Everybody’s Pop Jesus

Without intending offense to anyone’s personal faith, I feel I should say at the outset of this sermon that I do not have a personal relationship with Jesus. I have a tremendous respect for the tradition, for the enormous body of faith that has developed about him, and for the teachings that have been attributed to him. But it has been many, many years since my association with Jesus has been by any means a relationship or anything like personal.

Like many children in Sunday School, I wondered over pictures of the long-haired, white-robed figure sitting with children all about him. And I sang the song along with all the other children, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so; Little ones to him belong. We are weak but he is strong.” But, also like many other little children, I had no idea what the Bible had to say about Jesus loving me. I had no idea what the song meant when it said that little ones, like me, “belonged” to him (being under the impression that I belonged to my parents). And what was that strange thing Jesus was saying – I think it was printed under the picture – “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” He certainly looked kind enough and the children certainly looked happy being around him. But I was nervous about the suffering part.

Speaking of suffering, no, I have not seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion,” and I doubt very much that I will. I know the story. As the gospel hymn says, “It’s the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” It is a heartwarming story. More than that, it is probably the best-known and most inspiring story of all of history’s accounts of martyrdom, self-sacrifice, and the possibilities for human love. As the gospel account has Jesus say, “Greater love than this has no man but that he lay down his life for his friends.’ But, again, I know the story. From all I’ve read and heard, it’s not the story Gibson tells.

I know that crucifixion was unbelievably cruel and gruesome; and, knowing Gibson’s other work, I don’t doubt that he has gone beyond any civilized limit in portraying it. The man seems to have a penchant for the pornography of violence. But Gibson’s realism on film is not going to change, for me, the story of sacrifice into a story of salvation. I do not have a personal relationship with Jesus.

Obviously millions upon millions do.

That this simple teacher from Nazareth could become, for over two thousand years, the central figure in one of the world’s great religions and, yes, the personal friend, brother, Savior, and God of untold millions is one of the miracles of human experience.

Here in America – as if to be the Son of God or Very God of Very God were not enough – Jesus has become cultural icon and idol. The three most frequent hits on the Internet’s Yahoo search engine in the past week have been for Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and Jesus, in that order. Ten thousand necklaces a day are being sold consisting of a nail supposedly like those used to crucify Jesus.

Books, articles, stories, and novels having to do with Jesus of Nazareth have been written over the centuries, literally in the hundreds of thousands.

As for film, I went to my computer and came up with two hundred and sixty references for films about Jesus – not yet counting Mel Gibson’s. The films go back to D. W. Griffith and his silent movie “Intolerance.” From another great director, there was Cecil B. DeMille’s grand epic for its day, “King of Kings.” “Kings of Kings,” by the way, was re-made when I was a teenager, and it starred young Jeffrey Hunter. In stark contrast to Gibson’s Jesus, Hunter seemed to keep his face clean and his hair impeccable. We called him “the teenage Jesus.”

Far more serious is the film some of you may remember as having been both scandalous and idolized at the time, Pier Paulo Pasolini’s 1966 “The Gospel According to Mathew.” Like Gibson’s film, it placed the blame for Jesus death squarely and unsparingly – and perhaps as pointlessly – on the Jews.

Pasolini, a non-Christian and atheist, portrayed Jesus as something of a scruffy, beatnik type who gathered a bunch of similar types about him and proclaimed all manner of revolutionary ideas, constantly castigated the Jewish leadership, making his death at that time predictable and inevitable. Unlike Gibson’s film, Pasolini’s was banned in many Roman Catholic dioceses. I remember seeing a priest in front of a movie theater standing, himself like a martyr in the drenching rain, apparently frightening off any whose curiosity was stronger than his or her obedient faith. Many who thought “The Gospel According to Mathew” to be blasphemous felt the confirmation of God’s justice when Pasolini’s body – his murderer unknown to this day – was left burning on a public beach.

From film to rock musical. The young, very human, tormented beatnik of Pasolini’s sixties was translated in the early seventies into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s prototypical hippie, “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” I recall sitting cross-legged (in a time when I could sit cross-legged) by the fire with a dozen or more young members of the congregation I was serving at the time listening to “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I guess my thought was to make Jesus “accessible,” even “familiar” to a group of young skeptics: to perhaps discover a serviceable “Unitarian Jesus.” The music was fun. We were in the cool young minister’s home (mine). There was beer and other stuff. In retrospect, I doubt that Jesus came to stay.

Much like today, spirituality was a popular pursuit in the ’70s – almost a desperate pursuit. It seemed that all the flowers were gone and the times, – they were “a-changin.” Young people were looking for a kind of “redemption” from it all that didn’t involve heaven or hell, virgin births or resurrections. Acoustic guitars were everywhere in the hands of high school drop-outs. The local catholic churches were holding “folk masses.” Publishing houses poured out prints of the Gospels in “modern idiom.” Jesus was – well, cool.

Stephen Prothero, a professor of Theology at Boston University, tells us that, in spite of the extraordinary diversity of faith, there are actually more Christians in American today than in any other nation in history. We are a nation intrigued-to-obsessed with things Jesus. Polls indicate that fifty percent of those considered “unchurched” nevertheless “believe in Jesus” – that he was born of a virgin and rose from the dead. It’s just another indication of the fact that this long-ago man, from so non-American a culture, is an American icon.

It was not always so. Americans are far more interested in Jesus today than were their Puritan forefathers who, Prothero writes, “were a God-fearing rather than a Jesus loving people.” The Puritans, of course, were literally in deadly opposition to iconography. There was certainly no “cult of the virgin” for them. And there was no “personal relationship with Jesus.”

There was a Trinity, of course, but God was the head of its household. And God was an angry God, not personified by the gentle Nazarene with children at his feet, but envisioned more as a hellfire-snorting Zeus ever on the look-out for any trace of passion, idolatry, or individual religious thought.

It could be said that none other than Thomas Jefferson revived Jesus for the faithful of the 18th century – at least for the rationalists of the 18th century, who included just about all the nation’s principle founders. Unitarians like to claim Jefferson as a Unitarian. And I suppose he was – “Unitarian” with a “small u” – in that he disclaimed any divine role for Jesus: for Jefferson, there was one God, not three. The author of the Declaration of Independence was also an editor of the Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus. Disgusted with the dogma, mystery, and miracle that he felt clouded the simple wisdom of Jesus, he took a razor to the New Testament and cut away a good ninety percent of the text.

This resulted in what came to be known as “The Jefferson Bible,” which is still very much available to us. Jefferson’s will to simplify, humanize, “strip to the bone” the life and teaching of Jesus – removing miracle and mystery intolerable to many of modern mind – has continued through the centuries despite the growing strength of fundamentalists and literalists. As recently as 1993, Robert Funk’s Jesus Seminar (a “traveling” study of Jesus, which will be coming here to UUCA shortly) produced a highlighted version of the New Testament. This work is not as crude as Jefferson’s razor but is similar in some way in that what is excluded, by vote of the seminar scholars, is anything apparently physically unnatural or “theological.”

The figure of Jesus has shape-shifted back and forth through the decades and the centuries. As churches and preachers began to need to compete for hearers, the harsh God of the Puritans was gradually replaced with pleasant Bible stories with drawings for children. And Jesus as a personal savior, a figure who, in the old hymn, “Walks with me, and talks with me, and tells me I am his own” became much preferred to the angry God.

By the Victorian era, the figure of Jesus had become, according to many, “feminized” – appealing to women and mothers who were the backbone of the church and filled its pews. It was during this time that most of those Sunday School images of Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, first began to fill the coloring books and Bibles.

As the last century turned, however, and the war lust began to bloom again, another crisis in the image of Jesus emerged. He had become too feminized for the real men that the tent preachers and evangelists wanted sitting right there on the benches with the ladies, feet shuffling over the sawdust floor, two bits ready for the basket when it came around. Jesus warn’t no sissified, girlie-type, no sirree. Why he got out a whip and beat those moneylenders outta the temple and drove demons out jist by starin’ at ’em. Along came the like of traveling tent evangelist Billy Sunday, a retired baseball player to the Chicago White Stockings.

Billy Sunday became the hottest preacher of all the Elmer Gantrys on the circuit, insisting that Jesus was “the greatest scrapper that ever lived.” His “pitch” for the salvation of the souls of all those real men would reach its panting peroration when he would swing an imaginary bat at some invisibly threatening devils, run to the back of the revival tent, and then come tearing back down the aisle, ending with a long slide in the sawdust to the platform.

A home run for Jesus! The crowds went wild.

We had come full circle as the last century progressed. The sports world and Hollywood created a culture of celebrity, and Jesus began to become the Superstar, mainstay of the literary world, star of stage and of silent silver screen, come to this latest performance of blood, gore, and nascent bigotry.

And again, “Who Do Men Say That I Am?”

The question comes from the Christian Gospels, from those accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus that were written down from thirty to fifty years after his death. The Gospels do not tell us who this man was. In careful study, they may reveal some of his remarkable teaching. They may intimate some of what he actually did and they tell us something – not much – of what happened to him. No one recorded what was said. No one wrote what was done. We do not have an historical record but a portrait that changes to meet the needs of the day.

For the most part, what we have in those compilations of stories are not so much the declarations of the man but the faith declarations of the church that grew up about him. When we read,
“Jesus said,” we are more than likely reading what the church, in its growing power and billowing mythology, wanted Jesus to have said. And so, in answer to the question put for him to ask, “Who do men say that I am?” The church responds, in the mouth of Peter “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The church creates a Pope of a fisherman.

But Albert Schweitzer wrote long ago:

“He will not be a Jesus” to whom the religion of the present can ascribe, according to its long-cherished custom, its own thoughts and ideas, as it did with the Jesus of its own making. Nor will He be a figure which can be made by a popular historical treatment so sympathetic and universally intelligible to the multitude. “The historical Jesus,” wrote Schweitzer, “will be to our time a stranger and an enigma.”

Jesus Christ, Superstar, the American Icon. Everyone’s pop Jesus, fashioned out of a stranger of piercing wisdom, molded out of the mystery the faithful made of him. It seems that we need a Savior in America. Someone who would go that far to take away whatever burden it is with which we enter a theater or a church. It seems that we need a friend. We need to have a personal relationship with someone – someone from the beginning whose love is unconditional and, no matter what, everlasting.

Perhaps, for some, the need is so great, the sense of undeserving so deep, and the daily gutter-level emptiness of the culture so profound that it takes a huge, undiscriminating ego to produce on a screen ten times larger than life the possibility that someone, no matter how far or long ago, so loved us – whoever we are – that he endured all the producer’s nightmares for our sake.

Still, I wonder what connection has been made to the American Icon, the popular Jesus, “greatest scrapper the world has ever known,” as move-goers leave the blood-drenched, broken body dying with the hiss of hatred and bigotry in his ears. Surely none of that is the message. Surely the message comes earlier – quiet, less cinematic, earthy, and disarmingly, simple:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,

For they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,

For they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,

For they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful,

For they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart,

For they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,

For they shall be called children of God.

Surely this was the message.

And, surely, we have missed it in the medium.