- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

Richard Wightman Fox’s new book went to press at exactly the wrong time: after the publication of Stephen Prothero’s acclaimed and nearly identically titled “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon,” but before the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

The blockbuster Gibson movie, which has been seen by as many as 50 million Americans to date, overnight changed the nature of discourse about the American conception of Jesus.

As Mr. Prothero, an academic historian of religion like Mr. Fox, pointed out recently in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Gibson’s Jesus, battered and bloodied in the profound theological drama of his crucifixion, is a far cry from the suave wall-oleo or the initial on a WWJD T-shirt that we associate with the American pop Jesus — yet American Christians embraced him.

That suggests a gravitas in the contemporary American conception of Jesus to which cultural scholars have hitherto perhaps paid insufficient attention.

But Mr. Fox, aware that Mr. Gibson’s film was coming out when his book went to press though not having seen it, was restricted to bromides: “Children need to be protected from the graphic violence,” he warns. That’s on page 27. Already, sadly, Mr. Fox’s book is slightly out of date.

Furthermore, “Jesus in America” cannot help but cover ground — the purely human Jesus of Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste Bible (which excised all Jesus’ miracles); the testosterone-pumped Christ of 19th-century “muscular Christianity”; the organization-man Jesus of Bruce Barton’s bestselling “Man Nobody Knows”; the self-absorbed celebrity of “Jesus Christ Superstar” — already traversed in Mr. Prothero’s “American Jesus” and elsewhere.

Also irritating is Mr. Fox’s use of inappropriately informal diction. Christopher Columbus “hit the Bahamas.” Jonathan Edwards’ image of Christ as bridegroom “had to be dropped” when times changed. In Cecil B. DeMille’s 1928 movie “King of Kings,” says Mr. Fox, Jesus “deprograms” Mary Magdalene — a word that is not only anachronistic but inaccurate.

Still Mr. Fox, a professor of history at the University of Southern California, offers some fresh perspectives and fine new material. He focuses not so much on images of Jesus themselves but on the role those images played in the making of American religious history and of American religious personalities. He is nothing if not compendious, and his book is chock-full of anecdotes, snippets from hymns, and data about long-forgotten Christological devotions.

Mr. Fox was raised Catholic, and although he seems to have drifted away from the faith, he retains an appreciation for the extent to which Catholicism shaped American religious consciousness.

Many Americans, including professional historians, tend to equate the history of American Christianity with the history of American Protestantism, with Catholics arriving in significant numbers on the American religious scene only in the form of 19th-century immigrants.

As Mr. Fox writes, however, these people “might be surprised to learn that while a few hundred Pilgrims were worshiping Christ in Plymouth, thousands of Native Americans were receiving communion in New Mexico and Florida.”

An early chapter outlines the efforts of 16th- and 17th-century Spanish and French missionaries in the Northeast and Southwest to teach the Indian populations to imitate Christ, even though their own languages had no words to describe difficult theological concepts such as the Trinity.

Mr. Fox is in many ways a stereotypical academic liberal in his treatment of European-Native American relations in the New World; he remarks that the missionaries “tethered” Jesus “to the campaign for European control.” Nonetheless, he recognizes that Indian cultures had their flaws as well, sanctioning polygamy, vengeance, wife-beating, cannibalism, and extraordinary cruelty to captured enemies.

He points out that many converted Native Americans took to the new faith with genuine fervor; they were so “extravagant in their piety,” Mr. Fox writes, that they sometimes asked for harsher penances from their priests in confession than the priests were willing to give them.

In a chapter dealing with the early-19th century, Mr. Fox argues that the first Unitarians — in contrast to their latter-day descendants, who have mostly severed their ties with Christianity — were preoccupied with Christian salvation. They demoted Jesus from a person with both divine and human natures to a purely human figure so as not to distract from worship of God the Father, and also to emphasize Jesus’ special saving mission as a figure of quasi-divine “perfect humanity.”

As for Jefferson’s Bible, his “Life and Morals of Jesus” from which he literally cut out the supernatural passages with a razor blade, it was greeted by his Christian contemporaries not as a denunciation of their faith but as a welcome sign that the old Deist had finally committed himself to “religion and to Christ,” Mr. Fox writes.

In 1904, the U.S. government actually paid for the printing of copies of the Jefferson Bible so that Congress could distribute them free to its members.

Elsewhere, the author connects the abolitionist movement to an identification by both its black and white leaders, equally influenced by the emotional Christianity of Methodism and its evangelical offshoots, with Jesus as liberator, as suffering servant whose torments and humiliations on the cross mirrored the slaves’ own torments, and as a figure who had transcended death through his resurrection.

Sojourner Truth told of her encounter with Jesus as liberator from sin and dejection. John Brown consciously made himself into an icon of Christ as he faced his hanging. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln, on Good Fridayin 1865, became suffused with Crucifixion imagery in the popular imagination. (Mr. Fox for some reason omits the Crucifixion reference in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”)

Mr. Fox supplements his literary references with a large number of illustrations of the image of Jesus in American popular art, ranging from vintage Catholic holy cards and “I Love Jesus” rearview-mirror ornaments to snapshots of Hispanic passion plays and folk-crucifixes taken in and around Mr. Fox’s native Los Angeles.

He also includes the bizarre 1890s art-photography of F. Holland Day, who donned a loincloth and crown of thorns and had himself nailed (in simulation) to a cross from which he took pictures of himself as the crucified Christ, using a shutter-bulb concealed in his palm.

Mr. Fox quotes such home-grown exotica as this 1910 hymn from the muscular Christianity movement: “Ye men of purpose, arise and serve Him, / The manly man of Galilee …”

As Mr. Fox moves into the late-20th and early-21st centuries, however, his narrative thread weakens as he tries to deal with a mishmash of discordant and soi-disant “subversive” contemporary images of Jesus. In an effort to be hip and nonjudgmental about all of this, he suspends the critical analytic faculties one might expect from a cultural historian.

Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was merely supposed to “provoke” responses from the viewer as to whether submerging a crucifix in urine was blasphemy or just a statement about “a natural bodily fluid” — so what was all the fuss about? Terrence McNally’s 1998 play “Corpus Christi” featuring a homosexual Jesus “tests cultural boundaries.”

Mr. Fox lauds the National Catholic Reporter’s “Jesus 2000,” a studiously mult-culti image of the Savior that used a black American woman as a model, but he fails to consider why this image has never become popular with black Americans (they seem to prefer the Mel Gibson movie). He offers a two-page endorsement of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (“I want to applaud his book”) because the Mary Magdalene-centric Jesus in that novel counteracts “overwhelmingly male” images of God elsewhere.

Strangest of all is Mr. Fox’s epilogue, an encomium to a college friend, Michael Peterson, a psychiatrist and Catholic priest who founded the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and died of AIDS in 1987, having come out as homosexual shortly before.

St. Luke, as the author fails to mention in his book, treated pedophilic priests and became a revolving-door stop-off for some of the most notorious clerics in the recent scandal (Peterson, to his credit, had tried to alert bishops of the incurability of pedophilia before his death).

Mr. Fox’s choice of Peterson, who was a serious Christian but has scarcely any connection with the book’s stated subject matter, is symptomatic of its weaknesses.

Richard Fox is an imaginative researcher with some interesting ideas, but he is unwilling to control or make sustained sense out of the material he has collected that testifies to Jesus’ enduring importance in American religious life.

Charlotte Allen is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”

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