JANUARY 5, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Today is the Twelfth Day of Jesusmas, a.k.a. Christmas. The word Christmas, or "Christ"+ "mass," gives many citizens problems today. The mass part, an issue when anti-Catholicism was prime, is no scandal: Americans are patient with each others' rituals. But Christ means anointed, as in the Anointed of God. That is what offends many.
That Jesus is no scandal, no offense, becomes clear from reading Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. National icons are inoffensive: think Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. A Son of God, on the other hand, is something to trip over (which is what the Greek word for scandal means). And that's what the earliest Christian writers said would happen, should happen, over the claim that Jesus was the Son of God, the Anointed.
Boston University's Prothero, one of today's more gifted and high-achieving cultural historians who specialize in religious themes, knows his way around the nation and its icons. He writes well about how rationalist Thomas Jefferson snipped all the miracles out of his New Testament. (A non-supernatural Jesus was no problem, except for the "Son of God" worshippers.)
Prothero, for the most part, is fascinated with pop-cultural renditions of Jesus; he does not condescend. He finds plenty of kitsch and moves on, untroubled, to examples of Jesus as: businessman, moral teacher, favorite of late-stage hippies (who styled themselves Jesus People just before they vanished), rock star, marketable megachurch item, rabbi (with respect by some Jews), black, and more. Jesus, in Prothero's astute reading, is a reflecting glass for Americans of all sorts; they see their own faces and ideals in his smiling one.
And this is good for Jesus, Prothero shows, as he slights "conventional" Catholics, mainstream Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and non-commercial evangelicals, for whom Jesus Christ is, somehow, "the Son of God" before he is an American icon. Some of them are put off by the Jesus-loving, Christ-neglecting, church-hating remakers of Jesus, as icon, in each generation.
Answers to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's question, "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?" get postponed in the cultures Prothero describes. On the other hand, as Prothero's anecdotes, vignettes, stories, and trend-analyses well show, "Who is Jesus for us today?" is easily answered. Jesus is the usually nice and moral person, teacher and friend, who is essentially plastic and malleable, refashionable to meet our tastes whoever we are.
Icon? Try mirror.