"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

American Jesus -- Enlightened Sage, Sweet Savior

So Monday I went to a different branch of our county library system and found three books that seemed interesting.  Well, I found plenty more that looked interesting, but only brought home three.  The one I've started is American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. The subtitle is "How the Son of God Became a National Icon."  I have questions for you at the end. Read them first if you'd like and then I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 


The first chapter presents the Jesus of Thomas Jefferson who cut and pasted his own version of the Gospels based on Jefferson's opinion of what Jesus likely said or did.  He took out anything that wasn't reasonable or logical and was left with a fraction of what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John presented.  "Jefferson hated what Christianity had become,not despite his love for Jesus, but because of it. And he was able to admire, respect, and perhaps even love 'the first of all Sages' only because he was able to separate the religion of Jesus from the religion of Christianity." (pg. 42)

The author claims Jefferson's views have expanded mostly among Unitarians, Reformed Jews and Liberal Protestants. "By the end of the nineteenth century many Americans, both Christian and otherwise, had begun to disentangle Jesus from rites and creeds, affirming that his exemplary life was more important than his atoning death. Today, U.S. suburbs are filled with 'Golden Rule Christians' who, like Jefferson, believe that the essence of true religion lies in right living rather than right thinking, and that service to others is the highest form of prayer."  (pg. 33)

The Jesus Seminar is also given as an example in this chapter.  Arguing that the "creedal Christ must die...so that the real Jesus can rise again," this "radical interpretation of the incarnation abolished the distinction between the sacred and the profane, freeing Jesus to be fully human and allowing Christians to celebrate life in the world as he did -- wholeheartedly and without reservation."


The author claims we were not always a Jesus nation.  The Puritans - strict Calvinists - "were a God-fearing rather than a Jesus-loving people, obsessed not with God's mercy but with His glory, not with the Son but with the Father." 

About a half century after the Revolution our "spiritual landscape" started to change into more of what we have today. "Disestablishment supplanted the European-style state church system with a market model that continues to characterize American religion.  This new spiritual marketplace produced unprecedented religious creativity and intense religious competition."  (pg. 46)

"Across these diverse religious communities, a new spirit of liberty took hold. After their successful revolt against England, Americans thought nothing of rebelling against traditional Christianity.  For obvious reasons, they rebuffed the Anglicanism of the crown, sending what came to be known as Episcopalianism on a long downward slide.  Peace churches such as the Quakers, Mennonites, and Moravians also suffered after the war. Americans did far more than reject the denominations of loyalists and pacifists,however. Inspired by republican rhetoric of liberty and equality, and by a popular revolt against deference and hierarchy, they rejected as well the authority of ministers, the veracity of creeds, and the importance of theology. The Bible remained authoritative, of course, but now Americans insisted on interpreting it for themselves.  In that effort, they were assisted by a new culture hero: the populist preacher, who combined evangelicalism and egalitarianism in daring new ways. ... These religious entrepreneurs thrilled their populist parishioners with declarations of religious independence from elitist ministers, established churches, and outmoded creeds.  Not surprisingly, this new combination of individual conscience led to a wide variety of interpretations, and First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom saw to it that those interpretations flourished."  (pg. 47)

The author then told how evangelicalism formed, spread and popularized Jesus in its hymns, preaching and later books.  Jesus even went through a feminizing aspect as recognition was given to the role women played in the spiritual upbringing of their children and how they influenced society in a variety of community groups. He told of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' book which was the "first full-length feminist interpretation of Jesus."  She said men had been talking about the gospels for centuries as translators, preachers and commentators.  "Her goal was to supplement that record with a female voice, and according to that voice Jesus was a 'great democrat' who undertook a 'social revolution' on behalf of women.  Convinced 'that men and women stood before God upon the same moral plane, and that they ought so to stand before human society,' he always showed the utmost 'respect for womanhood.'  He was, Phelps concluded, 'the only man who ever understood' the plight of women."  (pg. 84)

"While Calvinists had maximized the distance between God and humanity and evangelicals had narrowed it, liberal Protestants all but obliterated it.  Drawing on the doctrine of the imago Dei, they argued that humans were created good, in the image of god, not sinful, in the image of a fallen Adam."  They considered the Bible a "good book" rather than "God's book" and focused on Jesus.  (pg.82)


Did anything stand out to you? Any "aha!" moments?  What do you think of the author's words about our religion being market-driven?  Did it surprise you to read that America wasn't always a Jesus nation? Do you agree or disagree?  Do you think the Liberal Protestants are good to "all but obliterate" the distance between us and God?  Do you see the progression of shedding established churches and creeds to being Scriptural based to later being solely Jesus based as a good thing? Why or why not? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson's approach to creating his own gospel?  What do you think of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' thoughts on Jesus as one who respected womanhood?  Do you agree?  Do you think the Jesus Seminar has done a good thing by freeing Jesus from creeds so that he could be human and thus we can enjoy the world wholeheartedly?   Other thoughts or impressions?


Amber said...

Jefferson was certainly unique, I'll give him that. Here's my problem with his 'distilled essence of Christianity'. It's *his*. It is one man sitting there and saying, oh, that's silly. Oh, that makes no sense. Yadda. One person's interpretation and understanding does not make them correct. It goes against the deposit of history in regards to Christianity. That which has been taught since the beginning. And Jefferson (or anyone else) thinks that they suddenly know the secret answer. It's unforgiveable arrogance.

"he was able to separate the religion of Jesus from the religion of Christianity"

/singsongvoice/Arrogance!/endsingsongvoice/ And actually really insulting, too.

Which is more important? Orthodoxy or orthopraxy? The answer is both. You need both right belief and right action/living. One without the other will not be enough.

'Do you see the progression of shedding established churches and creeds to being Scriptural based to later being solely Jesus based as a good thing?'

The question is flawed. It implies that the Church Christ established is not Scriptural and Jesus based. Protestants have moved away from the Church that had everything and snapped it all into little pieces, separating Christ's divinity from His humanity. He is *both* fully human and fully divine. Making Him 'fully human' so that they can feel like bestest buddies is denying part of the Incarnation, whether they realize it or not.

Suroor said...

"Do you see the progression of shedding established churches and creeds to being Scriptural based to later being solely Jesus based as a good thing?"


So I guess I also like Jefferson and the Jesus Seminar :)

Susanne said...

Amber, I see your point of Jefferson's arrogance in deciding which parts of the Bible was acceptable to him and which were not. The author mentioned many times that Jefferson was influenced by rational thought so I guess that was his excuse. Anything that shouted "miracle" or "impossible" made the cut. I guess to Jefferson God was unable to do anything outside of the ordinary. A little god, in my opinion.

Thanks for pointing out my flawed question. I enjoyed what you said and as I've read this book,I've seen your point more and more and more. :)

Susanne said...

Suroor, no surprise there! :)

Lat said...

Jefferson did that? That to me is a 'aha' moment :)

I only know a very brief history about the man,but I can say that for him as an intellectual,I'm not surprised at what he did.

As I see it today,Christianity is commercialized and continues to do so at a fast rate.There was a series of forum pages about this sometime ago,about how embezzlement among other things are taking place within the church.This seems to happen more to churces that are more modern than those that still follow tradition.

It's interesting to know Elizabeth Stuart Phelps thoughts.Do you think it coincides with your views on Jesus regarding women.

Jesus not just could be human but must be in order for his wise teachings to flow thru' other humans.

Susanne said...

Lat, I'm glad you got to learn a bit more about Jefferson then! :)

Yes, this book touches on how "Jesus" has been commercialized. It's actually quite the interesting book in showing how thoughts of Jesus has evolved through the US's history and how certain things -- megachurches, Christian contemporary music -- were started and became popular.

Yes,I can appreciate what that lady wrote about Jesus based on the little shared here. I haven't read her book so I might not agree if I read it, but those things I quoted, yes.

Thanks for your reply! I enjoyed it!