Take a look at newsstands and other pop-culture outlets and you'd think that Jennifer Lopez, rather than Jesus, is the reason for celebrating this month.
To be fair, J. Lo probably isn't bumping the humble Nazarene off magazine covers. Images of Jesus - as an adult, at least - aren't usually as abundant in December as they are around Easter.
And it's unusual to find much about the religious meaning of Christmas in mass culture anyway, unless you catch a performance of Handel's "Messiah" or watch Linus's sweetly earnest retelling of the nativity on "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
But the smattering of references to Jesus in pop culture this season suggests a post 9/11 interest in the grown-up Jesus and his teachings - as opposed to an emphasis on the miraculous aspects of the story of the Bethlehem babe.
"I suspect that the manger is not going to get as much emphasis this year as the adult man or the message that he came to give - to the extent those can be separated," says Phyllis Tickle, author of "Godtalk in America" and contributing editor in religion at Publishers Weekly. People are "trying to get at him - get at the heart of [Christianity]," she adds.
The search for the grown-up Jesus stems from a trend in learning about the mature leaders of other religions after Sept. 11, and not surprisingly, it's being communicated in pop culture in the "Entertainment Tonight" fashion of the day.
The media are covering the modern search for Jesus - and other figures - in much the same way they cover celebrities. What Jesus looked like is a popular topic - the cover story in the December issue of Popular Mechanics is about using forensic science to figure out "The Real Face of Jesus." A recent novel "Cloning Christ," explores what would happen if his DNA were recovered from the cross. And Abraham - who was the common ancestor of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity - got pop-star treatment on the cover of the Sept. 30 Time magazine.
"It just says 'Abraham,' just one word. Like Cher, like Madonna," notes author Bruce Feiler, who wrote "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths," the bestselling book that prompted the cover story.
The Bible is "perpetually now," explains Mr. Feiler, and is more relevant to everyday life. " 'Now' is celebrity culture. So we're basically making Abraham into a rock star. We're making Jesus into a movie star. What did he look like? What did he eat? It's sort of making them relevant to the 'E.T.' culture," he says.
Interest in the historical Jesus - his teachings and actions, rather than the more symbolic stories about his birth - was strong in the past decade, but is heating up again thanks to curiosity about the teachings of other religious figures post 9/11. People are turning to Jesus, Ms. Tickle suggests, after they get up to speed on Muhammad.
"Politically, we've had to engage the question, What did Muhammad say? What was the core of what he was a conduit for?" she says. That leads to similar questions about Jesus and Christianity, "because there's a political necessity, as well as a cultural one, for understanding what these two men had to say and what their adherents see as their obligation," she …