During the September Zoom celebration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Jesus Seminar, Brandon Scott raised a provocative question: Why are Americans not interested in Jesus? This question was occasioned by the recollection that Robert Funk, in calling for a renewed quest of the historical Jesus, wanted to bring the insights of this critical scholarship into the public domain. Various self-appointed spokesmen (and yes, they were all males) for Christianity were then enjoying a significant hold on radio, TV, and news magazines. Yet, little, if any critical assessment of these voices was ever made. Funk wanted to bring the habits and insights of the academy into the public discussion in order to deepen the American conversation on religion in this country.
Now, when Scott raised this question of Americans’ non-interest in Jesus, I realized that many listening would see this question as another variation of the usual critique made of religion in America, namely, that Americans who claim to be Christian are often found to be hypocrites. From the weeping Bakers to the latest Falwell sexual shenanigans to crusading right-to-life bishops who overlook their priests preying upon the innocent, Americans have sadly noted major discrepancies from what we can recall from the words and career of Jesus.
On the other hand, for some this question may sound inane. Of course, people are sinners, but that doesn’t obscure the fact that Americans still are terribly religious people. Poll after poll by Pew Research indicates that Americans are not like those increasingly godless Europeans. We are still a pious people, even if we prefer to be considered “spiritual.” Moreover, during this pandemic numerous pastors have reinforced the exceptional nature of our Christian tradition by decrying and defying cautions, warnings, and lockdowns to bring their parishioners back to church. Religious liberty still is our nation’s trump card.
In recent memory presidential candidate George W. Bush spoke to Americans’ religious strain as he claimed Jesus to be his favorite philosopher—although he never indicated that he had consulted the cagey advice of the one who urged love of enemies in the fevered run-up to the Iraqi War. We also know that Martin Luther King, Jr., drew on similar chords by employing those non-violent aphorisms of Jesus, which he ironically learned through the Hindu Gandhi.
In fact, we can go back to the earlier days of colonization and note how the Puritans wanted to create that “city upon a hill” right out of the Gospel of Matthew (5:14). We can also see that whenever Americans declare this to be a “Christian nation” they are carrying forth this vision of an exceptional people, favored by God.
However, Christian “exceptionalism” didn’t start on the Atlantic shores. The tendency for Christians to lose interest in Jesus is quite old. It may be as old as the desire of Jesus followers to differentiate themselves from their contemporaries. We can say first of all that the historical Jesus offered his listeners a vision of a world that works as if God were in charge. In contrast to an apocalyptic future where rewards and punishments will be meted out, we find a kaleidoscopic vision that upends the usual way of power relationships. In fact, the more one considers the words of Jesus, the more one is led to the conclusion that he envisioned a world in which one could fall into the hands of the enemy and come out the better for it. His is a curious God who delivers benefits without distinction or discrimination. It is a God in whom the nobodies of the land can trust.
This vision was left in the hands of his followers. They continued to live within the competitive milieu of the Roman Empire. The very terms used to remember and honor Jesus were taken from that winner-take-all atmosphere. To call someone a “son of God” or “an Anointed One” played into the unceasing struggle to have or gain an advantage. The followers of Jesus claimed that they were “different” from others. For a while the Jesus followers upended the significance of the titles. What happens, for example, when one calls a godforsaken, executed criminal “God’s Anointed”? Or “a son of God”? For a brief time there was a creative scramble to re-envision how things were. But soon—one can see it already in the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians—the old world of domination and hierarchy creeps in. In the Roman world, difference was defined through domination. One becomes unique and different at the expense of others.
Perhaps the image of the Ravenna Christ discloses this incredible transmutation. In that fifth-century mosaic, found in the bishop’s palace, you see a beardless Roman decked out in imperial purple and military breastplate, offering in one hand an open codex and with the other a cross-turned-pike over his shoulder. Tellingly, this dominant figure’s right foot is crushing the neck of the Lion of Judah. The one who died without an advantage now holds all the cards.
The subsequent Christological disputes are further manifestations of this power drive. As you sift through the intrigue, donnybrooks, ideologies, and gossip from Nicea I (325 ce) to Nicea II (787 ce), it becomes clear that the various formulae are constructed to reify the dominant power Jesus—Anyone Interested? structure and to authorize those in authority to maintain this top-down dynamic. The wise words and inclusive actions of the historical Jesus were irrelevant in this transactional environment.
But what would happen if we were to juxtapose the wit and wisdom of the historical Jesus with those hankerings to maintain the powerplay of the world? Would we see why we are reluctant to hear those words? “Why not maintain our sense that God is on our side and will keep us intact against the various infections of our time?” we say. “Why worry about the godforsaken?” Are we living at the expense and sacrifice of others? Could it be that our sense of sacred privilege is built on nothing but a lie?
Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.
Subscribe to our email list and receive updates, news, and more.