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
"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
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
"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 explains. …