In his fascinating study, American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero wrote:
It is highly unlikely that Americans will ever come to any consensus about who Jesus really is, but they have agreed for some time that Jesus really matters. In a country divided by race, ethnicity, gender, class and religion, Jesus functions as common cultural coin. To be sure, this cultural Jesus is a shadow of the biblical Son of God, but the public is drawn to him nonetheless.
Prothero’s American Jesus appeared in 2003. In 2022, we might ask if Jesus still “really matters” to Americans, and in what ways.
In January I wrote the first installment of a series borne of an invitation from our friend Alfonso Armada, Spanish playwright and journalist. Alfonso proposed that I submit an article for fronteraD, the online journal he edits, approaching “the best way to give our readers your personal view on the meaning of Jesus in these odd times there (USA) and here (Spain), and how there are so many people lost and angry everywhere.”
Alfonso’s words captivated me, especially his recognition that “there are so many people lost and angry everywhere.” I agreed and proposed a series of articles pursuing that topic. Researching this second installment, I was surprised to discover the number of 21st century books in my personal library that explore the “meaning of Jesus.”
These include Prothero’s American Jesus; Garry Wills’ What Jesus Meant (2006); R. Laurence Moore’s Touchdown Jesus: The Mixing of Sacred and Secular in American History (2003); Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (2007); Becky Garrison’s Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ (2010); Brian McClaren’s The Message of Jesus: Uncovering The Truth That Could Change Everything (2006); Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (2013); Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne (2020), and James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011). (Cone doesn’t mention Jesus in the title, but Jesus’ “meaning” runs throughout the book.)
Becky Garrison describes various Jesus-related books she discovered at the Book Expo America 2007 and wonders “how he’d feel if he saw himself branded like he was the newest shiny theological toy — Sing-along Savior, Jokester Jesus, Lock ’n’ Load Lord, Contextual Christ, Postmodern Pal, or Money Messiah.” She adds, “Unlike some, I don’t presume to know the inner workings of our Savior’s soul, though I seriously doubt that these depictions were on his mind when he contemplated the cross in Gethsemane.”
Brian McClaren asks: “What if Jesus’ secret message reveals a secret plan? What if he didn’t come to start a new religion — but rather came to start a political, social, religious, artistic, economic, intellectual and spiritual revolution that would give birth to a new world?” For McClaren, Jesus incorporated “themes the prophets had sounded for centuries,” by insisting that in God’s New Day, the outsiders “will be embraced and valued and brought back into community;” “what will count is what is in the heart;” and “in that new kingdom, justice, integrity and peace will overcome.”
Stephen Prothero envisioned Jesus as a socio-religious unifier, noting, “The American Jesus does not demonstrate either that the United States is a Christian country or that it is a multireligious one. He demonstrates that it is both at the same time.” Prothro concluded: “Like America’s Jesus himself, who was born among Protestants but now lives among Christians and non-Christians alike, the United States has developed from a Protestant country into a nation, secular by law and religious by preference, that is somehow both the most Christian and the most religiously diverse on earth.”
Yet Prothero, recognizing the difficulties in maintaining both those religious realities, referenced Richard Niebuhr’s The Church Against the World (1935), and its warning “that whenever the church enters into inevitable alliance with converted emperors and governors, philosophers and artists, merchants and entrepreneurs, and begins to live in peace in the culture, faith loses its force … discipline is relaxed, repentance grows formal, corruption enters with idolatry, and the church, tied to the culture which it sponsored, suffers corruption with it.”
That terrible formula reflects Kristin Du Mez’s observation that long before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene, “conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates ‘the least of these’ for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means. Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.”
In 2022, the “meaning of Jesus” is a dilemma for “secular and sacred” Americans alike. That reality came home when I stumbled upon Mark Wingfield’s August 2020 BNG article, reporting an Ohio pastor’s casuistic defense of congregations that resisted state-imposed mandates against collective worship in pre-COVID-vaccine America. Resisting those who urged churches to halt in-person services to avoid spreading the disease as a response to Jesus’ call to love one’s neighbor, the pastor offered a different exegesis.
Wingfield quotes the pastor’s comment that “the Christian message is not about loving neighbor but about loving God and worshiping God.” In fact, love of neighbor “is not the gospel” and “it’s not even the first goal of the law,” citing Jesus in Matthew 22 that the great commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” but without referencing, “And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The pastor argued that “Loving our neighbor is important, but it comes in second place to love and obedience to God. … Our obligation to God is greater than our obligation to our neighbor. … Our preeminent duty to God limits and informs the way we love our neighbor. We do not disregard our Lord for the sake of catering to the fearful, controlling demands of men.”
But aren’t those commands an inseparable gospel non-negotiable? We may dissent against the “demands of men” over many issues, but not at the expense of love for both God and neighbor. Where is the “meaning of Jesus” then?
Which brings us to James Cone and his assessment of the “meaning of Jesus” in The Cross and the Lynching Tree: “Humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people — the losers and the down and out.”
And in that scandalous good news, the “meaning of Jesus” abides, world without end, Amen.
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
The meaning of Jesus in these odd times | Opinion by Bill Leonard
A white Jesus, the American Creed, and a nation badly divided | Opinion by Richard T. Hughes