Stephen Prothero: A Jesus for Our Times?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Stephen Prothero, in the NYT Magazine (March 1, 2004):

Don't look now, but here comes the Catholic Jesus. In February 1804, Thomas Jefferson sat in the White House, cutting verses out of two Bibles and pasting them together into an abridged New Testament that cast Jesus as a rational ethicist. Two hundred years later to the month, Mel Gibson was furiously cutting and pasting a cinematic testament to his own ultra-Catholic version of Christ. Jesus may be ''the same yesterday, and today, and forever'' (Hebrews 13:8), but at least in the United States everyone can write his own gospel.

Since the evangelical century of the 1800's, America's Protestant majority has gravitated toward a Mister Rogers Jesus, a neighborly fellow they could know and love and imitate. The country's megachurches got that way in part because they stopped preaching fire and brimstone and the blood of the Lamb. Their parishioners are sinners in the hands of an amiable God. Their Jesus is a loving friend.

Gibson's Christ is by all accounts a very different character. If the mind is the seat of Jefferson's Jesus and the heart the seat of the evangelical Friend, Gibson's Christ is in his body. He came here neither to deliver moral maxims nor to exude empathy, but to spew blood. This is not a therapeutic, ''I'm O.K., you're O.K.'' Christianity. In fact, ''The Passion of the Christ'' seems hell-bent on crashing head-on into a parking lot full of American Protestant assumptions. Its leading man is the Christ of devotional Catholics who for centuries have approached their redeemer bodily, through the Eucharist, gratefully imbibing his battered body. And in scene after gory scene, Gibson is thrusting that Christ in our faces, shoving the ''Man of Sorrows'' of medieval passion plays into the national conversation about Jesus (and in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic no less).

That national conversation began in earnest after the Revolutionary War, when evangelical Protestants pledged their allegiance to God the Son rather than God the Father. After liberating themselves from the tyranny of George III, these patriots were in no mood to bow down before another distant King, especially since, according to the reigning Puritan theology, he had capriciously predestined each of us to either heaven or hell. So they reinvented Christianity as a Jesus-loving rather than a God-fearing faith, transfiguring Jesus from an abstract theological sign into a living, breathing human being.

Over the American centuries, Protestants have resurrected Jesus as a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a civil rights activist and a Ku Klux Klansman. During the Victorian period, Jesus became a sentimental savior beloved by women and adored by children. During the Progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, he flexed his muscles and carried a big stick.

Non-Christians eventually joined the discussion. Between the Civil War and the 1930's, virtually every major Reform rabbi in the United States wrote a book or pamphlet reclaiming Jesus as a Jew. Echoing Jefferson, these rabbis drew a sharp distinction between the true religion of Jesus and the false religion about him. Then they praised the man from Nazareth as a faithful son of the synagogue who scrupulously observed the law and died with the Shema (''Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord'') on his lips. ...

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