The America of the title is the United States, from colonial times to the present. The Jesus of the title is all the things the subtitle says and more. To Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” Americans have offered seemingly numberless and often contradictory replies. In Jesus in America, Richard Wightman Fox undertakes to “document the diversity”—or at least “a fair sample” thereof—while “throwing some light on basic historical patterns and particularities,” and in his four hundred pages of text covering four centuries Fox manages, remarkably, to display no condescension toward the favored Jesus of any American (although he does take a sour tone toward one American, as we shall see).“This book is for believers and nonbelievers alike. It is not a book about whether one should believe in Jesus, but about how Americans have believed in and portrayed him.” To open it is to see at once that this is a popular history for the general reader, an historical narrative of “the national infatuation with Jesus,” a primer on Jesus in America written in a friendly prose that undergraduates could easily handle. Fox’s tone is that of a teacher inviting students to imagine sympathetically, with his expert help, how people lived and thought in times that preceded our own—specifically, Christian people, with whom Fox seems to expect the reader to have at best an imperfect sympathy. “We can overcome our blindness about others, past or present, only if we try to see and feel things as they did.” Beneath this cordial classroom manner is considerable scholarship, of which readers can avail themselves in Fox’s generous and well-written endnotes, which are designed also to be a guide to further reading. In addition to a teacherly solicitude for students and an historian’s enthusiasm for his subject, there is also evident here a kind of reportorial detachment (now and then as the cavalcade of personalities and religiosities passes, one thinks of Herodotus genially reporting to the Greeks about Egyptian lore). Fox “keeps his ear open” to the many voices in America’s “collective cry for Christ,” but frequently expresses a kind of agnosticism that may not be just a pedagogical device: “I do not know whether believers are right about Jesus’ being a divine Comforter who sends them his spirit. I do think that their belief in him makes perfect sense, and I know that their belief has profoundly shaped American and world history.”
Fox warns early on that because he is writing a history of American Jesuses and not of American religions, he will perforce “lean to the Protestants.” Catholics, though “a major force in America from the beginning,” have not contributed as heartily to the continual reconceiving of Jesus that is our national pastime. “Protestants did much more innovating in their conceptions and experiences of Jesus.” Why haven’t Catholics kept up? “On the whole Catholics have been satisfied that they already have complete access to the real Jesus.” (That is one way of putting it, although to advert merely to felt satisfaction and lack of felt desire, with no mention of adherence to creed, submission to authority, or acceptance of magisterium, is surely to state only part of the case about Catholics.)
Fox’s report is chronological, beginning with Jesus’ entry into the New World with the French and Spanish missionaries and explorers. (He duly notes the Mormon claim that Jesus was here much earlier, among the Nephites.) Ensuing are one chapter on the seventeenth century, one on the eighteenth, two on the nineteenth, two on the twentieth, and a twenty-first-century epilogue, with political, economic, and demographic “intersections” pointed out as occasion warrants. The main outline of the chronicle soon becomes evident and, indeed, predictable—all sides in every debate laid claim to Jesus—but Fox’s summaries of the changes rung on the Jesus theme are astute and pithy:
As more and more eighteenth-century American Protestants embraced the born-again version of ‘believing in Jesus,’ Christ himself was reborn in American culture.... The upshot of this passionate piety was to minimize the importance of sharp boundaries between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to allow ‘Jesus’ to function as an umbrella term for all three....
Orthodox Calvinists read John 3:16 and stressed the first clause: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.... Revivalists switched the emphasis to the second clause of John 3:16: believe in Jesus and you will not perish but be saved. Do what it takes to save yourself: take Jesus as your personal savior....
Northern abolitionists and southern slaveholders brought all their profound disagreements about selfhood and society, sin and progress, to their encounter with Jesus. Each side produced a Christ it could recognize and revere.
So why this ceaseless Jesus-interpreting and frequent Jesus-mongering? Fox repeatedly makes the point that Americans have found Jesus uniquely useful in helping them “to embark on uncharted futures while maintaining a respectful attachment to tradition.” Jesus “has tied them to their past and empowered them to leave it behind.” Americans “could get divine sanction for making all things new while believing that they honored their most precious inheritance of all, Christ himself. They could see themselves as a chosen people—the ancient Hebrew notion adopted in the seventeenth century by the Puritans—but a people chosen now for free-spirited development as individuals.” This theme is restated in a hundred ways, and by the hundredth time it begins to sound very much as if we are trying to have our cake and eat it, too. But Fox is ready for that complaint, affirming that we are succeeding in that proverbially self-defeating endeavor: “With Jesus as their hero Americans could have their cake of old-time values and devour it, too.”
A reader finishing this history of America’s hospitality to Jesus may find the word “Procrustean” coming to mind to describe that hospitality, but this is not at any hint from Fox, who seems quite content with our Christological free-for-all. He offers no “Christ and culture” schema in which Jesus is awarded at least the integrity of an idea or principle: the Jesus whom he chronicles here is something else, an organic part (metaphorically) of this American organism. Fox says more than once, using an image from Emerson, that Jesus is so deeply “ploughed” into our cultural soil as to be inextricable from American life. With this as his favored imagery, it is not surprising that Fox would celebrate our luxuriant crop of Jesuses. (This reader’s mind inevitably goes to parables of wheat and tares, but Fox, as I say, gives no encouragement to such judgmental metaphors.)
It does seem a weakness in Fox’s treatment that he never suggests whether or how we Americans can discover any shaping limitations, any integrating constraints, either inherent or derived from authority, on our Jesus-reinterpretation. Fox credits Emerson with the insight about Jesus and America that seems to be Fox’s own guiding light: “As Emerson understood, Jesus is a renewable cultural figure precisely because Christians can become critically aware that they have neglected or exploited him.” All right, but no hint is given as to what someone who becomes “critically aware” is to do. Fox gives no explicit guidance—and properly so, as he is an historian and not a pastor—but neither does he offer any obstacle to the inference that every American is at liberty to create a new and more suitable projection of Jesus.
Is a Jesus so eminently malleable a Jesus eminently dismissible? Fox expresses no worries about Jesus’ continuing to play all the roles given him in the book’s subtitle. In bringing his book to a close in the present—including even some commentary on the film The Passion of the Christ—Fox does not confront the argument that all this Jesus-shaping has paved the way for Christianity’s demise, an argument such as that of James Turner that “having made God more and more like man—intellectually, morally, emotionally—the shapers of religion made it feasible to abandon God, to believe simply in man.” And although Fox has reported in detail much of what one might call the friendly fire directed at Jesus, he does not mention the increasingly heavy hostile fire directed at Jesus and his cult. (As Vincent Carroll and David Shifflett note in Christianity on Trial, “Christianity inhabits a strange space in American life…with more than 90 percent of citizens professing belief in God and a large majority claiming allegiance to a Christian denomination or sect. Yet Christians are regularly targeted for ridicule and vilification by a significant portion of America’s cultural elite.”)
Fox expects that Americans will continue to find gainful employment for the Messiah: “If Jesus keeps his lofty station as a prime American cultural hero in centuries to come, it will be for two reasons: because so many Christians find him useful as a means of congratulating themselves, and because so many find him indispensable as a critic of their self-congratulation.” Again, the reference to a certain psychological oscillation with which we are all familiar is accurate; but it is not immediately clear what would warrant our using Jesus as the hook whereon to hang our private emotional pendulum. When Fox does try to state forthrightly why Jesus should be the cynosure of our strivings toward self-improvement, the result is strange. Fox declares, “Jesus preached permanent revolution in the self. For a follower of Christ there can be no end to the self-scrutiny, and no end to the discovery of self-love masquerading as holiness.” One could agree that there is some insight here—but this language, with its Maoist cadences (change a word or two and it could be a poster on the wall at a meeting of cultural revolutionists) evokes a kind of Chairman Jesus (There Will Be No Backsliding!) who lacks, to put it mildly, several dimensions of the Jesus of the Gospels.
Near the end of the book Fox offers his “own answer to the question, ‘What would Jesus do?’” (The question, Fox notes, was made familiar in America as the signature phrase of the best-selling 1896 novel In His Steps by the Rev. Charles Seldon of Topeka.) “What would he do if he were an historian looking back at the cultural history of Christ in America?” asks Fox. “My guess is that he would listen in wonder, joy, confusion, and dismay to all the things that Americans have said about him for four hundred years.”
Perhaps so. But would dismay or joy predominate? I can imagine a worried follower of Jesus surveying the American scene and saying with Mary Magdalene, “What have you done with my Lord?” I can equally imagine a modern disciple, faced with this vast bazaar of Jesuses, seeking comfort in the words spoken to the first disciples when they were experiencing a noninclusive moment: “He that is not against us is for us.” But I find it hard to imagine a disciple, much less Jesus himself, experiencing positive joy upon finishing Fox’s book. Attempting to state some of the worries of believers today, Fox writes, “In an era of apparent trivialization of the Jesus image, when he turns up on T-shirts and in advertisements, and in the lyrics of hundreds of popular songs, one might conclude that his divinity had been fatally compromised and his humanity woefully abused.” But here Fox, for all his acuity, may be missing the believers’ real worry. Jesus’ appearance on kitsch or in ads, in vernacular modes and vulgar venues, is not the “trivialization” that worries believers. The worrisome trivialization is the sort this book seems to aid, lending scholarly support to a radical reductionism. The New York Sun’s review of Jesus in America happily concludes that while the “omnipresence of Jesus in our ostensibly secular country is troubling, his malleability is reassuring.” Fox—with his endless references to Jesus as “malleable figure,” “flexible symbol,” “useful cultural currency,” “ever-flexible,” and “capacious umbrella”—positively, if unintentionally, invites us to avail ourselves of such reassurance.
This capacious-umbrella Jesus is the Christ whom Fox in this book most devotedly imitates, and there is scarcely a latter-day American manifestation that cannot find a place in his personal big tent. He has a good word for the film Jesus Christ Superstar (a “long-needed corrective”), for Serrano’s “Piss Christ” photograph (it “provokes thought”), for McNally’s gay play Corpus Christi (it “tests cultural boundaries”), for Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code (it “forc[es] many readers like me to think further”), and so on. The only acid moment in the book, in fact, is its consideration of the biggest thing to hit American Jesusology in years, Mel Gibson’s film The Passion. Fox does not claim to have seen the “just-released film,” but he nevertheless has much to say about it, “judging by the trailer.” The “publicity frenzy in 2003” was a ploy, he advises, instigated because “filmmakers such as Gibson” have learned that “Jesus the cultural symbol could be easily mobilized to ensure a profitable reception.” A sneer is patent here. Yet a few pages further on, Fox praises at great length the “skill and passion” of black minister T.D. Jakes of Dallas, a “master orator” who may be creating “a remarkably potent Christian ministry,” and he rounds off his praise by saying, “Nothing could be more American: coming up with a new way of thinking about and marketing Jesus.” Here the approval is unmistakable.
Why does Jakes get the bright tone and Gibson the sour tone? It is not because Gibson is marketing Jesus; after all, that is part of the all-American game. It’s because as a “Latin traditionalist” he is marketing a retrograde and discredited Jesus. Gibson thus earns the distinction of being the only American in four hundred years of whose Jesus Fox unequivocally disapproves, and who alone is not invited to add his little patch to that great multicolored, homemade American Jesus quilt—three thousand miles wide and an inch deep—that Fox has described so warmly and so well.
J. A. Gray is Associate Editor of First Things.