A few days after Easter, the Wall Street Journal published a story titled “Our Many Jesuses.”
The blurb below the headline read: “At a time of shrinking church membership, Jesus remains a uniquely powerful and popular figure in American culture. The great divide is over what he stands for.”
Next to the headline were Warhol-esque “screen prints” of Jesus in various colors. The implication: choose your flavor. Jesus, a bit like Warhol’s Marilyns, has become all things to all people – a cipher, perhaps, in a mass media environment of spin.
The story inspiring the image, a weekend think-piece with a meandering, New Yorker-type flair, was written by the Journal’s correspondent to the Vatican Francis X. Rocca. And despite the baldness of the piece’s headline and “hero image,” Rocca’s text was pleasantly wide-ranging and sympathetic. Prompted by the “He Gets Us” ad campaign launched during the Superbowl, Rocca surveyed the various pop-culture “personas” Jesus has assumed in recent years, sometimes connecting them to ancient history. He emphasized, for example, that there are four accounts of Jesus’s life in the Bible – four different flavors! Each one – each gospel – pitches Jesus slightly differently, to a slightly different audience. The “spin,” it seems, began at the beginning.
Of all people, Jesus of Nazareth is uniquely susceptible to appropriation, misunderstanding, distortion, selective interpretation. And this isn’t just because He said and did a lot of things that can be polarizing. When one’s religious founder is God Himself, it makes sense that there’d be lots of angles to explore! It also makes sense that there’d be lots of complexities to reconcile.
And this is even more the case when the God manifested is no mere randy, humanoid mountain-dweller (like Zeus on Olympus), but a Being at once transcendent, all-perfect and infinite. What a conundrum! With one fell swoop Christianity, about 2000 years ago, replaced entire pantheons of Mediterranean gods with a single deity. Then it declared that deity identical with a roving provincial teacher. Mind-blowing. People have been trying to get a grip on Jesus ever since.
Correggio, Head of Christ, Italy, 1521
The weirdness of Christianity, the absolute strangeness of Jesus, helps explain why the earliest Christian disputes were not really about rules or governance or policy or territory – they were about That Man. Who – or what? – was He?
His mystique – even hundreds of years later, when Christianity became “official,” – was never really in doubt. But what were people to do with it? How were they to understand it? The Sabellians thought Jesus’s human form was kind of like a mirage emanating from divine plenitude – not an actual human manifestation. The Adoptionists thought Jesus was born human but later “adopted” by God and lifted to a higher state. Meanwhile the Arians, the most influential of all, thought Jesus was a kind of demigod – neither actual God nor quite human – who served as a special mediator between the erstwhile unbridgeable human and divine.
Arian Jesus, from the Arian baptistery at Ravenna, 5th c. AD.
These types of debates may seem quibbling or esoteric today. And worse than that, they also seem impractical. Because today, we don’t debate who Jesus was as much as what we think His opinion would be on this or that political issue. (At least, that is Rocca’s argument in the Wall Street Journal piece.) Was Jesus more in favor of helping the poor, or was He more in favor of personal discipline? And if so, what does that mean for attempts to “legislate morality?” Would Jesus have ever approved of war? What would He have thought of the “welfare state?”
Frankly, the idea that so many of us still care what Jesus would think is remarkable. His mystique, after 2000 years, remains.
Kent Twitchell, 111th St. Jesus, Los Angeles, 1984
And something still more remarkable: even in our apostate, experimental, off-the-rails age, I think many average, unchurched people still share a sense of Jesus’s divinity. Somehow, there’s no longer a need for an Arian rehash. There is not remotely a need for Adoptionism 2.0. Despite everything, I think that many average, “secular” Americans, on a deep subconscious level, somehow feel that Jesus is God – or at least, kind of divine. Don’t many of us, regardless of creed, irrevocably, irritatingly feel that Jesus is the one sizing us up and declaring our lives worthwhile (or not)? Don’t many of us, regardless of creed, feel especially triggered by people who “speak” for Jesus – because, well, they claim to speak for Jesus?
And that actually matters?
For many secular Americans, even if they wouldn’t admit it, it seems that what Jesus thinks is actually, existentially important. Their unconscious attunement to His gaze saturates the air.
Aelbert Bouts, Man of Sorrows, Netherlands, 1525
As I walk the streets of secular Seattle, chatting with bespoke-spiritual tech bros or crystal-curious housewives, I think I see Jesus looking over their shoulders. They can’t hear Him clearly yet. He sounds like the voice of Dad, or Big Brother, or Bully, or Cool Kid. He sounds like Childhood Pastor sometimes, and sometimes like Rock Star. His appraising eyes and gentle call are filtered through tropes and memories and biases and stereotypes. But He’s there, always there – content, I guess, to be misunderstood for as long as it takes.
And then, the moment He is glimpsed, He will become the subject of heated argument. Because He will seem too big and confusing.
And the drama of ages will begin again, in the heart of a single soul, in the midst of a strange generation, under late-night neon or sodden, gray clouds, as a bus rattles by.
Rembrandt, Supper at Emmaus, Netherlands, 1629.
Author’s note: Special thanks to Avril Barlow, who inspired this post.