How Faith Moves across Mountains; from the Fervently Religious Times of Centuries Past to Today's Secularized Society, Christianity Has Spread through America in a Garden of Eden Variety of Forms

Insight on the News, April 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

How Faith Moves across Mountains; from the Fervently Religious Times of Centuries Past to Today's Secularized Society, Christianity Has Spread through America in a Garden of Eden Variety of Forms


Byline: Stephen Goode, INSIGHT

Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ may be well down the road toward setting movie attendance and earnings records, but it's not the first time an American film about Jesus has packed viewers into movie houses and aroused a great national controversy.

In 1898 more than 30,000 saw Salmi Morse's Passion Play (which had been shot on the roofs of New York City buildings) during its twice-a-day, three-month run at Manhattan's Eden Musee. More would probably have seen the movie had not the nation's attention been turned to war by the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor.

Then in 1912, From the Manger to the Cross, the first feature-length film in America on the whole life of Jesus, debuted to reviews as mixed as those Gibson's Passion has received. One critic, disturbed by the scenes of Christ's scourging and crucifixion, called the movie "almost too ghastly in its strict realism." Another reviewer, obviously deeply moved by the experience, found all of the film's 75 scenes, including the scourging and crucifixion, to be of "chaste decorum," worthy of the public's attention and praise.

Those stories come from Richard Wightman Fox's new book, Jesus in America, which looks at the role Christ has played in American culture and life from earliest times to the present. It is not surprising that Fox, who teaches history at the University of Southern California and is the author of a biography of 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, finds Jesus' place in American history to be very important indeed.

Fox writes in his introduction, "Over two-thirds of the adults in one of the most modernized and industrialized countries in the world believe that a first-century Palestinian Jewish teacher and healer was and is the incarnation of God." That two out of three Americans express belief in Jesus as God is extraordinary in an age very often described as overwhelmingly secular. And as Fox shows, Christ's "lofty station as a prime American cultural hero" doesn't seem to have wanted much over the centuries since Columbus arrived in the new world.

Jesus' "name has been spoken continuously, earnestly and hopefully by a vast and diversified body of interpreters," Fox notes. That devotion to his name hasn't changed. What has altered are attitudes toward just what the name of Jesus means and what demands he makes on individual lives. But Americans today are as likely to "utter the name of Jesus as a means of lending authority to their views" as they were 200 years ago, even though their Christian faith is not traditional or is even nonexistent.

Fox starts out, as he must, in French Canada, the Spanish southwest and Puritan New England, where European Christianity made its first inroads in its various forms.

Upon the death of the Ursuline nun Marie de St. Joseph at Quebec in 1651, he writes, her mother superior described the young woman as living "only by faith and crosses," often experiencing "vivid impressions of the sufferings of Jesus Christ" so palpable that she suffered "almost continual pains and weaknesses." Marie's devotion was Old World Catholic it could have happened in Europe. Fox's point is that the faith was putting down firm root.

Less recognizably Old World and more American was the experience of Fray Salvador de Guerra in 1660, a decade after Marie's death, in what is now New Mexico. So upset was Fray Salvador at witnessing a pagan dance by the Pueblo indians at Isleta that he "took off his clothes, whipped himself, placed a crown of thorns on his head, and walked back and forth carrying a large cross." The priest's strange behavior caused the dancing to stop immediately, "and some of the tearful Indians asked [his] forgiveness" and eventually, but with difficulty, converted.

And about the same time that de St. Joseph and de Guerra were among those bringing Christ to New France and New Spain, English Puritan missionaries such as John Eliot were doing the same in New England in places such as the village of Natick, founded in 1651 in Massachusetts for "praying Indians. …

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