Uniqueness + Mass Communication
b. Supernaturalism  Naturalism
c. Immigration wave led to greater pluralism
d. Evangelicalism lost a lot of influence in the public realm
9. A National Icon – Warner Sallman’s oil painting Head of Christ, which came to be
American Christendom’s normative image of Jesus – Jesus moved “from Logos
to logo” (p. 123)
10. Sinking Sallman
D. Chapter Four – Superstar (p. 124-157)
1. Jesus Freaks – a.k.a. Street Christians/Jesus People (based in San Francisco,
a. Elizabeth and Ted Wise – Jesus Freaks – Drug rehab
b. Jack Sparks – Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF)
2. Jesus Goes to Hollywood – Hal Lindsey, et al
3. Hippie Jesus
4. Superstar and Godspell – both refer to names of popular musicals
5. Jesus Rocks
6. As California Goes…
a. Broadening Demographic
b. Wider geographical scope
c. Christian Communes (like hippie communes) all over the U.S.
7. All You Need is Jesus
a. Millennialism and Charismata embraced by many
b. Pronounced disdain for mainline, denominational churches
c. Christ and Culture  Jesus
8. Godstock (summer of ’72)
a. Peak of the Jesus movement, which soon after disappeared
b. The Jesus movement has influenced several other movements in the
Church ever since
9. Seeker-Sensitive Churches – institutional legacy of the Jesus movement
a. Calvary Chapel and associated churches
b. Willow Creek Association
c. Vineyard (which led to Charismania)
d. Seeker Sensitive = Boomer-sensitive
e. Somewhat Gnostic
10. Contemporary Christian Music – Legacy of Jesus Rock
11. The Jesus Test
a. “Evangelical Modernists” (p. 154)
b. Loss of Creedal confessionalism
III. Part Two – Reincarnations
A. Chapter Five – Mormon Elder Brother
1. A New Religion for a New Nation – Myriad religions created in the U.S.
2. An American Prophet
a. Early life and visions of Joseph Smith
b. The “Great Apostasy”
3. Jesus Celebrated: Textual Mormonism
a. Fairly Biblical origins
b. Jesus seen as transcendent and worshipped as God
c. Triune God
4. Jesus Lost: Temple Mormonism
a. Words  Rites
b. Temples built (“Exodus” from Illinois to Utah)
c. New teachings put forth by Joseph Smith
i. Baptism for the Dead
ii. Polygamy
iii. Etc.
d. Intentional Distancing from orthodox Christianity and even from early
Mormon teachings
e. Smith killed and struggle for succession led to a split
i. Some followed Joseph Smith’s family
ii. Many more followed Brigham Young
f. Individual conversion  community/family units
g. Underlying all of this is a belief in continuing revelation
5. Jesus Found: Twentieth-Century Mormonism – Protestantization of
Mormonism… to a certain extent
a. Friendlier Relations Sith mainstream Protestantism
b. Extensive Growth
6. Jesus and Jehovah – Rediscovery and Reinterpretation of Jesus
a. James Talmage’s Jesus the Christ (1914) – 800+ pages
b. Bruce McConkie’s Messiah (1978-82) – Six volumes
c. “Elohim” = Father; “Jehovah” = Son (pre-incarnate)
7. Are Mormons Christians?
a. They say yes on the grounds of Jesus.
b. We say no because they believe in an atonement through Jesus without
the cross
8. The Great White God – Mormon Iconography
B. Chapter Six – Black Moses (200-228)
1. Black Liberation and Womanist Theology
a. Black =/= Skin color; Black = low social standing
b. Black liberation and Feminism both grew up in the ‘60s and are fairly
c. Womanist mvt. is not synonymous with radical feminism.
d. Political significance to Jesus, as well as personal
2. Black Moses
a. Paul is either ignored or simply rejected
b. Exodus paradigm (slavery  freedom) adopted and adapted by the black
c. Jesus and Moses merged together and confused with one another
d. Jesus/Moses used for two purposes:
i. Political resistance
ii. Social reform
3. Coloring Jesus Black
a. First turned God black (see esp. the quote at the bottom of p. 215)
b. Wanted God to look like they do (p. 214, bottom)
4. A Reincarnation of Muhammad
a. Nation of Islam
b. Attempt by NOI to enlist black churches in their fight for racial equality
c. Malcolm X: “Christ wasn’t white. Christ was a black man.” (to Playboy in
d. Christ painted more as an Islamic/Hebraic hero, rather than as a savior
5. Artistic Transfigurations
a. Black Madonna and Black Jesus (many renditions)
b. Opposition to Sallman’s white depiction of Head of Christ
c. Poetry/Hymnody
d. Still reflect the Jesus/Moses confusion
e. Jesus portrayed also as 20th Century black man
6. Yo Mama’s Black Jesus
a. Black church never abandoned the Bible
b. Jesus seen as Suffering Servant – Vicar and Victor
C. Chapter Seven – Rabbi
1. “A Jew’s View of Jesus” – The title of a Sunday morning “sermon” delivered by
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise
a. Influenced by Joseph Klausner’s book Jesus of Nazareth
b. Jesus depicted as:
i. First and foremost, an extremely Jewish Jew
ii. Only Jewish (not Christian, and certainly not Christ)
iii. Moralist (like Jefferson)
iv. World-reformer
v. Teacher
vi. Original – Though his teachings were Jewish, his approach and
appeal to the masses were unique
c. Received much criticism, especially from Orthodox Jews – Most notably,
Rabbi Samuel Schulman
d. Used by Liberal Protestants to create closer ties to Judaism
2. Nothing New
a. Wise was not original in his lauding of Jesus.
b. Timeline of Jewish thought on Jesus:
i. Middle Ages – Jesus ignored
ii. Classical Medieval – hostility to Jesus
iii. Enlightenment – Jesus still ignored by Orthodox
iv. Growing influence – Embracing of a “moralist” Jesus
c. Jesus seen in America as a gateway to American Cultural mainstream
d. Reclamation work begun by Joseph Salvador
e. The work of Isaac Mayer Wise (no relation) helped to pave the way for
modern Jewish thought on Jesus (p. 238-129)
3. “A People of Christs” – 1890-1900
a. Kaufmann Kohler
b. Emil G. Hirsch
c. Jesus re-defined as a Reform Jew
d. Paul rejected as anti-Semitic and superstitious
e. Jesus lauded, not for message but for method
f. Jesus seen as mensch, not as Messiah
g. Jews as a crucified people in Christ, not as the crucifiers of Christ
4. A Most Fascinating Figure
a. Growing acceptance of Jesus
b. Harris Weinstock
i. Jewish businessman, not a scholar
ii. Quote on p. 245
c. Jesus equated with other great leaders of men – having hallucinations, not
true religious experiences – like:
i. Socrates
ii. Muhammad
iii. Napoleon
d. Paul, again, rejected and vilified
5. Audacity and Assimilation
a. Jesus de-mythologized and accepted
b. One savior among many, not the Savior
c. Contrast Orthodox and Reform responses to Jesus in the ‘20’s (pp. 250-
6. An Open Letter to Jews and Christians – written by John Cournos
7. The Nazarene – novel by Sholem Asch
a. Jews acquitted for Jesus’s death
b. Romans blamed
c. The book widely accepted
8. The Judeo-Christian Tradition
a. Cournos
i. Fascism/Communism = Antichrist
ii. Judeo-Christianity = world’s best hope
iii. Cournos wanted Christians to abandon its dogmatism and Judaism
to abandon its exclusiveness and form one united front in the name
of Jesus. (p. 258, near the bottom – yikes!!!!!)
b. Study by Mark Silk
i. The term “Judeo-Christian” was not used until the ‘30s.
ii. Term used by (left-wing) Christians to separate themselves from
anti-Semitic personalities
c. Asch (p. 259)
i. Christianity and Judaism are two parts of a single whole
ii. No salvation can come until they join together (yikes!!!!!)
d. Syncretistic movement started to fall apart after WWII
e. Reunited under patriotism and American pride during the Cold War
f. British writer Hugh J. Schonfield – skeptic who wrote about the Jesus
9. A Jewish Quest – 1950s-60s
a. Rabbi Samuel Sandmel – college professor (Hebrew Union)
b. Leaders of the movement: Rabbis (Wise)  Sholars (Sandmel)
c. Jesus was seen as a Jewish Rabbi, not a Christian
10. Jesus Culture
a. Jesus still rejected entirely by Orthodox Rabbis
b. Sandmel describes two extant views of Jesus and proposes a third:
i. Jewish Jesus
ii. Christian Christ
iii. “Jesus of Western Culture”
D. Chapter Eight – Oriental Christ (Hindu and Buddhist)
1. Introduction – Major figures in Hindu Jesus culture
a. Sri Ramakrishna
i. From West Bengal
ii. Received a vision about Jesus, the Son of Man
iii. Adopted Christ into the Hindu pantheon as a god
iv. Gospel = unity of all religions (all religions are Hinduism)
v. Died in 1886
vi. Succeeded by…
b. Swami Vivekananda
i. From India
ii. Typically seen as the beginning of the movement in America
iii. Established Vedanta Society in NYC
iv. Liked à Kempis
c. Swami Paramananda
i. “Hollywood star swami”
ii. Continued to expand Vedanta society
d. Swami Akhilananda
i. Succeeded Paramananda
ii. Est. Vedanta Society of Providence
2. Avatar
a. Early attempts to reconcile Hinduism with Christianity looked like Thomas
Jefferson’s “Enlightened Sage” mentality – no supernaturalism.
b. Later, Jesus described as Oriental
c. Jesus lauded as “Christ,” but in Hindu – not Christian – terms
d. Avatar, in Sanskrit, literally means “descent of divinity to earth.”
e. Hinduism is monotheistic, but that one god is utterly transcendent, so
mankind needs revelation to lead him when he has gone wrong (iow,
forgotten that he is divine).
f. Jesus was seen as one of many avatars.
g. Rejection of Original Sin – Humans are inherently perfect
h. Jesus’s purpose is to inspire us to achieve godhood
3. The Christ Ideal
a. How is Jesus Oriental?
i. Some say by Race
ii. Others say by influence
iii. Mostly, they associate Jesus with Oriental beliefs and values
b. Historical Jesus rejected for the sake of imputing Oriental ideals onto Him
c. Belief equated more with praxis than with propositions
d. Jesus feminized rather than masculinized
e. Christmas emphasized and celebrated over/against Good Friday and
f. The Vedantists did not seek just to redefine Christ, but also to redefine
4. Jesus Vs. Churchianity
a. No interest in the Historical Jesus – Many even denied Him.
b. Quote on p. 279
c. Jesus seen as more principle/eternal ideal than as person/historical reality
d. Adopted and redefined all other religions and put them under Hinduism.
5. Yogi Jesus
a. Swami Yogananda
b. Claimed to understand and revere Jesus as Christ better than any in the
history of Christendom
6. Buddha-to-Be
a. Dalai Lama – Jesus as a great master and enlightened being
b. Even Merton rejected this characterization of Jesus from a dogmatic point
of view.
c. Misunderstanding of Christ’s uniqueness – Christianity seen as only one
of many ways to salvation
d. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (also called Thây) claimed to understand
Jesus and the Trinity better than the Pope.
7. A Nation of Religions – American Jesus belongs no longer exclusively to
IV. Conclusion – The Laughing Christ – Perhaps the most American artistic depiction of Jesus