Magazine article The American Enterprise

Very Personal Jesus

Magazine article The American Enterprise

Very Personal Jesus

Article excerpt

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon By Stephen Prothero Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 376 pages, $25

During his frantic scramble for a Presidential nomination, Howard Dean claimed to be a committed believer in Jesus Christ. At least in the sense, as he explained to the Boston Globe, that "Christ was someone who sought out people who were disenfranchised ... fought against [the] self-righteousness of people who had everything ... [and] was a person who set an extraordinary example that has lasted 2,000 years."

Many who believe in Jesus as something else, namely the Messiah, will find offensive the idea of his career reduced to that of a nice guy who fought for the downtrodden. But Howard Dean, according to a new book by Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, is following a long tradition of reinterpreting both the person and the legacy of Jesus.

Dean's interpretation most resembles that of non-Christians. In a Christmas Day sermon in 1925, Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise described Jesus as a good let and a moral teacher. Other Jewish leaders in this tradition, like Kaufmann Kohler, saw Jesus as "one of the best and truest sons of the synagogue," "a helper of the poor" and "a sympathizing friend of the fallen."

Some religious groups have gone a step further. Many sects of Hindus see Jesus as a product of divine incarnation, though, as Prothero explains, they believe God has taken on a different human form on numerous occasions when He has needed to make Himself known.

Prothero also notes that plenty of Americans who consider themselves Christians have likewise imposed their own interpretations on the Savior. The first Christians in America, he emphasizes, were not all that concerned with Jesus. There was little room for the corn forting face of Christ in Jonathan Edwards's picture of a "God that holds you over the pit of hell."

Prothero explains that "the Puritans were a God-fearing rather than a Jesus loving people. …

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