The "Jesus" Industry
JESUS IS SHOWING UP EVERYWHERE THESE DAYS, AND not just in the places that I’m used to finding him. All of a sudden, Jesus is in the movies, on the cover of spy novels, and even on the New York Times Bestseller list. The problem is that I don’t always recognize the Jesus I see in these places. The best selling book—now a major motion picture—The Da Vinci Code tells a story about a married Jesus and his children. The National Geographic Society trumpets the recovery of the Gospel of Judas Iscariot, which promises to tell us the “real” story of Jesus of Nazareth, a story in which Judas is Jesus’ closest confident and privy to his most important secrets. Books entitled The Jesus Papers and The Jesus Dynasty are currently displayed on a local bookseller’s “New Arrivals” table. There’s money to be made in Jesus.
Even though this pop-culture pseudo religion doesn’t interest me much, it does concern me. The promulgators of commercialized, pop-culture fare hardly seem the most trusted custodians of the story of the life and death of our Savior and of the church he founded. Some will defend these films and books as “just entertainment” to be enjoyed and not taken seriously; however, the purveyors of this entertainment casually weave together so much fact and fiction that it is hard to know which is which. Historical fiction can be powerful stuff. A high school history teacher I know tells me that he still can’t teach about the Kennedy Administration without students in his class correcting him with “facts” they gleaned from Oliver Stone’s JFK.
Not only do these works of historical entertainment blend fact and fiction, they usually blend it in artful ways that appeal to those who prefer alternative versions of history. The Da Vinci Code gives us a church that accords women a central role in the faith. The Gospel of Judas tells us about a kind of Christianity founded on an inner-perception of truth, free from burdensome, external institutions. Whether or not these visions of what the church should be are true, the fables spun to support them are patently false. Authors like Brown treat Christianity as merely one ingredient to be blended with other bits and pieces of pop culture as they concoct a brew more palatable to twenty-first century American tastes than the historic faith itself. Even Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, though better received among Christians and more faithful to scripture than other recent offerings, expanded on and manipulated Christian tradition to a troubling extent.
More interesting to me than this pop-culture Christianity has been Christians’ responses to it. Concerned by the confusion that The Da Vinci Code’s fables could create, Christian leaders of all stripes were prepared to respond. A few groups boycotted the film and picketed theaters. Some priests and pastors asked their flock not to see it. Others have used the film’s release as an opportunity to get out their own message. The Christian press is churning out responses to Brown and his ilk, and the Internet and airways are filled with contra-Da Vinci Code talking points. If fictions like Brown’s get people asking questions, then what better time to have some good answers ready?
There is a too obvious contrast to be made with the Muslim response to publication of the infamous Muhammad cartoons. When a Danish newspaper published a series of unflattering caricatures of the Prophet, the result was riots in the street. Angry mobs attacked Danish and other western institutions throughout the Islamic world, and many Islamic leaders demanded that Western governments prohibit the publication of such blasphemy.
For some Christians, there is a temptation to be a bit glib when noting this contrast. It seems that Christians debate their opponents, while Muslims burn down their houses. Of course, that’s not fair. The difference between Christians and Muslims is not—in this case—their religion, but their political context. Most Christians who respond to films, books, or museum exhibits that offend their faith do not need to resort to coercive censorship or street riots. Until recently, Christianity has thrived primarily in Western, liberal democracies with well established traditions of public debate and disagreement. Although even in Western democracies, Christians occasionally have resorted to legal censorship, they generally understand that a response of public persuasion is both more appropriate and more effective. This is why Christians have not (as of publication) begun fire-bombing theaters where The Da Vinci Code plays or ransacking bookstores selling National Geographic.
On the other hand, most Muslims—and particularly those Muslims who reacted violently to the cartoons’ publication— live under authoritarian regimes that rule through force and fear. These nations have little or no tradition of peaceful, public discourse. In a society dominated by sheer force, the only way to be taken seriously is to marshal sufficient force of your own to make the authorities come to the table and listen to your demands. Often, the only known way to defeat an opponent is through violence or intimidation. The protests and riots we saw on television probably can teach us less about the Islamic religion than they can about the weak political cultures in the societies where they took place.
Christians have learned through experience that religious faith does not need to be protected by the state to survive. Many scholars now recognize that, contrary to some expectations, Christianity remained strong in the United States precisely because it lacked such protection. (See for example Finke and Stark’s seminal 1992 work The Churching of America, 1776–1990.) Without the guarantee of state protection, American Christians had to work harder to spread their faith. As each new Christian group developed methods of evangelization and made a place for itself within the nation’s pluralistic landscape, Christianity in the United States thrived. In contrast, the established, state churches of Europe had no reason to work hard to attract new members; as a result, their publicly-funded cathedrals now are filled primarily by American tourists.
We need to keep this in mind whenever the latest batch of “Jesus stories” come out. Christianity has thrived for hundreds of years in a culture that allows others to misappropriate our faith for their own purposes. Our task in responding remains what it has been for centuries: to present the truth more compellingly than they present their fictions. The genius of America’s religious marketplace is not that it allows religion to be boiled down to the least offensive common denominator—although that is always a danger. The genius is that it leads Christians to become better defenders and evangelists of their own faith, so that by their own efforts they can ensure that the truth prevails.
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The Cresset notes with sadness the May 13 death of Jaroslav Pelikan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University. Pelikan, the author of dozens of books, including the authoritative, five-volume The Christian Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1971–1989), was among the world’s leading authorities on Christian theology and medieval intellectual history.
Many Cresset readers also will recognize Pelikan as a former editor of this journal, and some even remember him fondly as a colleague and friend. During a two-year stay at Valparaiso University in 1947–1948, Pelikan taught history, philosophy, and religion while assisting O. P. Kretzmann with The Cresset. He stayed in close touch with Valpo over the years and influenced generations of faculty and students here. At later positions at Concordia Seminary-St. Louis and the University of Chicago, he taught many future members of the Valparaiso University Department of Theology. He also returned to campus frequently for lectures and to visit old friends. His writings continue to be read and enjoyed on our campus to this day.
We are pleased to reprint in this issue, one of the earliest essays published in The Cresset by Jaroslav Pelikan, friend and former editor of this journal, who now has joined the nearer presence of the Lord.