This past week in my History of American Religion class, we discussed Patrick Allitt's "The American Christ," from American Heritage (Nov. 1988). It's a great article that makes several good points I want my students to learn. (At the end of the semester, they're going to read Stephen Prothero's American Jesus.)
Since Jesus was in the news last week, the timing worked out well.
A few years ago, I used Allitt's article as the basis for a column (I used to write a weekly column--or, as someone said, I wrote a column, weakly--for the local newspaper). Jesus himself provided the title (or the "headline," as the editor insisted on calling it): "Whom Do Men Say That I Am?" That's the King James Version. I wish now that I had used the more politically- and grammatically-correct New International Version: "Who do people say I am?" (Mark 8:27)
Anyway, here it is:
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Several years ago, Patrick Allitt, a historian of American religion at Emory University, published an article called “The American Christ.” He showed how Americans in the last two centuries have interpreted Jesus--his life and his teachings--from their own perspectives. You might say that we have made Jesus in our own image.
In Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), Jesus and the title character were strong and masculine. Wallace himself was a manly man, a major general in the Union army.
On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a woman. Her story of Jesus, titled Footsteps of the Master (1877), stressed the feminine side of Christ, calling him at one point a “loving, saintly mother.” Stowe noted that Jesus had more compassion for women than any other famous man in history.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps took things a bit further with her Story of Jesus Christ (1897). Jesus “boldly took the stand that men and women stood before God upon the same moral plane, and that they ought so to stand before human society.”
Whom do men say that I am: Charles Atlas or Phil Donahue?
Eugene Debs, labor leader and Socialist party presidential candidate, said that Jesus “organized a working class movement for no other reason than to destroy class rule and set up the common people as the sole and rightful inheritors of the earth.”
Bruce Barton, an advertising executive in the 1920s, described Jesus as the founder of modern business principles, the world’s greatest salesman.
Jesus: labor leader or businessman?
Mary Austin’s biography of Jesus was titled A Small Town Man (1915). Big cities were wicked, but Jesus came from the small town of Nazareth. Fulton Oursler echoed this theme in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1949). “Oh yes, Joseph knew that sophisticates in Jerusalem looked down on the countrified Nazarenes, yokels with a ridiculous northern accent,” Oursler wrote. “But Joseph, with all his fellow townsmen, felt that the people of Jerusalem were unnatural and overcivilized. Anyway, he was proud of his home town.”
In the 1960s, Karl Burke, a prison chaplain, thought young people raised in the inner city had trouble understanding the Bible’s language and identifying with its agricultural setting. So Burke, in God Is for Real, Man, rewrote a number of Bible stories from a more contemporary, urban perspective. “After Jesus busted outa the grave, He met two of his gang on the road. Man! Were they ever spooked and surprised. Thomas’s eyes almost bugged out when he saw Jesus.”
Jesus: country boy or urban dude?
Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps (1896) told how citizens of a Midwestern town were suddenly made aware of the suffering in their midst. They became interested in a number of social reforms as they decided to live by the simple creed, “What Would Jesus Do?” One of the characters was a young woman from a prominent and well-off family who gave up everything to live with and help the poor. “It was not a new idea,” said Sheldon. “It was an idea started by Jesus Christ when he left His Father’s house and forsook the riches that were His in order to get nearer humanity.”
William Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago (1893) took a more moralistic stance. Stead had scandalized the city by publishing a list of the businessmen and local officials who visited the city’s prostitutes. Stead said in his novel that if Jesus came to Chicago, he would do the same thing.
Robert Ingersoll, the most famous atheist in the nation a hundred years ago, found much to admire in the life of Christ. “He was a reformer in his time,” Ingersoll said, noting that both he and Christ had worked to save the world from the tyranny of organized religion. “Had I lived at that time, I would have been his friend, and should he come again he will not find a better friend than I will be.”
Jesus: social reformer, scandal monger, friend of the atheist.
I was thinking of Allitt’s article this week, after I read about a new Catholic church in Los Angeles. The church, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, contains a large statue of the Virgin Mary, a Mary with definite Latino features. “I think she has to be one of us,” said the artist. The statue has raised a few eyebrows, but has apparently been accepted fairly well.
How do we see Mary? Lew Wallace said: “Her complexion was more pale than fair, the eyes blue and large, and shaded by drooping lips and long lashes; and, in harmony with all, a flood of golden hair.” Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described Mary as having “a fair complexion, blonde hair and bright hazel eyes. Here eyebrows were arched and dark, her lips ruddy.”
When I was a child, I had a book that told the life of Jesus, as illustrated by a number of artists through the ages. Jesus was always light skinned, sometimes even blond, often surrounded by Caucasian children, smiling brightly. According to Albert Cleage, in Black Messiah, “For nearly 500 years the illusion that Jesus was white dominated the world only because white Europeans dominated the earth.”
Jesus: white man, or person of color?
In the recent primary, one candidate criticized his opponent’s liberal religious views, especially his alleged tolerance of homosexuals. This candidate promised that, if he were elected, he would support Christian [i.e., anti-homosexual] principles.
We continue to create Jesus in our own image.
This piece was first published in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News in 2002. All literary references are from the Allitt article cited above.