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AMERICAN JESUS by Stephen Prothero

AMERICAN JESUS

How the Son of God Became a National Icon

By Stephen Prothero

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-374-17890-9
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Wry and pungent wanderings in the footsteps of You Know Who.

Prothero (Religion/Boston Univ.) declares upfront that his search here is for the “cultural” Jesus immortalized in America’s T-shirts, bumper stickers, and religious theme parks, not the historical person whose divinity is affirmed by the tenets of Christianity’s major churches. The author devotes a lengthy chapter to Thomas Jefferson, who revered the moral teachings of a secularized Jesus despite being called “godless” by some political opponents. Abjuring open discussions of his or anyone’s religion, Jefferson literally cut the mystery away from Jesus by taking scissors and paste pot to the New Testament on two occasions while in the White House and producing two “very thin books” on what he considered the essence of those teachings—emphatically minus virgin birth, the Trinity, any and all miracles, and especially the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which Jefferson denounced in correspondence as “maniac ravings.” Calvinism all but crumbled, Prothero continues, under the mid-19th-century evangelical wave that buttonholed the nation and insisted on bringing a personal savior into every home. The evolutionary theme here is: God and churchmen take a step back as Jesus steps forward. Further proof that formal Christianity can’t rein Jesus in, the author asserts, lies in his longstanding and growing acceptance by other faiths like Hinduism (as an “avatar” of God centuries before anybody ever thought of, say, becoming a Mormon) and Buddhism, some of whose adherents will cheerfully “prove” that Jesus was in fact a Buddhist. The same churches that feminized Jesus to make him palatable to homemakers 150 years ago, Prothero asserts, now sell him to today’s consumers as your basic nice guy. Holiness, in other words, can’t hold a candle to happiness and self-esteem.

A work on religion that’s also entertaining to read—no mean feat.