Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus

Article excerpt

The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus. By David Burns. [Religion in America, Vol. 24.] (New York: Oxford University Press. 2013. Pp. xii, 275. $65.00. ISBN 978-0-19-992950-4.)

The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus provides an intellectual and cultural history from the mid-1800s to World War I of the Jesus imagined and promoted by writers, freethinkers, unionists, socialists, anarchists, and other varieties of left-wing activists who were socially conscious advocates of the working class. Burns is careful to note that the radical Jesus's visage seldom engaged the interest of African Americans, mainline Protestants, and Roman Catholics. But despite this, he argues, historians must "rethink standard cultural categories and recognize the influence that radical religionists exerted on Gilded-Age and Progressive-Era America as unconventional thinkers who believed that imagination could produce truths as valid and viable as those generated by the intellect" (p. 13). Specifically, Burns suggests that proponents of the radical historical Jesus (1) contributed to the spread of religious modernism outside seminary gates and into the homes of work- ing Americans and (2) were among the individuals and structures fomenting the "overall secularization of American society" between the Civil War and World War I by creating a climate in which secular scholars came to wield an authority on certain topics that was previously the sole possession of theologians and ministers.

As works such as Stephen Prothero's American Jesus (New York, 2003) and Richard Wightman Fox's Jesus in America (San Francisco, 2004) have shown, the figure of Jesus has-more than any other-been imagined in multiple ways that reflected the desires, characteristics, and hopes of those Americans doing the imag- ining. In that respect, one could argue that those Gilded-Age and Progressive-Era individuals and groups who envisioned and promoted a proletarian, anticapitalist, and even anticlerical Jesus were in many ways similar to the fundamentalists, evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and new religious-movement participants that engaged in the same sort of creative imaginings. …

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