Swept up as in a biblical whirlwind by the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, Americans are excited like no other people by portrayals of their favorite spiritual icon, Jesus of Nazareth. With the release of this latest characterization, Hollywood-style, everyone wants a say about the shoulds and shouldn’ts of depicting the savior. It‘s like dropping a pigeon among the cats -- the screeches and scratches can be heard around the world.
As Stephen Prothero, religionist and historian at Boston University, would like us to know, this phenomenon is nothing new. Ever since the Pilgrims made landfall on that famous rock, Americans have been re-inventing their most famous religious figure to suit the times, the mores and their personal tastes. Look at the marvelous photo in Prothero's book of The Last Supper tattooed across a pair of feminine shoulders, if you don't think things can go too far. In fact, since it always pays to underestimate popular American taste, we wonder how much farther, or lower, affairs surrounding Jesus might sink. He's been a plastic bobbling ornament, a highway billboard, a back-lighted dime-store painting. He's been shown open-mouthed and laughing - that's a pretty jarring notion - as well as tearful, petulant, bloody, and sappily smiley-faced. He’s been a topless female, a prize-fighter, and a 70’s style Hendrix clone..
The re-invention of Jesus started early on. The puritanical God was not a likeable being - read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to reference how user-friendly was our earliest American idea of deity. But as life got a bit easier, post-Revolution, so Jesus entered the picture as a more laid back, sweeter, indeed more feminine incarnation. His gentle ways oddly mirrored that of the female in the American home, who was becoming a significant force in churches and, as a stay-at-home daily presence, a kind of mini-pastor to the family congregation. Suddenly, egalitarian Americans were gathering at the river and singing, “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” Jesus became the kind of good-guy God who would serve you cookies and wipe your nose, who would always understand and forgive, who would be there for you when the chips were down.
Most commentary and controversy about Jesus has been among griping infighting Christian sects, primarily between Catholics and Protestants. But many marvelous tales have been circulated about the man of Nazareth from outside sources. Vedantists and other transcendental/spiritualist leaders have sought, with some success, to adopt Jesus. Well, who wouldn't want to? A man who so loved us that he gave his life to make sure we were within a reasonable distance of the goal can't help but be just plain adorable. So it makes sense that Buddhists and soft-core peace-loving vegetarian universalists would want him on their team.
However, Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, didn't much care for the way the Hindus such as Yogananda and Buddhists like the Dalai Lama so easily took Jesus unto themselves. Seems he was considered by the wise men of the East to be "just another Avatar," as though that title were not sufficiently grand. American Christianity requires exclusivity, and no matter how we may tussle among ourselves about whose sacraments are the most efficacious, we're all supposed to agree that Jesus was the one and only. That's the way, uh huh, uh huh, we like him. So while the Pope and others denounce Buddhism as a godless non-religion, Buddhist monks meditate about a divinely realized being who renounced the world, spoke in koan-like parables, and dressed like, well, kind of like a Buddhist monk.
This book is a great trip read - you can dip in at any point and find yourself in warm pleasant waters, transfixed by the many odd and wondrous ways that we have portrayed, displayed and possibly dismayed the baby Jesus and the grown-up master upon whom we confer the title The Christ. One wonders, What Would Jesus Do about this heap of American hype if he were here? Would he smite it and cast it into outer darkness, or just quietly tip his ball cap and move on?