On the Sunday after Easter, I was privileged to preach at Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., where, as usual, the congregational, instrumental and choral music engenders the Spirit, regardless of the sermon. The Spirit overtook me with the first congregational hymn, the slave-generated spiritual, “Give Me Jesus.” It begins:
In the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise, in the morning when I rise, give me Jesus. Give me Jesus, Give me Jesus. You can have all this world, give me Jesus.
Those simple words, wrapped in a melody that lingers in head and heart, have haunted me for years, but not nearly as long as I’ve been haunted by Jesus himself. After years of pursuing Jesus across the church’s history, years of periodic or episodic exasperation with his body, the Church, and years when I’ve exasperated my share of churches, those words claim me yet: “Give me Jesus.”
Over time, the “saving grace” that found me as a child has become the risky, edgy and radical grace revealed in the Jesus of the Gospels, personified across the centuries in the often perilous lives of those who dared to follow him. “Give me Jesus” is a simple but never simplistic confession of faith. It complicates quickly, forcing us to ask, “Which Jesus?” given the many explanations, impressions and orthodoxies for who Jesus was and is, a challenge existing from the Church’s beginnings.
In the early kerygma, that “apostolic proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ,” Peter declares: “The word which God sent to the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all); that word, I say ye know. … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him” (Acts 10: 36-38, KJV). Yet Paul soon chastens Corinthian Christians: “For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough” (2 Cor: 114, NEB).
If the question, “Which Jesus?” was there from the start, it continues unabated in the 21st century. In American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (2003), Boston University professor Stephen Prothero notes that “Jesus may be the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), but American depictions of him have varied widely from age to age and community to community.” He contends that “the American Jesus has been something of a chameleon,” depicted “as black and white, male and female, straight and gay, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Ku Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator.”
Prothero’s quest is for Jesus as “interpreted and reinterpreted, construed and misconstrued, in the messy midrash of American culture.” He is quite correct. These days, I’m fascinated by a variety of books that reflect the multifaceted ideas about Jesus in 21st century America — serious, humorous and perhaps even frightening. Illustrations include:
In Touchdown Jesus (2003), Laurence Moore calls attention to the giant mural of the triumphant Christ overlooking the football stadium at Notre Dame University. Folks refer to it as “Touchdown Jesus,” “because Jesus has his arms raised as if signaling a touchdown,” a goalpost-oriented symbol Moore uses to address “the mixing of sacred and secular in American history.”
In Stealing Jesus, How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity (1997), Bruce Bawer argues that “the real Jesus — the Jesus who was incontrovertibly human … was not about asserting power, judging, or destroying; he was about love.” Bawer insists that to lose the humanity of Jesus, is to “lose Christianity — or, at least, you lose any Christianity worth the name.”
In Alien: Examining Jesus Christ in a UFO Universe (2014), Jeff Bennington claims that “not only is the Bible connected to these alien beings, but that Jesus, too, has a place in … our UFO universe.” Bennington speculates that Jesus might have been or have been empowered by an alien spirit.
In Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ, (2010) Becky Garrison asks how Jesus might feel when “branded like he was the newest theological toy — Sing-along Savior, Jokester Jesus, Lock ‘n’ Load Lord, Contextual Christ, Postmodern Pal, or Money Messiah.” Garrison concludes that while she certainly can’t “know the inner workings of our Savior’s soul, I seriously doubt these depictions were on his mind when he contemplated the cross in Gethsemane.”
In Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved? (2010), conservative preacher/author John Piper writes “with a sense of urgency,” concerned that “the very people who have historically been the most joyfully and sacrificially aggressive in world evangelicalism are losing their nerve.” He asserts that “in our shrinking pluralistic world, the belief that Jesus is the only way to salvation is increasingly called arrogant and even hateful,” leading many evangelicals to “shrink back from affirming the global necessity of knowing and believing in Jesus.”
And, in case you’re counting, don’t forget Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (2007), and George Carlin’s ribald When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops (2004). (Why are such 21st-century pop “Jesus books” mostly written by men?)
And what of Jesus and the Church? To confess “Give me Jesus” is to remember that those very words began in the mouths of slaves, an experience with Jesus that I can never replicate but a reality of Jesus that confronts and redeems us all.
In Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass says this: “Rather than a set of directions to get saved, Jesus is, as his earliest followers claimed, ‘the Way.’ Jesus is not the way we get somewhere. Jesus is the Christian journey itself, a pilgrimage that culminates in the wayfarer’s arrival in God.” Give me Jesus. Just like that.