The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Making Jesus in our image

The good people over at Busted Halo have just posted a fascinating chat with Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus and a new book called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know And Doesn’t, which more or less bemoans our stupidity on all things relating to religion. Prothero is the chair of the religion department at Boston University.


Take a look:

BustedHalo: As an educator, how do you think today’s youth interpret the importance and place of religion within society?

Stephen Prothero: I think students get it. Students, like the general public, are more attracted to spirituality than organized religion. It is not a hard sell for them to get the importance of religion of other cultures since they watch it on the news everyday, the question is, ‘What are they going to do about it?’

As a teacher I try to provoke them and get them to question their assumptions coming into the class. We want them to think more culturally from new perspectives after obtaining non-biased information about a variety of religions. I don’t consider it my job to get them to stop being religious. I had teachers who did that with me in college and I thought it was foolish.


BH: You are an advocate of educating citizens about religion, but not necessarily in a way that conservatives might advocate. Do you find yourself with unique allies on that issue that you usually wouldn’t agree with on other social issues?

SP: Yes I do. Recently I was on a radio program and we had a call-in from Daniel Dennis, who is in favor of the same ideas I have, and we do not share many of the same opinions. Doing something proactive in religious literature in America seems like an idea that only the secular left and religious right both agree on.

BH: In “American Jesus” you talk about the many resurrections of Jesus. What do you expect for the next resurrection of the image of Jesus?

SP: I’m a historian, not a futurist, but the trend is toward a Jesus who capitulates to culture, and changes regarding our fads and preoccupations in the moment. After 9/11 it was the terrorized Jesus in Mel Gibson’s movie. I don’t know what the next image will be, but it will have its roots in American culture.


BH: Do you see any irony in the fact that America has constantly reshaped Jesus, but still want Him out of their places of work and education?

SP: The irony may be wanting Him on our own terms. I make the point at the end of “American Jesus” that Jesus is more of a pawn than a king in American culture, and the recasting of his image is a prime example.

I’m hopeful that the naïve thinking of not talking about religion is going away because current events have made it difficult to bury our head in the ground about talking about Christianity and other religions. We can communicate and educate about religion without force feeding God to our kids in our educational system.

BH: Do you think Americans remold the image of Jesus to justify our own sins of genocide, racism and sexism? Does it make people feel less worried about their sins if we make Him look like us?


SP: Yes. That is one of the dynamics about American Jesus. You call Him in to anoint your pet project. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan have used Jesus to oppress blacks and women from having equal rights. Abolitionists and feminists have used him as well. Jesus has played both sides of the fence in almost every political issue in U.S. history.

You can find much more to ponder over at the BH link. Among other things, he encourages every young American
do something very uncool: read the Bible. And the Koran. And become literate in religion.

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Mary Martha

posted October 16, 2007 at 11:32 am

I have a friend who’s perspective on Mormonism has always struck me as perfect. It’s the most American of religions because “OF COURSE Jesus came to America!”There is something particularly American in wanting Jesus to be American just like us.Though I have to say I don’t think it is because Americans are trying to justify any “our own sins of genocide, racism and sexism”. It was an odd question to me – a fairly tired attack. Honestly – is there some sort of reflex that causes some people to view everything through that particular lens?

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