Phil Campbell and Stephen Prothero talk Jesus

Phil Campbell, author of Zioncheck for President, contributes occasional Q&As to this site. Below he talks with historian Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, about Americans’ conveniently mutating interpretations of the Christian savior.

(I post this interview in the spirit of the barroom conversation, although I disagree with much of what is said toward the end of the exchange, particularly Prothero’s assertion that “one reason for the Democrats’ recent success is their newfound ‘godliness.’” I don’t believe this is true. And, on a side note, even if it were, it wouldn’t be something to embrace. Our government is designed to protect religious observance and belief while standing wholly apart from it. I’ll leave it at that. Your mileage may vary.)

I was doing some research on religion for a novel I’m writing and felt an irresistible urge to catch up with Stephen Prothero. Prothero is the Chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University. I interviewed him once as a writer for The Stranger in Seattle, when I was a working on an article about how Americans — West Coasters specifically — view the practice of cremation. I’ll always remember the interviews where everything is summed up so neatly I feel like further research would be superfluous; Prothero’s was one such interview.

This time around, Prothero and I discussed his most recent book: American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. In American Jesus, Prothero writes about how social conditions throughout American history have inspired various incarnations of Jesus. Like the time how ’60s- and ’70s-era hippies insisted he was really a sandal-wearing outlaw. And how some have tried to transform him into a contemporary CEO. And how the Mormons ran off to Utah with their own interpretation.

Prothero’s book is three years old, but religion in American culture is so persistently relevant that that didn’t bother me much; besides, anyone reading this book today will be struck by how it sorely needs another chapter — Mel Gibson’s take on the Son of God in The Passion of the Christ is missing from the book, as the movie came out the year after American Jesus was published. Prothero’s book implies that most Americans prefer a Jesus who is a non-judgmental buddy, not at all the Jesus that Mel Gibson gave us. Naturally I had to ask him about Gibson, as well as about a spate of religious books that have come out to attempt to respond to the conservative Christian movement that’s been building in this country ever since George Bush was elected President.

If the interview feels like it ends abruptly, it is because I had about ten questions for each of Prothero’s answers; the only way to stop the conversation was to simply let it fall off. Also, this email interview revealed to me the limitations of the email interview; throughout his career Prothero has studiously avoided saying what his own religiohs beliefs are, and in retrospect it’s clear to me that a face-to-face interview could have elicited some more illuminating answers. Still, Prothero’s an interesting interview, offering a perspective I haven’t seen elsewhere.

It has been more than two years since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released in theaters. Back then you made some early guesses in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about what impact this movie might have. You suggested that with Gibson’s movie perhaps “the friendly Jesus is on the way out.”

So we’re now in late 2006, and Passion is out of theaters and only available on DVD. Care to revisit this issue? Will there be any long-term impact from this film, or was it just another media-driven, overhyped event?

The friendly Jesus lives on of course, in the hearts and minds of many an evangelical. But I remain convinced that, post-9/11, we are in an era of terror, and a more macho and militaristic Jesus fits that era better than the Mr. Rogers’ Jesus of times past. Lots of things could turn this around. In fact, one of the themes of American Jesus is that Our Hero is forever driven hither and yon by the cultural, political, and economic winds. Shift the circumstances, and Jesus will morph into something else. So, for example, if a real grassroots movement against the war in Iraq emerges, we might see Jesus in more of a pacifist mode. And if a dirty bomb explodes in an American city, we will become even more further entrenched in He-Man Jesus. Continue reading…

Pangs for other places (abetted by Karen Olsson)

Man. I have gone through my periods of disenchantment with New York City, no doubt about that, but the visceral revulsion I’ve started to feel on waking and moving through my days is something new. Thus the quiet. Also, the redesign (a million thanks, Max), which hasn’t proved as motivational as I’d hoped.

I know it’s not just where I live — though a mushroom did spring fully-formed overnight from the bathroom wall this summer — it’s also what I’m doing. Namely: working the 9-5, avoiding TGBIW, and trying not to wilt like my hibiscus plant as the daylight hours shrink.

I’ve had a serious flare-up of college-town pangs. And reading Karen Olsson’s Waterloo, a sharp but empathetic political satire set in a lightly fictionalized Austin, is doing nothing to quell them.

While I try to drum up some enthusiasm for life, or at least posting, here’s Olsson’s prologue, which offers a taste of her sense of humor, but didn’t prepare me for the vibrance and complexity of her characters or the richness of their conflicts.

Waterloo (Pop. 600,000). This provincial capital, known for its friendly, laid-back atmosphere and vibrant local music scene, is nestled between blackland prairie to the southeast and limestone plateau to the north and west. The Alameda River drops below the center of town like a fat man’s belt. The city is home to the state’s flagship university and its governing assembly.

Surrounded by attractive hills and spring-fed streams, Waterloo is regarded as a pleasant city by locals and visitors alike. Its climate, however, is often unpleasant. In most years a thick, hot haze descends upon the region in mid-April and suffocates the populace until mid-October.

Continue reading…

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s Six-Day Forecast

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30pm and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to lauren [at] by the Thursday prior to publication, with the event’s date in the subject line.

TUESDAY, 11.28: “The Yeshiva University Museum (YUM) invites you to an evening of readings by six emerging New York City-based writers who were commissioned to create original pieces of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry inspired by Orna Ben-Ami’s sculpture, Roots, on display in the exhibition, Feminine Principals: Works in Iron, Fiber and Glass. The readings explore the contrasting experiences of rootedness and rootlessness and present personal responses to the sculpture.” 7:00pm, $8 museum admission (although entry is FREE for anyone who mentions the Smart Set!). And, “The Educational Alliance is pleased to announce that Clifford Chase (Winkie), Christopher Sorrentino (Trance), and Dana Spiotta (Eat the Document) will be appearing as part of our series, Writers at the Alliance… WRITERS, GUERILLAS AND BEARS: Three novelists read about homegrown radicals, underground moms, and fugitive bears.” Notes organizer Liz Brown, “Lingering at Bar 169 will be encouraged.” Highly recommended. 7:00pm, FREE.

WEDNESDAY, 11.29: Men love Amanda Stern, and women love happy endings…or wait, is it the other way around? Jet lag has me all mixed up, but I’ll be there to snag a front-row seat for a risky evening with writers Jennifer Banash, Alix Strauss, Robert Marshall, Mila Drumke, and musician Paul Brill [full disclosure, as always: it's been my pleasure to work with Robert to publicize his debut novel, A Separate Reality]. 8:00pm, FREE. Just prior, jen bekman hosts a talk on “Artists in the New World,” exploring representational art in user-generated landscapes, as “Moderator Marisa Olson of Rhizome will lead a casual conversation with James Deavin and Eva + Franco Mattes. The discussion will be about their respective projects documenting Second Life” [full disclosure, as always: I am the gallery's PR director]. 6:00pm, FREE.

THURSDAY, 11.30: My pal Katherine Lanpher reads from her debut, Leap Days, at the Pete’s Candy Store Reading Series. 7:30pm, FREE. And it’s hard to find something that doesn’t intrigue in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, of which Godard said, “I wanted to include everything: sports, politics, even groceries. Everything should be put into a film.” At Film Forum.

FRIDAY, 12.1: Says Steve Cosson, artistic director of politically-astute theater troupe (and perennial Smart Set fave) The Civilians: “Just wanted to let you know we’re doing a reading at The Public this Friday of our play PARIS COMMUNE, new and improved. It’s the culminating reading of a two week workshop we’ve been doing with The Public. Great cast, all very exciting… if you can come just show up we’d love to have you there.” 8:00pm, FREE. And, Au Revoir Simone, my nomination for “band most likely to hang the moon,” plays Bowery Ballroom. 9:00pm, $18.

SATURDAY, 12.2: At the Museum of Modern Art, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian: “Abandoned by the French government that crowned him and sent him to Mexico, the Emperor Maximilian was executed by a firing squad of Benito Juárez’s army at Querétaro, north of Mexico City, on June 19, 1867. News of the execution reached Paris on July 1, just as Napoleon III was inaugurating that year’s Universal Exposition. Édouard Manet set to work almost immediately, and by early 1869 he had completed a series of four paintings and one lithograph of the subject.” Highly recommended. And, finishing off my idea of a perfect date, Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera: “Franco Zeffirelli’s lavish production provides the perfect backdrop for Puccini’s drama-filled Tosca, with its onstage stabbing, execution by firing squad, suicidal leap, and, of course, sublime score of abundant melody.” 8:00pm, ticket prices vary.

SUNDAY, 12.3: Pretend to be too focused on rolling that cigarette to notice the Fairway across the street, and amble on nonplussed down to the waterfront, my little bohemians, as Sundays at Sunny’s presents an afternoon of eclectic entertainment spanning “from skyscraper ledges high over Manhattan, to Uganda in the aftermath of Idi Amin’s dictatorship, to the wilds of Maine…” 3:00pm, FREE.

UPCOMING: Lou Reed’s Berlin at St. Ann’s Warehouse.