American Jesus How the Son of God Became a National Icon

Stephen Prothero

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

384 Pages



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A Publishers Weekly Best Book on Religion
A Chicago Tribune Best Nonfiction Book

American Jesus is a vivid and important chronicle of the distinctive "images of Jesus" cherished by the American people, and an incisive and timely account of Jesus' transformation, in Americans' hearts and minds, from crucified Lord to folk hero, from divinity to celebrity.

The United States is one of the most religious countries on earth, and a majority of its citizens claim membership in one Christian church or another. But, as Prothero argues, many of the most intriguing American appraisals of Jesus have originated outside the churches: in novels, songs, and movies, and among Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and people of no religion at all.

Popular revisions of Jesus are nothing new: Thomas Jefferson famously took a razor to the New Testament to create a Jesus he could call his own; abolitionists and Klansmen, Mormons and hippies, all cast the carpenter from Nazareth in their own image. Together they sparked a multifaceted religious revolution that reinvented Jesus as the dominant figure in the Trinity—and in the culture at large. Liberated from Calvinism and the creeds, Jesus emerged from the shadow of official theology into the spotlight of popular culture. Today, as explored by Prothero, He is even resurrected on the Broadway stage and in a Holy Land theme park.

This study reminds us how—in America, at least, and maybe especially—the sacred and the secular are intimately intertwined.


Praise for American Jesus

"Jesus has an American history. To hold him up to the mirror of American culture is to conduct a Rorschach test of ever-changing national sensibilities. What Americans have seen in him has been an expression of their own hopes and fears—a reflection not simply of some 'wholly other' divinity but also of themselves and their nation. This book examines those hopes and fears, exploring not only what Americans have said about Jesus but also what their malleable and multiform Jesus has to say about the United States. It is not a survey of American theology. It is a cultural history—a quest for the cultural Jesus—that draws on images of Jesus in missionary tracts and theological treatises, to be sure, but also in novels, films, biographies, musicals, hymns, spirituals, and the visual arts. In these sources, I have looked for evidence of the character and personality of Jesus the man, not the nature and function of Christ the messiah. I want to understand how Americans relate to Jesus, not how he relates to this theological system or that. I want to know what Americans see in him—whether he is aloof or friendly, dour or merry, masculine or feminine, homely or handsome. I am interested in the man, not the metaphysics."—from the Introduction

"Stephen Prothero, chairman of the department of religion at Boston University, [presents] a cultural history of Jesus as American image and icon [in] vivid, engrossing detail . . . Within his narrative, ostensibly a popular and often entertaining account of the rendering of Jesus in song, story, and spirituality, [the author] has embedded a fairly detailed history of American religion itself."—R. Scott Appleby, The New York Times

"[Prothero] mines not only sermons and theological tracts but also novels, biographies, songs, films, the press, and the visual arts to 'see how Americans of all stripes have cast the man from Nazareth in their own image' . . . American Jesus [offers] facts, anecdotes, and insights about its elusive and mystifying subject [while tracing] Jesus' journey from an abstract principle into a celebrity and, finally, an icon . . . Well written, judiciously argued, and impressively researched."—Michael Massing, The New York Times Book Review

"This wide-ranging history traces a dual evolution: of American religion (not only Christianity but Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) in terms of its relationship to Jesus; and of [Jesus'] multiform manifestations in response to changing cultural currents, from Thomas Jefferson's publication of a book of Jesus' life and sayings that excised all mention of the miracles and the resurrection to the Hindu Vendantists' veneration of 'Christ the Yogi.'"—The New Yorker

"American Jesus is an unabashed cultural history that considers representations of Jesus not just in missionary tracts, sermons, and theological treatises, but also in novels, biographies, films, music, and the visual arts—created, importantly, by Christians and non-Christians alike . . . [This book] is among the most interesting and engaging books in American religious and cultural history to appear in recent years. Academics and the general public alike will find it both informative and entertaining. Believers and non-believers will be fascinated by the story of how the United States came to be simultaneously a secular republic and Jesus nation."—Patrick Q. Mason, Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame

"Prothero painstakingly builds his case for how Americans of various faiths and backgrounds have embraced Jesus in their own images and on their own terms."—Sandi Dolbee, The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Wide-ranging . . . Indispensable . . . Splendid . . . Prothero conducts his quest for the American Jesus with broad and imaginative research, and reports his findings in a lucid and lively prose . . . Sifting through a vast assortment of material—books, pictures, films, sermons, hymns—Prothero offers a generous and often witty panoramic view of [Jesus]."—Eugene McCarraher, Chicago Tribune

"[A] fascinating cultural history [that] provides the necessary context to understand . . . the fundamental transformation of Jesus from a 'divinity to a celebrity.' Prothero traces the modern path of Jesus as he changed from a sacred figure bound by formal doctrine to an exceedingly approachable personal savior and an American icon whose appeal crosses theological boundaries . . . Prothero [has an] engaging style and eclectic approach to his topic . . . He offers a kaleidoscopic vision that strives to dismantle the separation between theology and popular culture."—Sharon Ullman, The Boston Globe

"A lively, illuminating, and accessible survey . . . For the general reader, American Jesus offers a fascinating tour d'horizon. For believers, it's testimony to Jesus' everlasting power and glory. For skeptics, it's proof positive there's a sucker born every minute."—Dan Cryer, Newsday

"[Prothero] has a lively, engaging writing style . . . His gift to the reader is using the background of the developing American consciousness of Jesus as a way to tell the intriguingly complex story of American religious life."—J. Brent Bill, Congregations

"Prothero's chapter on Judaism's changing attitudes toward Jesus [is alone] worth the price of the book."—Jack Miles, The Jerusalem Post

"[An] interesting and informative book."—David W. Barber, The National Post

"Important reading."—Christine Stansell, The New Republic

"A frequently fascinating romp through American culture with some emphasis on pop culture, showing the myriad ways in which the figure of Jesus has been detached from theological or churchly connections to become an icon for the promotion of almost anything . . . An interesting . . . exhibit that will find its place in departments of American Studies."—First Things

"An engaging book . . . Prothero moves breezily through this history with an encyclopedic command of others' research and popular culture. His survey of novels about Jesus provides a particularly illuminating gauge of changing thought. And, most originally, he studies portraits of Jesus, finding in this mass-produced art a graph of American attitudes about the Savior . . . He uses the image of Jesus as 'a Rorschach test of ever-changing national sensibilities.' The results of that test, carried out with such energy and wit, will make it impossible to tolerate simplistic references to America's Christian or secular character ever again."—Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

"Deftly written."—David Morgan, The Cresset

"Prothero eschews American theology in favor of its art, music, literature, and film to answer the intriguing question, 'How did the Son of God become a national icon beloved by Jerry Falwell and the Dalai Lama alike?' The author has chosen to capitalize on Jesus the man and universal Christ while largely ignoring the nature and function of a dogmatic Christ as messiah. Objective and dispassionate throughout, the author confidently assures the reader that Jesus really matters—that he serves as a common cultural coin in a country divided by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and religion. Salty and savory quotes (including Langston Hughes's 1932 incendiary poetry describing a black Jesus) season the chapters well and flavor the author's underlying belief that there is a huge difference between authentic Christianity and organized 'churchianity.' A detailed time-line and bibliography accentuate the value of this popular and scholarly survey of the 'American' Son of God. It is a witty, entertaining, and eye-opening romp through American cultural history—as exciting as William Manchester's 1974 The Glory and the Dream. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries."—Library Journal

"On magazine covers, movie screens, and even hot-air balloons, images of Jesus abound in a modern America ever more mesmerized by the central figures of Christianity—yet ever less conscious of Christian theology and doctrine. In a wide-ranging investigation, religious historian Prothero probes the cultural dynamics that have transformed Jesus into a ubiquitous American presence while weakening the tethers of orthodoxy. The analysis begins with stern Puritan divines emphatic about the justice of the Father but nearly silent about the mercy of the Son. But the focus soon shifts to liberal nineteenth-century Protestants joyous in their celebration of a tender, even feminine Jesus. A muscular, manly Jesus came next, and eventually even non-Christian Americans were turning Jesus into everything from a Jeffersonian sage to a Hindu avatar. Prothero assembles a dizzying national collage . . . Fortunately, a rich bibliography will help readers to sort out the confusing plethora of American Jesuses."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist

"No religious personality has captivated so many Americans for so long p0as Jesus. Indeed, as Boston University historian Prothero demonstrates in this sparkling and engrossing book, Jesus is the one religious figure nearly every American, whether Christian or not, past and present, has embraced. From Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste Bible to Jesus Christ Superstar, from the feminized Christ of the Victorians to the 'manly redeemer' of Teddy Roosevelt's era, from Buddhist bodhisattva to Black Moses, Prothero surveys the myriad ways Americans have made Jesus in their own image. He usefully divides these American Jesuses into 'resurrections'—revivals of Jesus within mainstream Christianity—and 'reincarnations'—appropriations of Jesus by outsiders. This scheme allows Prothero to range widely, and if he sometimes drifts from his primary focus, the digressions are fascinating in their own right. Nearly every page offers a fresh portrait of some corner of American religious history. A work of this breadth must depend heavily on other writers, but Prothero almost always has a judicious interpretation of his own to add—most of all, his contention that Jesus' enduring appeal confirms America's essentially Christian character even as it also demonstrates America's growing religious diversity."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Wry and pungent . . . Prothero declares upfront that his search here is for the 'cultural' Jesus immortalized in America's T-shirts, bumper stickers, and religious theme parks, not the historical person whose divinity is affirmed by the tenets of Christianity's major churches. The author devotes a lengthy chapter to Thomas Jefferson, who revered the moral teachings of a secularized Jesus despite being called 'godless' by some political opponents. Abjuring open discussions of his or anyone's religion, Jefferson literally cut the mystery away from Jesus by taking scissors and paste pot to the New Testament on two occasions while in the White House and producing two 'very thin books' on what he considered the essence of those teachings—emphatically minus virgin birth, the Trinity, any and all miracles, and especially the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which Jefferson denounced in correspondence as 'maniac ravings.' Calvinism all but crumbled, Prothero continues, under the mid-19th-century evangelical wave that buttonholed the nation and insisted on bringing a personal savior into every home. The evolutionary theme here is: God and churchmen take a step back as Jesus steps forward. Further proof that formal Christianity can't rein Jesus in, the author asserts, lies in his long-standing and growing acceptance by other faiths like Hinduism and Buddhism, some of whose adherents will cheerfully 'prove' that Jesus was in fact a Buddhist. The same churches that feminized Jesus to make him palatable to homemakers 150 years ago, Prothero asserts, now sell him to today's consumers as your basic nice guy. Holiness, in other words, can't hold a candle to happiness and self-esteem. A work on religion that's also entertaining to read—no mean feat."—Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads



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American Jesus

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  • Stephen Prothero

  • Stephen Prothero is chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University. He is also the author of The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott and Purified by Fire: Cremation in American Culture. Prothero has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, and other publications.

  • Stephen Prothero
    Stephen Prothero