From the Mag: O Jesus, Who Art Thou?

Jesus and the disciples were rolling through the countryside when He stopped them cold with a question out of nowhere: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

They had just left the predominantly Jewish south and were nearing the northern boundary of ancient Israel. Caesarea Philippi was a pagan city, known primarily for its devotion to the Greek god Pan. Pan was half-goat and half-human. He was into music, fields and forests, had a soft spot for shepherds, got it on occasionally with wood nymphs and had nothing to do with cookware. Pan’s identity was pretty clear.


This story originally ran in issue 15 of RELEVANT (July/August 2005). To subscribe, you can go here.


But Jesus? Not so much. The PR was rough with this guy. The disciples gave their best answer.

“Some say John the Baptist,” they replied in Matthew 16:14. “Others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

Already, midway through His brief ministry, people were categorizing Jesus. He confounded their expectations, so they tried to cram Him into existing categories of thought. All those miracles and bold, weird statements—maybe He was one of the old prophets in a new body. That would explain things. A little.

But Jesus followed up with another question, and it was always the second one that led to the nail-biting. “But what about you?” He asked. You can imagine the piercing stare. “Who do you say that I am?”

The central question of Christianity. A couple thousand years later, we’re still working on the answer.

WHAT A FRIEND WE HAVE IN JESUS

You wouldn’t know it today, but Jesus—as a religious figure within the European Protestant tradition, at least—wasn’t always that approachable. Back in the Puritan-packed colonial times, Jesus was a bit more abstract than He is now. Religion was primarily a mental endeavor, and Christ was little more than a doctrine. Not exactly someone a person could claim to understand all that much. Certainly not an object of devotion or love. And no way was He someone you had any chance of imitating. Nobody, not even Jonathan Edwards, was asking What Wouldeth Jesus Do?

But slowly, as the 19th century rolled around, as freedom became a buzzword and the United States spread into a vast frontier, the religion changed. It loosened up, shaking off that scary old Calvinism and becoming more populist. There were a couple of Great Awakenings, revivalism spread from town to town, and the faithful started getting all pious. They tiptoed away from theological complexity and toward devotion. Toward a more experiential faith.

And that’s where they found Jesus. Turns out He was a lot like us.

Jesus Christ is about the most accessible personality we North Americans have ever come across. He’s an action figure and a pious pretty-boy, a dashboard bobblehead and the Savior of the world. He’s beloved by Billy Graham and Britney Spears. He’s celebrated by Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Mormons, Klansmen and Black Panthers, gays and straights. He’s our homeboy. We have T-shirts to prove it.

Religious scholar Stephen Prothero, in his book American Jesus (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), described the Son of God as one of the most popular cultural icons the United States has ever known. Thanks to our democratic, do-it-yourself religious culture, “everyone is free to understand Jesus in his or her own way,” Prothero wrote. “And Americans have exercised that freedom with wild abandon.”

Let’s see where that American love affair with Jesus has taken us, and briefly examine the good and bad aspects of that wild abandon.

GENTLE JESUS, MEEK AND MILD

The closest thing evangelical Christians have to an icon—in the “sacred picture” sense of the word—is the celebrated oil painting, Head of Christ (pictured below sixth from the left), by Warner Sallman. First published in 1940, it’s now been printed more than 500 million times, making it the most popular religious image in the world. People carry it in their wallets. It hangs in every Sunday school room from here to Jerusalem. And no matter how old you are, this painting probably comes to mind when you think of Jesus. (This and, perhaps, a bloody Jim Caviezel.)

Unfortunately, the image is probably wrong. I’m not a trained anthropologist, but Sallman’s Jesus—with His shiny brushed hair, neatly trimmed beard, limpid upturned eyes, plucked eyebrows, delicate nose and fine Anglo cheekbones—doesn’t strike me as very authentic. Jewish carpenters just weren’t that pretty.

Don’t let the manly beard fool you: Sallman turned Jesus into a woman.

Head of Christ is the capstone in a long history of sentimental feminine approaches to Christ, beginning in the Victorian era. Back then, women dominated the Church scene and were believed to be morally and spiritually superior to men. Religious education occurred in the home, and guess who ruled the roost? The prevailing view of Jesus trickled down into the culture from these pious and pure moms. The Sermon on the Mount was a frequent text, and they emphasized the stuff about sacrifice and submission. Their Jesus became a tender, lamb-carrying Good Shepherd.

Want proof? Check out the major Protestant hymns composed during this time: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” by Joseph Scriven; “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling,” by William L. Thompson; and “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild,” by Charles Wesley.

Good: There is great value in servanthood and humility, and it’s appropriate to associate those divine qualities with Jesus.

Bad: Proper hair care is not a divine quality. And good luck getting this meek and mild patsy to whip moneychangers out of the temple or to endure the blood and guts of the cross.

REPUBLICAN JESUS

Jesus wasn’t always into politics, aside from the occasional “render unto Caesar” teaching. Then, in 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that state-mandated prayer in schools violated the First Amendment. A decade later, Roe v. Wade invaded the culture wars. That’s when Jesus became a Republican.

Or, to be more accurate, that’s when evangelicals started paying attention to politics. Gradually, the Democratic party lost its white, middle-class, Southern power base. People who had been voting along economic lines started thinking more about social issues and family values. Union allegiance gave way to church allegiance. Ronald Reagan was pro-Israel and vaguely apocalyptic and earned the evangelical vote in 1980. The Moral Majority laid a solid foundation, and the Christian Coalition built upon it. Republicans took note and began treating religious people and their ideas with a lot more respect than the Democrats seemed to. Soon, evangelicals and Republicans were indistinguishable. The GOP evolved into the party of traditional values. The Republican platform became the biblical one.

Which would be a good fit for Jesus, if He spent large chunks of the Gospels worrying about abortion and gay marriage. Or, for that matter, exhorting James and J ohn on the need to support American foreign policy.

Good: Christians need to bring Jesus into politics, because the more Christlike people in Washington, the better …

Bad: … but not just along one side of the congressional aisle. Abortion’s one thing, but seriously, folks, does anyone honestly think Jesus had an official stance on Social Security? That the Prince of Peace would have been uncritically pro-war? Or really interested in easing the financial burdens of the rich? Sweet sassy molassey, does anyone think Jesus would ever not come down on the side of the poor?

CHRIST HIPPIFIED

Jesus taught about peace and love. Jesus rolled with the rejects and accepted the outcasts. He was itinerant, misunderstood and lived in community with other misfits. For crying out loud, the dude sported long hair, a beard and sandals.

Jesus was the ultimate hippie. Wrap Him in a tie-dyed robe and He’s practically a cliché. The youthful American counterculture captured the world’s attention 35 years ago. These “hippies” did a lot of drugs, made a bunch of free love and—this may be a surprise—really, really liked Jesus. Significant numbers of them began moving from drugs and alienation to faith in Christ. In 1970, Time did a feature on “Jesus Freaks” (no, not dc Talk). Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Life and U.S. News & World Report soon caught the “Jesus People” buzz. T-shirts with “Jesus is better than hash” designs began showing up. And Jesus Freaks—with their ocean baptisms, rock shows and fervent evangelism—became the talk of the country.

Later that year, two major rock musicals opened: Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, both of which painted Christ as a hippie opposed to the religious establishment. These two shows did more than anything to cement Jesus as an icon of the era. Time ranked the “Jesus Revolution” as the third biggest story of the year in 1971. Christian Century proclaimed 1971 “The Year of Jesus.” Hippies had become a nationwide phenomenon, and the Son of God was their spiritual guru.

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Good: Folks grooved off Jesus’ trippy teachings and revolutionary social agenda, emphasizing Christ’s humanity and a relationship with Him over the institutional church. America hit a spiritual high.

Bad: Unfortunately, that “spiritual high” gave birth to even bigger religious institutions. Christian retailing, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and seeker-sensitive megachurches are all rooted in the Jesus movement. Gosh. Thanks, hippies.

ROMANTICIZED BOYFRIEND JESUS

Contemporary worship music has done a lot of good things for the Church over the last 30 years, not the least of which is enlivening the worship experience for a generation that had trouble relating to centuries-old hymns and might-as-well-be-that-old Gaither choruses. However, the modern worship movement brought with it an unfortunate by-product: the extreme to which we’ve taken the “Bride of Christ” metaphor. Song of Solomon was one thing. John Donne and Teresa of Avila took it a step further. The classic hymnster Issac Watts even threw his hat into the ring with “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”

But us? We’ve driven the Love Truck over the edge. You won’t get far in contemporary worship music without running into achingly intense expressions of desire for the Son of God. Critics have called it the “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” syndrome, in which the Bridegroom has become the object of our romanticism. Oh, how we love Jesus. We long to be with Him. We want to touch Him. We want to see His face.

Sing it with me now, and be sure to scrunch your eyes up with emotion: “Jesus, I am so in love with You.”

Good: God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, and believers are instructed to love Him back with all their hearts, minds, souls and strength. Magnifying God through worshipful music is a good place to start.

Bad: But it’s the magnifying God part we often forget about. Because when we sing songs about how much we looooove Jesus, the main focus isn’t on Jesus; it’s about us. About our love for the Son of God. Next Sunday, count the number of self-congratulatory songs that talk about what we, the worshippers, will do. We will worship. We will lift up our hands. We will shout, stand, sing, clap, etc. The majesty, holiness and glory of God? The Savior who rescued us from sin and death? Not so much the focus there.

THE WILD-HEARTED JESUS

If you’re a Christian male, you’ve no doubt read John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart or know someone who has. Since being published in 2001, it’s sold upward of 1 million copies. Eldredge hit a nerve among men who longed for adventure and were dissatisfied with the meek and mild Jesus described before.

He replaced that sissified Christ with a more masculine one, modeled after Braveheart’s William Wallace and Russell Crowe’s gladiator, Maximus. According to Eldredge, Wild at Heart men hate their desk jobs and long to be cowboys, mechanics or river rafters. They’re all looking for a battle to fight, an adventure to live and a beauty to rescue (the Eldredge mantra). Therefore, Jesus must have a similar strain of wild maleness. The wild-hearted Jesus is definitely a non-wimp. He’s a tough guy, a risk-taker, an adventure-seeker.

Good: Yeah, the unpredictable, undomesticated Jesus is a lot more appealing than the Breck Girl Jesus of “tender shepherd” fame. You can definitely see Him clearing the temple in a wild fit of adventurous rage.

Bad: But was the moneychangers thing really the action of a wild, marauding renegade? Or was it, perhaps, a display of passionate obedience to the Father? The Christ of the Gospels always appeared in control of His actions and emotions and submissive to His Father’s will. Connections to Mel Gibson aside, the Suffering Servant was no William Wallace.

JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY

In 2002, a small company called Teenage Millionaire unveiled simple, silkscreened “Jesus Is My Homeboy” T-shirts. In Jesus Christ, they found a figure who appealed to everyone—the devout and the ironic, the red and blue states, the Church and Hollywood, Southern Baptist deacons and East Village hipsters. And before you could say Kabbalah, these shirts had become a celebrity fashion fave. Jesus was Ben Affleck, Pamela Anderson and Ashton Kutcher’s homeboy, and the homeboy of lots of other people more famous than the rest of us. Not to be outdone, genuinely religious people—consumers who honestly cared about the figure on their T-shirts and what He represented—also snatched up the design.

So here we are. It’s 2005, and again, Jesus is the new “It” guy. Who do you say that He is?

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