Jesus in America
Behind the wild success of a theological thriller lies a centuries-old urge to recapture the original Jesus
Different strokes. Though other revisionists may not have been so bold as to cut and paste the New Testament, Jefferson was not alone in his revisionary thinking. Old-line Calvinists, anti-Calvinist liberal Protestants, deists, and evangelical revivalists all gave different hues and tints to their pictures of Jesus.
As the century wore on and women became the guardians of religious piety, Jesus was increasingly softened, even feminized. In such influential books as Horace Bushnell's Christian Nurture (1861), he became a gentle man and friend to all. Starting her own church in the latter part of the 19th century (the Church of Christ, Scientist), Mary Baker Eddy recast Jesus as a teacher of the healing power of the spirit, while denying that he was the "divine manifestation of God." She also gave a strong boost to the "female sacred" within Christianity, Fox explains, by "taking the Catholics' veneration of Mary and doing them one better: giving herself `divine attributes.' "
The revisionist enterprise did not slow in the 20th century. Contrast, for example, Bruce Barton's 1925 book, The Man Nobody Knows, depicting, in Prothero's words, "a manly Jesus who, like the modern-day relief pitcher, is both athlete and businessman," with the hippie-prototype Jesus celebrated in the rock musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, which both opened in 1971. The contrast only hints at the creativity Americans continue to show in projecting their wishes upon the image of Jesus.
Brown's Jesus, or at least his fanciful distillation of many similar interpretations of Jesus, is both something old and something new in the American romance with the Christ figure. The Da Vinci Code suggests a very human, very approachable savior. But also, Fox says, "he delivers a Jesus who had a wife and was a father." Even more, Fox continues, he validates a contemporary yearning "for a female sacred presence" that animates everything from growing numbers of women in Christian and Jewish clergy to the sprouting of spiritual movements accentuating female divinities. On his Web site, Brown says he chose the topic "for personal reasons--primarily as an exploration of my own faith and my own ideas about religion."
Clearly, many readers are finding Brown's exploration more compelling than the traditional and well-founded accounts of Jesus's life. While reading the book, says Jonathan Bryant, a hairstylist in Atlanta, he repeatedly turned to the Internet to get the real story. "I knew that many of the things in Brown's book weren't true," he says. "But I just wanted them to be."
With Katy Kelly