Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003); and Richard Wightman Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (San Francisco: Harper, 2004).
Think about your earliest memories and images of Jesus. If you are a white, American Protestant, it is likely that you will recall a painting by Warner Sallman, The Head of Christ (1940)—Jesus with flowing blond hair and saccharine blue eyes. This painting has enjoyed some 500 million copies, and is a reminder that in America, but not only in America, the ideas and images about Jesus are extraordinarily malleable. There is clearly no interpretive monopoly upon Jesus; instead, at least to some extent, each believer and generation, across times and cultures, creates Jesus in its own image. That is what these two theological and cultural histories explore.
Of course, every sincere believer longs for the “real” Jesus, Jesus pure and pristine, original, “unbesmirched by tradition.” But that is impossible. So, for example, Frederick Douglass excoriated a “slave holding, women-whipping” Christendom. Thomas Jefferson took scissors to all he did not like and ended up with Jesus as sage. George Bush claimed him as his most important political philosopher. And on it goes. These two books take us through the almost limitless images of Jesus we have created — in stage and theater, movies and song, portraits and theological texts, Jesus of the the intellectuals and Jesus of uneducated peasants, Jesus of the European colonizers and Jesus of the beleaguered slaves, and even Jesus of cultural kitsch. The elasticity of these images is disconcerting; we should be very wary about absolutizing the relative. Countee Cullen, author of the long narrative poem “The Black Christ” (1929), was at least aware of the dangers: “Lord, forgive me if my need/Sometimes shapes a human creed.”