American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon
R. W. Rasband
Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2003. Hardcover:
Suggested retail price: $25.00(US)
A very interesting new book, in light of all the recent media attention the Savior has gotten, is Stephen Prothero's "American Jesus." Prothero is a historian at Boston University and his book is a survey of American historical responses to Jesus, from the rise of Christianity in the early 19th century to the "Jesus freaks" of the 1960's and '70's. The American Jesus has escaped the bondage of formal creeds and has become a leading character in the national myth: although Prothero doesn't include it, Levi Peterson's "Cowboy Jesus" from his novel The Backslider would be an ideal example of this transmutation of Jesus from distant God to beloved American friend.
Prothero has a chapter titled "Mormon Elder Brother" which describes with a good degree of accuracy the history of LDS Christology. He says that the first decade was "textual Mormonism" with members following a relatively orthodox Christianity based on the Christ-centered Book of Mormon. The years 1840 to 1890 were "temple Mormonism" when the saints morphed into a semi-Hebraic people with a larger emphasis on ritual and good works rather than faith. The entrance of the church into the American mainstream after 1890 produced a more conventionally Christian church. But Prothero says that Mormons still have an "arm's length" relationship with Jesus compared with others. He is more our Elder Brother than pal. (As Bruce R. McConkie wrote, we give the Savior proper deference and respect.) There are a couple of ways a faithful Mormon can respond to this. The gospel has always been the same but different historical circumstances call forth diverse responses within that context.
(The pioneer era would understandably embrace a works-oriented ethic, or the people wouldn't have survived in the first place,) And when one observes the frenzy, hysteria, and expectations of "cheap grace" with which many greet Jesus, one can be grateful for the rational approach in such LDS classics as James E. Talmage's Jesus The Christ. Prothero examines that book, as well as more recent events like the George W. Pace controversy at Brigham Young University, and the theological clashes between Mormons and Southern Baptists. Prothero is highly readable and he gets his facts right, whatever you may think of his conclusions. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece he clearly saw that some Mormons would have problems with Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ because of our belief that the Atonement took place in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than on the cross.
R.W. Rasband April 10, 2004
© 2004 R.W. Rasband