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American Jesus [Paperback]

Stephen Prothero
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

No religious personality has captivated so many Americans for so long as Jesus. Indeed, as Boston University historian Prothero demonstrates in this sparkling and engrossing book, Jesus is the one religious figure nearly every American, whether Christian or not, past and present, has embraced. From Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste Bible to Jesus Christ Superstar, from the feminized Christ of the Victorians to the "manly redeemer" of Teddy Roosevelt's era, from Buddhist bodhisattva to Black Moses, Prothero surveys the myriad ways Americans have remade Jesus in their own image. He usefully divides these American Jesuses into "resurrections"-revivals of Jesus within mainstream Christianity-and "reincarnations"-appropriations of Jesus by outsiders. This scheme allows Prothero to range widely, and if he sometimes drifts from his primary focus, the digressions are fascinating in their own right. Nearly every page offers a fresh portrait of some corner of American religious history. A work of this breadth must depend heavily on other writers, but Prothero almost always has a judicious interpretation of his own to add-most of all, his contention that Jesus' enduring appeal confirms America's essentially Christian character even as it also demonstrates America's growing religious diversity
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

On magazine covers, movie screens, and even hot-air balloons, images of Jesus abound in a modern America ever more mesmerized by the central figures of Christianity-yet ever less conscious of Christian theology and doctrine. In a wide-ranging investigation, religious historian Prothero probes the cultural dynamics that have transformed Jesus into a ubiquitous American presence while weakening the tethers of orthodoxy. The analysis begins with stern Puritan divines emphatic about the justice of the Father but nearly silent about the mercy of the Son. But the focus soon shifts to liberal nineteenth-century Protestants joyous in their celebration of a tender, even feminine Jesus. A muscular, manly Jesus came next, and eventually even non-Christian Americans were turning Jesus into everything from a Jeffersonian sage to a Hindu avatar. Prothero assembles a dizzying national collage, piquant but strangely selective: Catholic images of Jesus occupy less space in this assemblage than outré characterizations of him in rock music and science fiction. Fortunately, a rich bibliography will help readers to sort out the confusing plethora of American Jesuses. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

"Prothero has crafted a marvelous book--and a great read--on a vital and absorbing subject."
--Harvey Cox, author of Many Mansions: A Christian's Encounters with Other Faiths
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

Stephen Prothero is the chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University. He is the author of The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott and Purified by Fire: Cremation in American Culture. He has written for Salon and other publications.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

American Jesus
PART ONE
Resurrections
One
ENLIGHTENED SAGE
Thomas Jefferson is revered in the United States today as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the architect of the First Amendment, and one of the saints of American civil religion. Though questions persist regarding his views on race and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, he is widely respected nonetheless as one of the nation's great champions of individual freedom. Jefferson's reputation was quite different in his own time. In fact, the country's third president was one of the most polarizing politicians of his day. At the turn of the nineteenth century, you either loved him or you hated him, and for his enemies there was nothing more odious about the man than his unconventional religion (or lack thereof).
New England's ministers denounced Jefferson as an atheist during his failed bid for the presidency in 1796. In his successful 1800 effort to unseat President John Adams, he endured personal attacks that plumbed depths seldom seen in U.S. politics. Jefferson's Federalist opponents smeared him as an idiot and a coward whose antediluvian nostalgia for agrarian life would kill the mercantile economy. But much of the character assassination focused on Jefferson's unusualfaith. According to the Federalists, Jefferson was an infidel and Jacobin whose damnable flirtations with the French goddess of reason were sure to bring down the country. The election "of a manifest enemy to the religion of Christ, in a Christian nation, would be an awful symptom of the degeneracy of that nation, and ... a rebellion against God," warned the Reverend William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister from New York. It would "destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society" Not all the religious politicking broke the same way, however. Following Jefferson's victory, Abraham Bishop, a Republican supporter, likened "the illustrious chief, who, once insulted, now presides over the union" to "him who, once insulted, now presides over the universe." He then compared those who voted against Jefferson with Jews who refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah.1
Today we know as much about Jefferson's faith as we do about the faith of any other Revolution-era statesman. In his own time, however, Jefferson's piety was a closely guarded secret. The man who appended to the First Amendment the metaphor of a "wall of separation between church and state" also believed in a wall of separation between the public and the private, and he relegated religion (religiously, we might say) to the private realm. "Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone," Jefferson wrote in an 1814 letter. "I enquire after no man's, and trouble none with mine."2
This "don't ask, don't tell" policy made it difficult for opponents to criticize Jefferson for what they suspected was infidelity, so they dug around for clues in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), his only published book. There Jefferson attacked religious establishments and defended religious freedom, arguing in a now-famous passage that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Seizing on this passage, partisans of Adams insisted that heterodoxy and anarchy were the closest of kin. "Let my neighbor once persuade himself that there is no God," Linn fumed, "and he will soon pick my pocket, and break not only my leg but my neck. If there be no God, there is no law." A "Christian Federalist," no less alarmed, viewed the prospect of Jefferson's election as the beginning of the end of his Christian nation."Can serious and reflecting men look about them and doubt," he wrote, "that if Jefferson is elected, and Jacobins get into authority, that those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin--which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence--defend our property from plunder and devastation, and shield our religion from contempt and profanation, will not be trampled upon and exploded." Such vituperations did not prevent Jefferson from winning the White House, but they did send Federalists into a postelection frenzy After a rumor circulated that President Jefferson had decreed a bonfire of the biblical vanities, housewives in New England reportedly squirreled away their scriptures in well, to prevent them from being burned by the flames of Jeffersonian free thought.3
Characteristically, Jefferson refused to reply directly to his critics, but he did organize a defense. In a series of letters to friends such as the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush and the British scientist Joseph Priestley, he described his faith in considerable detail. This private correspondence, which includes most famously a "Syllabus of an Estimate on the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others" (enclosed in an 1803 letter to Rush), demonstrates that Jefferson may have been, as one biographer has put it, "the most self-consciously theological of all America's presidents."4 It also illustrates Jefferson's deep devotion to Jesus or, to be more precise, to Jesus' moral teachings, which constituted for Jefferson the essence of true religion. Some interpreters have described these private missives as politically inspired leaks meant to counter criticisms of Jefferson's atheism. That judgment is too harsh. Jefferson probably knew that news of his unorthodox creed would not remain entirely private. But the letters themselves testily eloquently to the sincerity and depth of his Jesus piety.
"THE FIRST OF HUMAN SAGES"
Jefferson (1743--1826) was born and raised an Anglican, and he never formally renounced that connection. But as a boy, he began to question fundamental Anglican tenets, including the doctrine of the Trinity. After immersing himself in theological works by Enlightenmentrationalists, he considered jettisoning religion altogether in his late teens. But works by the British Unitarian Joseph Priestley, particularly An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), An History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786), and Socrates and Jesus Compared (1803), convinced him that he did not have to choose between religion and reason, faith and common sense.
Priestley, whom Jefferson befriended after the scientist-turned-theologian came to the United States from England in 1794, prided himself on approaching religious questions in the light of reason and common sense. He built his theological system, however, on what can only be described as a myth. According to that myth, the religion of Jesus was as simple as it was sublime. It affirmed one God, taught the afterlife, and insisted on moral living. But beginning with Paul and the writers of the Gospels, later Christians hijacked his simple religion, overlaying it with complex dogmas and empty rites. The solution to this problem was to get up a new coup. In the distant past, Christianity had overthrown Jesus; now it was time for partisans of Jesus to overthrow Christianity.
In his private writings on religion, Jefferson followed Priestley closely. He praised Jesus as "meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence," and his system of morals as "the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." Then he blasted "the corruptions of schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an imposter." Jefferson's list of these corruptions was long, extending to dogmas such as original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, predestination, salvation by faith, transubstantiation, bodily resurrection, and above all the Trinity. "It is too late in the day," Jefferson wrote in 1813, "for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet the one is not three, and the three are not one." The only interests such Trinitarian sophistries served were the interests of entrenched priests and ministers, who played the same villainous rolein Jefferson's spiritual world that kings occupied in his republican politics. In an effort "to filch wealth and power to themselves," Jefferson wrote, these tyrants had perverted the pure morals of Jesus into "an engine for enslaving mankind."5
The antidote to this illness, Jefferson argued, was a religious revolution as radical as the events of 1776: a repudiation of the spiritual slavery of creeds and rites and a return to the pure, primitive teachings of Jesus. So far this was pure Priestley. But in at least one important respect, Jefferson was more radical than his Unitarian friend. He rejected Priestley's Socinian position that God had empowered Jesus to perform miracles and even to rise from the dead. Miracles, Jefferson insisted, were an affront to the demands of reason and the laws of nature, and Jesus had performed not a one. Jefferson's refusal to view Jesus as a miracle worker might have marked him as a Deist, but his anti-supernaturalism did not detract a whit from his appraisal of Jesus. In fact, if anything, Jefferson heaped more praise upon the man than did his British colleague. Jesus was, in Jefferson's words, "the first of human Sages."6
Given his views of the corruptions of the religion of this preeminent sage by Paul and his heirs, it should not be surprising that Jefferson saw the New Testament as corrupt too. Noting that Jesus had written nothing himself, he argued that the Gospels were drafted by "the most unlettered, and ignorant of men." As a result, Jesus' teachings had come down "mutilated, mistated, and often unintelligible." It took a discerning m...
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