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.

As for the long term impacts of the film, how about this? For the next decade or so — which is to say until the next blockbuster Jesus movie — U.S. Christians, when they [evangelicals] close their eyes to pray to their Savior, will see not Jesus himself but James Caviezel (who played JC in The Passion of the Christ). This awesome power — to take up residence in our religious imaginations — was wielded in the past by Cecil B. DeMille, whose King of Kings (1927) provided the cinematography for American prayers for his generation. Its effects can be seen in the new “Black Jesus” movie (The Color of the Cross), which follows Gibson in focusing exclusively on the last hours of Jesus’ life (a strange choice, when you think about it, for a culture supposedly interested in celebrating and protecting life) and, like Gibson, depicts Jesus as a victim of terror.

And Caviezel, it should be noted, appeared in Republican political ads this year, so Jesus is also a proud member of the Grand Old Party. But backing up a bit, can you explain how a minister would write a sermon that actually portrays Jesus as macho and militaristic? I for one am so used to the ‘friendly’ Jesus that this seems like quite a feat. For another, Gibson’s Jesus was based on ultra-Catholic teachings, so I can’t imagine a lot of evangelicals adhering too closely to his screenplay for their Sunday sermons; they have to be drawing on other lessons from the Bible, right?

Well, Phil, I think you need to start hanging out with evangelicals more. Ministers give sermons all the time that portray Christianity as a fighting faith and Jesus as its general. They recall how he ran the money-changers out of the temple, how he could be sweet, yes, when it came to comforting the sick or speaking with children but fierce also when it came to the truth or to justice. And after the sermon is over they sing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And it’s not just evangelicals who do this. Do you think Martin Luther King’s Jesus was sweet and cuddly? Not a chance. His was a harsh love — pushy, demanding, strident, implacable.

As for Gibson’s movie being Catholic, yes. I wrote pretty extensively on that. Initially I thought (wrongly, I will admit) that evangelicals would have a problem with a movie that is essentially a cinematic rendition of the Stations of the Cross. What I failed to reckon with is how ignorant of Catholicism most American Protestants are. They don’t know enough about Catholicism even to know that The Passion of the Christ is a Catholic movie.

The key point here, though, is that religion is not just conveyed (as your questions seem to imply) through words and sermons. It is also conveyed (and perhaps more powerfully) through images. Even if Gibson’s theology doesn’t amble up into Protestant pulpits on Sunday mornings, his images of Jesus lurk in our imaginations when we close our eyes at night to say prayers with our kids at night. And through that sort of visualization, the “real Jesus” and “Gibson’s Jesus” start to blend into one another.

Let me shift gears a little here and ask about your personal reaction to all this. You imply, both in this Q&A and in American Jesus, that culture drives religion. Doesn’t this make you a little cynical about religion? It’s as William James wrote more than a century ago (“If a creed makes a man feel happy, he almost inevitably adopts it. Such a belief ought to be true; therefore it is true — such, rightly or wrongly, is one of the ‘immediate inferences’ of the religious logic used by ordinary men.”). How do you stay religious — faithful, spiritual, whatever term you prefer — in present-day America when religion is just another curved mirror for the events that are happening around us? Doesn’t a main point of the major religions involve the immutability of the Creator?

I do think that American culture drives American religion. Or, as I put it at the end of the book: Jesus seems to be more a pawn than a king here. Perhaps this makes me cynical, but if so my cynicism is widely shared by thoughtful religious folks who rightly worry about mistaking divinity itself for our feeble human conceptions of the same. After American Jesus came out, dozens of evangelical readers e-mailed me saying they took my book as a challenge to stick more closely to the Bible — to take their cues about Jesus more from scripture and less from the culture in which we are all swimming. To put this problem theologically, they were saying that the book alerted them to the dangers of lapsing into idolatry — of mistaking the mutable for the Immutable. The more secular way to put this same problem is that culture drives religion.

It should be added, however, that religion drives culture too. The Exodus story inspired the anti-slavery movement and the civil rights movement. The concern for the poor articulated in Hebrew Bible prophets was one factor behind the New Deal. And, if the German sociologist Max Weber is right, it was Puritanism that gave us capitalism. Nothing I’m saying here, of course, gets Christians out of what they refer to as the “Christ and culture” problem — a problem that is likely endemic to a religious tradition that affirms that God acts in human history rather than standing aloof from it.

It seems to me that culture is firmly in control of religion at the moment, and that this is having a pretty polarizing effect. Ann Coulter is still spewing her usual incoherent accusations of “godlessness” against Democrats, but now we’ve got Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins encouraging people to actually “go” godless – attacking religion as an outdated, irrational set of superstitions. And Harris and Dawkins are also bestsellers. A simple backlash, or something more complicated?

The media gravitate toward extremes, so it shouldn’t be surprising that with Dawkins and Harris we are in a moment where “godlessness” is being spotlighted. Note, however, that one reason for the Democrats’ recent success is their newfound “godliness.” Candidates in both parties, in other words, are running away from the Dawkins and Harris crowd, and fully half of Americans continue to tell admit that they would not vote for an atheist for president. As far as I’m concerned the success of the recent spate of books on the side of doubt (which extend, by the way to Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers and Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt) attests first and foremost to Americans’ keen interest in religion. Dawkins and Harris are a yawn in Paris. Here they are a part (though only a part) of our ongoing conversation about religion.

OK, but these books are bestsellers, so I have to question your conclusion. While I’m not surprised to learn that politicians are scared of Harris and Dawkins, and while I’m pretty sure Oprah isn’t encouraging her followers to give atheism a shot, that to me only makes it more noteworthy, because it means that somewhere out there is a demographic, perhaps several, that gobbles up these fervently anti-religious books. You’re sure that there isn’t something that’s happening under the radar, like the runaway success of the Left Behind series that left a lot of people suddenly astonished?

People are attracted to extreme arguments, on the grounds that they are interesting and (at least as our media works) “newsworthy.” What portion of those who buy Coulter’s books actually agree with her? I’d say a fairly small portion. That said, there are atheists in the United States, to be sure, and they probably buy more books than your average fundamentalist. But to see some rising tide here of unbelief just isn’t right. It’s more plainly a backlash against the focus on “values” (and religion) following the 2004 election.

I’ve got at least twenty more questions for you, but we’d probably better wrap this up: What do you think of the recent books by more liberal people of faith who have tried to sway the debate away from the evangelical, Mel Gibson-styled Jesus? I’m thinking in particular of Garry Wills and Jim Wallis, but there are others. Is there an audience yet for this kind of spiritual counter-argument, beyond the typical blue-state Unitarian?

The spate of “We Democrats Are Religious Too” was predictable, given the buzz around the last presidential election. And I obviously haven’t read them all. I rather like Jim Wallis’ book, in part because he was not tailoring his message to hyper-current circumstances; in fact, he’s been saying the same stuff since I applied for a job with him back in the early 1980s. (I got turned down.) Gary Wills’ book on Jesus, by contrast, was a mess. I started a review I wrote on that one saying something like “There are close to twenty thousand books on Jesus in the Library of Congress and about the best that can be said about this one is that it’s not one of the worst.” But it was a bad book, in part because it was so plainly addressed to our current situation, and not to (as Wills’ title promised) “What Jesus Meant.”

I am an historian, and the bane of any history writing (religious history included) is anachronism. Much better to let us know what Jesus (or, for that matter, Muhammad or the Buddha) really thought or did way back then, and let the chips fall where they may.


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.