I'm not sure if I've ever seen such an explosion of public interest in Jesus — from a variety of angles old and new (some would say odd).
Whether this fascination simply means that Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has created a new industry, or whether it signals something deeper — that's up for debate. As a pastor with 24 years of ministry experience in a nontraditional setting and as an author on related matters, I think it's a good measure of both.
Through this resurgence of interest in the known Gnostic Gospels, through intrigue surrounding the newly discovered Gospel of Judas, as well as through interest in all things Da Vinci, Americans are expressing, I believe, a simultaneous spiritual disappointment and hope — and each has live political ramifications.
Regarding established institutional Christianity, this interest expresses disquiet that the religion that bears the name of the enigmatic Galilean seems to be growing increasingly out of sync with what was most obvious about him. For example, increasing numbers of evangelicals (who comprise about half the country's actual church attenders on an average Sunday) express frustration with the dominance of the religious right. A pro-war, pro-rich, anti-environment, anti-immigrant Jesus doesn't ring true for them. Perhaps a Dan-Brownian conspiracy theory taps into their barely conscious suspicion that somebody stole their savior and substituted him with a foreign ideology.
Catholics have similar reasons for disillusionment in the wake of priestly sex scandals and cover-up bishops. And mainline Protestants, whose total market share of church attendance on an average Sunday has fallen to less than half of that of evangelicals, have reason to wonder why a radical Jesus has produced such a lackluster, institutional and rather tame religion.
Brown's idea of a happily married Jesus appeals, I think, to a sexually anxious culture that can't imagine anyone being happily and fruitfully celibate. And it may tell the church that it has so emphasized the divinity of Jesus that his humanity is underrated. In this light, imagining Jesus as husband and father (as Brown invites us to do) may be an attempt to bring him back into our own human experience. Even if the means of doing so are ultimately misguided, theologians would have to agree that a divine-but-not-human Jesus matches neither the Jesus of faith nor of history.
Speaking of history, the Jesus Seminar and related projects attempt to re-root Jesus in the history and politics of his day — another way of humanizing him, so that he is a man within a time and culture, speaking first and foremost to the political, social and spiritual realities of his day. That rootedness in no way precludes his message from being timeless and universal. But it suggests that it must first be timely and situated in order to become transcendent, which requires people today to understand its original timeliness and meaning in order to discern its contemporary relevance.
The contemporary relevance of Jesus is, after all, what everyone (excepting some scholars) is most interested in. The reasons for this interest aren't hard to imagine. In an age increasingly dominated by two violent forces — terrorism and the so-called war on terror — surprisingly large numbers of people have more confidence in Jesus pointing a nonterrorizing way forward than they have in either Republicans or Democrats doing so. And in a time of growing polarization, when both left and right continually demonize the other, a growing number of people see the very tendency to demonize others as itself demonic. When they look for someone capable of freeing the national soul from this divisive spirit, who else comes to mind except Jesus?
But if the Jesus worshipped and proclaimed by our churches and religious media too often appears to be a plaster image (or perhaps a plastic one, or a digitally enhanced and made-for-TV one), we shouldn't be surprised if people go looking elsewhere for a flesh-and-bone Jesus who is rooted in history and by his very earthiness offers more earthly hope.
That's the Jesus many of us are rediscovering — not in the Gnostic Gospels, and not even in a page-turning conspiracy theory, but in the canonical ones, the four we've had all along. If the current fascination with alternative views of Jesus can help us make that rediscovery by prompting us to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with fresh eyes, in the end, we should be grateful to the Gospel of Judas and Dan Brown, too.
A lot is at stake, and as a source of contemporary hope, Jesus still doesn't have much competition.