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American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. Stephen Prothero. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 364 pages. $25

Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession. Richard Wightman Fox. HarperSanFrancisco. 488 pages. $27.95

According to folk singer Steve Goodman, the perfect country song—which he wrote and David Allan Coe made famous—takes drinking, prison, trains, mama, and Jesus as its subjects. Much as Jesus and salvation from the temptations of the world feature prominently in many country songs (listen to Rebecca Lynn Howard or Steve Earle or Mary Chapin Carpenter), country singers are not alone in their obsession with Jesus, however. Only in America could an advertising campaign ask "What would Jesus drive?" and only in America does Jesus' diet form the basis of a best-selling diet plan ("What Would Jesus Eat?").

As Prothero and Fox point out, American soil, with its emphasis on individualism, religious toleration, reason, happiness, and religious pluralism has proved especially fertile for the flowering of a garden full of diverse blooms resembling Jesus. While Prothero's book offers a livelier and more engaging examination of the topic, Fox's provides a serviceable survey of the history of American religion, sandwiching remarks about Jesus into his history of the evolution of religion in America.

Prothero takes his direction from the ages-old argument about the Incarnation. Although the matter of the degrees to which Jesus partakes more of humanity or divinity were ostensibly settled in the fourth century, Prothero suggests that this same debate lies beneath the American Jesus. In the early nineteenth century, he points out, evangelicals freed Jesus from the prison-house of the creeds. "Americans emphasized his humanity, transforming him from a distant god in a complex theological system into a near-and-dear person, fully embodied, with virtues they could imitate, a mind they could understand, and qualities they could love." (13) By the late nineteenth century, liberal Protestants "disentangled Jesus from the Bible" (14) and proclaimed that Jesus only acted as their single authority for faith and practice. Finally, Prothero observes, the early twentieth century emancipated Jesus from Christianity itself. Once Jesus was free from the Christian religion, other religions could adopt him as their own, as some Jewish rabbis did in the early twentieth century and as Hindus and Buddhists did in the 1960s.

In order to examine these changing images of Jesus in America, Prothero divides his book into two major parts. In the first, aptly titled "Resurrections," he "explores reawakenings of Jesus among Christian insiders, especially white Protestants." (15) The second major section, titled "Reincarnations," focuses "on the rebirths of Jesus in outsider communities, including the black church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and American Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism." (15)

As in any of these histories, Thomas Jefferson acts as a starting point for making Jesus a particularly American icon. Prothero retells the familiar story of Jefferson's cutting and pasting of the New Testament to produce his own version that focuses on Jesus as a great moral teacher. From Jefferson to the Jesus Seminar, Jesus has been portrayed as an enlightened sage, shorn of his miracle-working nature and spouting wise sayings about the nature of love and morality. In the late twentieth century, the Jesus Seminar represents the fullest expression of this quest for an enlightened Jesus. "Their Jesus was a cross between a 1770's philosopher and a 1970's hippie: He was an enlightened sage, but a groovy one." (38)

Prothero draws on a rich store of literature, art, film, and music as he explores the various "resurrections" of Jesus in America. In addition to the enlightened sage, Jesus has been seen as a "sweet savior," a "manly redeemer," and a "superstar." For example, he uses Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the many sentimental novels and pious biographies of Jesus, as an example of the feminization of Jesus in the nineteenth century. He also contends that, despite the dissemination of Warner Sallman's famous Head of Christ painting to YMCAs and soldiers in WWII as a manly redeemer, Sallman's painting portrays a feminine Jesus.

In his explorations of the "Reincarnations" of Jesus, Prothero examines the ways that Jesus has experienced a rebirth even in those communities where his figure may not be central to religious authority of practice. He ranges widely over a number of cultures and religious expressions, moving from "Mormon elder brother" and "Black Moses" to "rabbi" and "Oriental Christ." Thus, he observes about the reincarnation of Jesus in the black church: "For centuries, African Americans have embraced Jesus as a Savior who by carrying their sins on a cross made possible their salvation. But they have not simply adopted a white Jesus into their black families. Like the conjure men of West Africa, they have transformed the toxin of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus into the tonic of a black Moses who delivers them not only from sin but also from oppression, and not only in his own body but also in the bodies of the faithful." (228)

Prothero's captivating and engaging book zeroes in on America's continuing fascination with Jesus. Prothero concludes that while Americans will not likely reach any consensus on who Jesus is, Americans "have agreed for some time that Jesus really matters. In a country divided by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and religion, Jesus functions as common cultural coin." (300)

Compared with Prothero's lively study of the American Jesus, Fox's book offers little exciting or new. Fox provides a history of Christianity in America and a study of the various images of Jesus that developed during this history. He does not look outside of the Christian community, as Prothero does, but restricts his study to the way that Christian history shaped American history.

Fox arranges his book chronologically, so that he traverses the history of American Christianity from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the late twentieth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during the time of European colonization, for example, Jesus was a healer and a martyr. By the seventeenth century, and the proselytization of the Native Americans by John Eliot and others, the Native Americans viewed Jesus as an antidote to the sickness and death that the Europeans had introduced.

The eighteenth century brought a new emphasis on reason and Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson elevated Jesus to the role of moral sage. Fox observes the development of a manlier Jesus in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to the feminized Jesus of Victorian America. By the end of the twentieth century in America, Jesus had become a Hollywood icon, and Fox devotes an entire chapter to Jesus films from King of Kings to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (although the film had not yet been released when the book was published).

The major difference between Fox's book and Prothero's is that Fox does not separate Jesus from Christian belief and faith. Where Prothero is able to suggest that Jesus persists as an American icon apart from Christianity's influence on the land, Fox concludes that "there is one more reason for the lasting power of Christian belief in America [not, as in Prothero, Jesus as cultural coin]: so many Americans have known holy people who loved Christ so fully that they seemed to spend their days& 'just telling the love of Jesus'." (406) Fox's is an insider's story, while Prothero's is a story of a culture at large coming to grips with this person named Jesus.

One thing is certain, much like Steve Goodman's perfect country song, American culture is deeply saturated with Jesus, and our obsession and fascination with him will continue to permeate our movies, music, art, and books.

Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. is Editorial Director, Trinity Press International in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Citation: Henry L. Carrigan, Jr., " Jesus as American Icon and Cultural Hero: A Review of Two Books," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2004]. Online:


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