Swept up as in a biblical whirlwind by the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Americans are excited like no other people by the portrayals of their favorite spiritual icon, Jesus of Nazareth. With the release of this latest characterization, Hollywood-style, everyone wants a say about the shoulds and shouldn’ts of depicting the savior. It’s like dropping a pigeon among the cats — the screeches and scratches can be heard around the world.
As Stephen Prothero, religionist and historian at Boston University, would like us to know, this phenomenon is nothing new. Ever since the Pilgrims made landfall on that famous rock, Americans have been re-inventing their most famous religious figure to suit the times, the mores and their personal tastes. Look at the marvelous photo in Prothero’s book of The Last Supper tattooed across a pair of feminine shoulders, if you don’t think things can go too far. In fact, since it always pays to underestimate popular American taste, we wonder how much farther, or lower, affairs surrounding Jesus might sink. He’s been a plastic bobbling ornament, a highway billboard, a back-lighted dime-store painting. He’s been shown open-mouthed and laughing — that’s a pretty jarring notion — as well as tearful, petulant, bloody, and sappily smiley-faced.
Prothero suggests that the reinvention of Jesus started early on. The puritanical God was not a likeable being — read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to reference how user-friendly was our earliest American idea of deity. But as life got a bit easier, post-Revolution, so Jesus entered the picture as a more laid back, sweeter, indeed more feminine incarnation. Suddenly, egalitarian Americans were gathering at the river and singing, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Jesus became the kind of good-guy God who would serve you cookies and wipe your nose, who would always understand and forgive, who would be there for you when the chips were down.
This book is a great trip read. You can dip in at any point and find yourself in warm pleasant waters, transfixed by the many odd and wondrous ways that we have portrayed, displayed, and possibly dismayed the baby Jesus and the grown-up master upon whom we confer the title The Christ. One wonders, What Would Jesus Do about this heap of American hype if he were here? Would he smite it and cast it out into outer darkness, or just quietly tip his ball cap and move on?
Barbara Bamberger Scott is a freelance writer and community activist living in North Carolina. This review appeared online at Curled Up With a Good Book and is excerpted here by permission.