Monday, January 31, 2005

 

More on Jesus, Jefferson, and Prothero (with a little Moltmann on the side)

A word to the wise: this may break the record for my longest post, and I'm not sure it is substantive enough to deserve that dubious distinction. The title alone should indicate that it is scatter-brained, but at least I've separated it into some bite-sized pieces. I know I've promised a Part II to my post on antislavery historiography, but in the meantime I felt moved in a different direction. This post is the wandering (and wondering) result.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been using some of my spare moments to read Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. This post contains an interim review on the book so far, as well as some foolhardy conjectures about theology and politics toward the end.

* * *

First, the book report. I've now finished Part I, "Resurrections," which considers how successive generations of American Protestants have imagined the figure of Jesus. Each chapter in Part I follows a basic structure. Prothero begins by outlining some broad cultural transformation in ideas about Jesus and then suggests how this transformation has contributed to the shape of contemporary American Protestantism.

I've alluded to Chapter 1, "Enlightened Sage," in my earlier post. In the late eighteenth century, Enlightenment rationalists like Thomas Jefferson redescribed Jesus as a Great Thinker and Ethicist, stripping him of the various robes of royalty or divinity placed on his person by church traditions. Prothero sees echoes of Jesus the "Enlightened Sage" in modern projects like the Jesus Seminar, which also attempt to separate the "historical Jesus" from the Christ of faith.

Chapter 2, "Sweet Savior" deals with nineteenth-century evangelicals, who feminized the figure of Jesus and reimagined him as a sentimental friend. These developments sowed the seeds for the now pervasive idea among Protestant Christians that Jesus is a "personal Savior," to be either accepted or rejected by the individual believer. Contemporary evangelicals still reveal their roots in nineteenth-century revivalism when they speak today of inviting Jesus into one's heart, having a "personal relationship" with him, and so on. Ironically, however, Prothero shows that the "Sweet Savior" image of Jesus was also an outgrowth of the "Enlightened Sage." Both portraits emphasized the humanity of Jesus over his divinity, so it is not surprising that liberal Protestant theologians in the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced both by the quest for a historical Jesus and by the evangelicals' turn towards a more humane Jesus. "All but the most radical Protestant liberals affirmed the divinity of Jesus," Prothero says near the close of Chapter 2, "but they emphasized his humanness. Though some focused on the Jesus of history, most spoke of Jesus in experiential terms, placing him not in first-century Palestine but in their own hearts" (p. 83).

Chapter 3, "Manly Redeemer," follows Jesus into the turn of the twentieth century. Many cultural historians now depict this era -- the age of Teddy Roosevelt and Rough Riders -- as an age of endangered masculinity. From psychologists to physicians to Protestants, many Americans worried about things like the "over-civilization" of young boys and the emasculation of men by the quotidian routines of modern business. Many men (including the earliest members of the YMCA: consider what the acronym stands for) took up hobbies like boxing and hunting, hoping thereby to rediscover a raw and "strenuous life." In the process, their Jesus also became a rough and tumble Man with a capital "M." A "muscular Christianity" was born. Songs like "Onward Christian Soldiers" were sung -- with feeling. Billy Sunday, the hugely popular forerunner to celebrity evangelists like Billy Graham, told his audiences that Jesus "was no dough-faced, lick-spittle proposition." Instead, Sunday said, "Jesus was the greatest scrapper that ever lived," adding that "the manliest man is the man who will acknowledge Jesus Christ" (p. 94).

Jesus was not just a manly man; he was a business man, too. In the early twentieth century, bestselling biographies of Jesus stressed his career as a carpenter, his interactions with people "on the job," his familiar and jocular way of associating with the common man, his "personality." Prothero argues that the American Jesus was caught up in a broader shift from a "culture of character" to a "culture of personality." "New notions of the hero and a new emphasis on personality produced a new understanding of Jesus as a man of action with a magnetic personality," he writes. And at a time when strenuous self-assertion was becoming widely accepted, "Jesus became a personality par excellence -- someone his followers could imitate only by endeavoring to discover in themselves their own true selves" (p. 111). Jesus was "bully," to borrow the idiom of TR.

Once again, and perhaps paradoxically, Prothero shows that Jesus as "Manly Redeemer" would not have been possible without Jesus the "Enlightened Sage" or Jesus the "Sweet Savior." And it's again not hard for Prothero to suggest connections between the Jesus "cult of personality" and the current culture of Protestant evangelicalism in the United States, which every year produces countless books on Jesus "leadership style" and his gospel of prosperity and self-actualization. Although Prothero does not mention these titles in particular, Jesus the "Manly Redeemer," the ideal CEO, still makes regular appearances in books like Tender Warrior: God's Intention for a Man and the bestselling Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secrets of a Man's Soul.

Chapter 4, "Superstar," takes us into the late twentieth century and up to the present, beginning with the 1960s "Jesus movement" that set about rediscovering Jesus as a hippie. Theatrical productions like Godspell and Jesus Christ: Superstar, says Prothero, were manifestations of a general interest in making Jesus real and relevant to pop cultural audiences. Jesus became, for "Jesus freaks" and flower children, a homeboy and the highest "high" there is. We are still living, of course, with the effects of Jesus' rocket-ride into superstardom. A commercial empire of Christian retail still seeks to make Jesus "cool" to today's generation, just as the "Jesus movement" of the 1960s attempted to do its generation. Christian contemporary music, first marketed in the 1970s, has now become a mainstream music industry. Prothero also connects "Jesus the Superstar" to the rise of huge "seeker-sensitive" megachurches, since the intent of churches like the influential Willow Creek Community Church is to figure out what attracts contemporary seekers to Jesus, and then to give that Jesus to them. The synergy between Christian retail, Jesus the "Superstar," and the "seeker-sensitive" church model was clearly demonstrated by the marketing and commercial success of Mel Gibson's recent film on the Passion, in which, of course, Jesus played the starring role.

* * *

Historians are trained to ask relentlessly: "So what?" So, so what? Why does Prothero think it matters that we take note of these images of Jesus -- as Enlightened Sage, as Sweet Savior, as Manly Redeemer, as Superstar? As far as I can tell, Prothero has two kinds of answers to the "so what" question. The first answer is simply this: Americans really like Jesus. A lot. Prothero wants to argue that despite all the discontinuities in the history of American Christianity, one thing has remained constant: a fascination with the figure of Jesus. His personality has been a perennial palimpsest for the cultural values of American Protestants. Here is Prothero on p. 155:
What is intriguing about the history of American Christianity is that. . . . [n]o one has seen Jesus as inessential. Over the American centuries, some liberals have given up on miracles, the inspiration of the Bible, and (in the case of the "Death of God" theologians of the 1960s) divinity itself. Some conservatives have given up on creeds, while others have jettisoned doctrines once thought sacrosanct, including predestination, original sin, and the substitutionary atonement. But rather than killing Jesus, these adaptations have only made him stronger. It almost seems as if the Christians who subtracted this doctrine or that rite were beginning to question their own standing, and in order to convince themselves (and their neighbors) of their bona fides they bent over backwards to laud and magnify their Savior.
So Prothero's first answer to the "so what" question is this: We should find it significant that American Christians have persistently seen "Jesus" as an essential part of their religion. By itself, however, this claim strikes me as about as significant as a tautology. Christianity, by definition, is a religion that makes claims about Jesus. So why should it be especially "intriguing" that some idea about Jesus is the lowest common denominator of American Christianity? If we found some Christians who claimed that "Jesus" was inessential to their Christianity, we could rightly wonder whether we are still talking to Christians.

By saying that I don't mean to become embroiled in a theological controversy about what a "real" Christian is. I simply presume that historians of Christianity need some working definition of the religion they are analyzing, and "the religion derived from Jesus Christ" seems as good a definition as any. If, however, that is the definition, then it seems little more than tautologous to point out that Christians just can't seem to let go of Jesus. Of course, they can't. If they could, we would need some other word to describe their particular form of religious belief.

To be fair to Prothero, I think what he really means to say is that Protestant American Christians have placed an intriguing emphasis on the person of Jesus, especially when compared to other kinds of Christians. This would be a more historically interesting claim--not that Christians can't let go of Jesus, but that some Christians have a tighter grip on him than others. Yet Prothero's book is not well suited to answer that question, because it lacks the kind of comparative context in which such a claim would have to be assessed. Part I of the book focuses exclusively on Protestant American Christians and then concludes that Protestant American Christians are intriguingly Jesus-centric. That may be true (it strikes me as plausible), but to prove it would require (a) bringing other Christian traditions into one's analytical frame and (b) widening the same frame to include other national contexts. You need something with which to compare Protestant American Christianity if you want to claim that its particular focus on Jesus is particularly intriguing.

Successfully achieving (a) would have made Prothero's book considerably longer. But this may be a case where elaboration would have been justified, even necessary. In the opening pages of the Introduction, Prothero notes that his focus will be exclusively on mainstream American Protestants, and especially evangelicals: "Artifacts of the American Jesus number in the millions, and one book obviously cannot cover them all. So this project is by necessity selective and by admission idiosyncratic. Here I ignore Native American and Hispanic Jesuses, and devote scant attention to liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholicism, Episcopalianism, and Lutheranism" (p. 14-15). This is the standard throat-clearing that every historian must do, and I have no problem with selectivity. As I've argued before, histories are by necessity selective and focused. But this does not mean that every way of limiting one's project is as good as any other. And in Prothero's case I suspect he knows that leaving out vast swaths of American Christianity like Roman Catholicism (!) is problematic.

Other parts of Prothero's introduction hint at the fact that he has these excluded traditions in the back of his mind when he writes that Protestants are especially Jesus-centric. For example, Prothero notes in passing that his story really begins "in the ancient Mediterranean, where Jesus was sustained in the scriptures, creeds, and rites of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians." In these liturgical traditions, he says, "Jesus receded from popular view, overshadowed by God the Father and, among many Roman Catholics, by saints such as the Blessed Virgin Mary" (p. 12). Now there is a crucial and extremely relevant claim: that for some Christian traditions, in certain places and at certain times, Jesus may not have been the lowest common denominator for their adherents. I have my doubts about that claim, too, but those doubts at least prove that these kinds of comparisons need to be explored within the book rather than simply asserted. By limiting the frame of the book to evangelical Protestant images of Jesus, while simultaneously gesturing to off-stage traditions which have putatively different images of Jesus, Prothero tempers the significance of his claim that "although the Christians highlighted in [Part I] often disagree about just who Jesus is, they all affirm his standing as a unique figure in sacred history" (p. 15). Don't all Christians affirm Jesus as a "unique figure"?

* * *

Fortunately, however, I don't think that Prothero's main answer to the "so what" question is simply to point out the Jesus-centrism of American Protestants. What's more interesting about the book is what goes on between the lines, where Prothero implicitly (sometimes explicitly) draws connections between each of the Jesus images he outlines. Contours of the "Enlightened Sage" can be spotted in portraits of the "Sweet Savior." The tell-tale brushstrokes used to paint Jesus as a "Manly Redeemer" were also used to portray him as a "Superstar." More important, the idea of Jesus as an "Enlightened Sage" set up the easel for all subsequent Jesus freaks and put the paintbrush in their hands. For what is significant about all of these Jesus portraits is how intensely privatized they are, how well they reflect the peccadilloes of their artists. Historically, all of them have depended on the idea that "the church" in one guise or another had gotten Jesus wrong, and that he therefore needed a makeover. In this sense, I think Prothero is right -- and provocatively so -- that Jefferson prepared the canvas for America's "Jesus nation" by defending the right of individual admirers to cut and paste their own Jesus together. All of the Jesuses that followed Jefferson's were made possible, so to speak, by the radical privatization of Jesus that he and other Enlightenment thinkers encouraged.

So what? Well, if Jesus the "Enlightened Sage" is intimately related to Jesus the "Sweet Savior," and if the "Sweet Savior" served in turn as a baseline drawing for the "Manly Redeemer" and the "Superstar," then criticizing what American Christianity has become might require going back to the drawing board altogether, or even going back to before there was a drawing board (to the extent that this would be possible). As Prothero notes on p. 156, critics of CCM or Christian retail or megachurches have more to erase than just Jesus the "Superstar," because that Jesus is really a collage of Jesus the "Sweet Savior," the "Manly Redeemer," and the "Enlightened Sage."
The modern-day Calvinists who decry the loss of doctrine that has beset even born-again Christianity have a legitimate complaint. But in order to carry the day, they need to take on not only the Jesus movement, the megachurches, and CCM but also Dwight Moody (who advertised aggressively), Ira Sankey (who set Christian songs to popular music), Billy Sunday (who was allergic to theology), and Billy Graham (who perfected the evangelism business). They might need to take on as well the nineteenth-century evangelical congregations whose decision to embrace Jesus as a sweet and tender Savior made them the first "seeker-sensitive" churches in the nation.
Prothero doesn't take this paragraph one step further, but he could. He could also say that critics of today's born-again Christianity, which has "personality" in spades but is often short on suits like doctrine and tradition, would have to take on Jefferson and his "Enlightened Sage" as well. Jefferson, after all, was also "seeker-sensitive." He too rejected antiquated church dogmas in favor of a Jesus who could be cut out of tradition and pasted together again in modern garb. Across the pages of Jefferson's edited New Testament fall the shadows of "Do You Know My Jesus?" and "What Would Jesus Do?"

Those who admire Jefferson as a staunch defender of the separation of church and state might be uncomfortable with my implication that Jefferson could be at all responsible for the state of today's evangelical megachurches, who seem to threaten the very wall that Jefferson labored to construct. (Members of megachurches might be equally uncomfortable with the idea that they share something in common with Jefferson.) So before either of you gets too uncomfortable, let me stress that I don't hold Jefferson directly responsible for Jesus the "Superstar" or Jesus the "Manly Redeemer." I'm moving into the part of the post where I play fast and loose with causation in order to make a conjectural point. And that point is this: the freedom with which American Christians now cling to their own personal Savior would be harder to imagine if Jefferson and his followers had not relegated Jesus to the private sphere. In other words, if nineteenth-century Christians went looking for a "Sweet Savior" in their hearts rather than in their churches, that's precisely where Jefferson had looked as well. I think that this is the subtle implication of Prothero's Part I, and if so it is a significant one.

* * *

Jefferson said, in 1814, that "our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man's, and trouble none with mine." Here is a paradigmatic statement of the view that religion is a private matter, a personal thing. Religion is a personality trait. Is it any wonder that the same historical trajectories that produced Jefferson later produced Jesus the manly man and the superstar? For the claim that religion is a personality trait and the claim that Jesus was a "personality" par exellence may be morphologically distinct, but they are genetically related. They share the gene that celebrates the atomized, individual person and regards the traditional community with automatic skepticism.

I do not want this gene to be suppressed, since I regard it as one of the healthiest features of American intellectual and religious life. Neither, however, do I think that the dominance of this strain of individualism has been an unqualified good. If it becomes the wholly dominant strain, it can encourage us to think that we are accountable to no one but ourselves for our beliefs. And by making religion simply a matter between me and my god alone, the apotheosis of personality can make matters difficult between me and you.

We can find examples of such difficulties littering the political landscape of contemporary America. What if my god, my personal Savior, says you must deserve your lot in life? Are you poor? Well, you must not have been the kind of carpenter that Jesus was; your manliness must not have been up to snuff. What's that? That's not what Jesus says about the poor? Sorry, but my particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to my god alone. I don't have to give you reasons for thinking Jesus was a "manly redeemer," so long as my reasons satisfy me.

The conclusion I'm trying to draw out is this: Many critics of evangelical Protestants -- particularly critics of their political conservatism -- believe the solution to the problem of religion in American life is to reinforce that religion is a private matter. But that idea is also part of the problem that religion in American life has become. If you don't like Jesus the Superstar, Jesus the General, Jesus the President, then you have to come to grips with the fact that a radically Jeffersonian privatization of religion -- a belief that one is only accountable to one's own god -- creates the conditions under which all of those other American Jesuses can exist.

More significant, the radical privatization of religion fits hand in glove with the simplistic reduction of complicated social and political problems into issues of personal character, personal integrity, personal relationships, personal savings accounts. The theologian Jürgen Moltmann, along with other liberation theologians, made this point as well as anyone in his Theology of Hope, whose closing pages lamented the way that modern society has turned religion into a cult of subjectivity and personal preference. "The primary conception of religion in modern society," Moltmann says, "assigns to religion the saving and preserving of personal, individual and private humanity." Don't trouble me with your private humanity, and I won't trouble you with mine. But Moltmann goes on to argue that this modern conception of religion can also encourage one to simply say "don't trouble me," period. On this radically subjective view of religion,
Faith is the receiving of one's self from God. This places it in a position of radical loneliness, makes it "individual". ... [The] Christian ethic is then reduced to the "ethical demand" to accept one's self and take responsibility for the world in general. But it is no longer able to give any pertinent ethical instructions for the ordering of social and political life. Christian love accordingly quits the realm of justice and of the social order. ... The "neighbour" who is the object of Christian love is then the man who encounters us at any given moment, our fellow man in his selfhood, but he can no longer be known, respected and loved in his juridical person and his social role. Our "neighbour" comes on the scene only in personal encounter, but not in his social reality. It is the man within arm's length or at our door who is our neighbour, but not man as he appears in the social juridical order, in questions of aid to under-developed countries and race relationships, in social callings, roles and claims. [314-315]
This is, admittedly, a dense and thorny passage, but I think Moltmann is suggesting one answer to a question that has preoccupied many pundits of American politics for the last several months: Why does evangelical Christianity in America, once the seedbed of progressive movements like abolitionism and women's rights, seem to have suddenly "quit the realm of justice and of the social order"? Immediately after the election, The Decembrist asked the question this way:
The right question, I think, is not whether religion has an undue influence, but why it is that the current flourishing of religious faith has ... virtually no element of social justice? Why is its public phase so exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior? Is this caused by trends in the nature of religious worship itself? Is it a displacement of economic or social pressures? Will that change? What are the factors that might cause it to change?
This post is not intended to settle those questions; it doesn't even address most of them. At most I'm merely suggesting another related question: Is there some connection between the fact that American Christianity is now so "exclusively focused on issues of private and personal behavior" and the Jeffersonian idea that religion is an issue of private and personal behavior? To put things back in the terms of Prothero's book, is there a relationship between the extremely emotional, masculine, seeker-sensitive, privatized Jesus (who makes claims on Christians only as individual seekers and not as a community grounded in tradition) and Jefferson's Jesus (whose teachings are boiled down from church orthodoxy to the "ethical demand to accept one's self," as Moltmann puts it)?

I intend that sincerely as a question, and not as a declarative sentence. It is a question that needs careful thought. Perhaps to salvage the credibility of my question, I'll conclude by pointing out that smarter people than I have been considering similar questions lately. In the November 2004 issue of Harper's, David Hollinger wrote, in his review of two recent books on religion in America:
The very church-state separation that might lead one to expect a more robust secularist tradition in the United States has, ironically, promoted a dynamic of religious affiliation in its stead. Religions, old and new, conservative and liberal, are likely to maintain their considerable clout in the United States for some time, influencing indirectly the public affairs of the nation--no matter how the Supreme Court interprets the constitutions provisions for the free exercise of religion and against the incursion of religious authority on matters of state.

Perhaps acceptance, however grudging, of this enduring condition could inspire a more vigorous and forthright debate about religious ideas themselves. It is far from obvious that the future of Christianity in the United States belongs to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the Catholic bishops who want to deny communion to politicians who deviate from Rome's pronouncements on abortion, but candid discussions of religious ideas are rare in the United States today. Believers argue among themselves and occasionally attack, the academic and media elites for their godless ways, and secularists usually let the believers alone, treating their ideas as private matters to be respected or tolerated but not challenged. Only when confronted with something immediately threatening and scientifically obscurantist--such as the banning of evolution lessons by some willfully ignorant school board--do secularists actually bestir themselves to refute what is being said in God's name. When Al Gore claims to resolve life's tough questions by asking himself, "What Would Jesus Do?" he can count on the respectful silence of those who privately doubt the guidance promised by this pious principle of applied ethics.
The point I think Hollinger is making is that the radical privatization of religion, which makes the religious believer accountable only to himself or herself, makes possible the religious believer's unchallenged adoption of privatized theories of applied ethics -- that a Jeffersonian banishment of religion to "a position of radical loneliness" (Moltmann) contributes to the fact that religion takes such radically individualistic postures when it returns from its banishment back into the public sphere.

In other words, the basic belief that made possible Jefferson's "Enlightened Sage" -- that a lone individual is authorized to create a stand-alone Jesus -- made it possible for so many Americans to create the "Sweet Manly Superstar" that now vexes Jefferson's heirs. But Jefferson's basic premises now also make it impossible for either side's Jesus to say anything to the others. As a Christian, I can't take issue with your "Enlightened Sage" Jesus, and as a secularist, you can't take issue with my personal savior either. "Candid discussions of religious ideas" are silenced before they can even begin.

I'm not sure what the answer to this problem is, and I don't want to conclude with any rushed conclusions. I'm still groping toward a clearer statement of the problem, and since this is only a blog, I'm afraid that this highly unsatisfactory conclusion will have to do for now.


Collective Improvisation:
Excellent post, as usual, Caleb. One question, that I'm sure was apparent to you, given your interests, is how adequate would Prothero's conception of a 19th century evangelical "sweet Jesus" be, if Jesus is he who breaks the chains of enslaved people and breaks the chains (seen or unseen) that enslave us. Sweet Jesus is hardly Jesus the Emancipator or is he? 

Posted by Ralph Luker

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/01/2005 12:08:00 AM : Permalink  

Caleb, very nice juggling of these enigmatic nuts we are all trying to crack.

It is so true that we do not have serious religious criticism in this country and I think you point to the reasons for this.

Have you read the debate between Stephen Carter and Richard Rorty? 

Posted by Carlos

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/01/2005 12:59:00 AM : Permalink  

Carlos, Pardon my intrusion, but almost every time I see Rorty's name raised in this context, I am reminded that he is the grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, who was, theologically, the most sophisticated of America's social gospel prophets. It is a continuing source of wonder among many of us who've written about the social gospel that Rorty's lineage seems to be of little interest or influence on him. 

Posted by Ralph Luker

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/01/2005 01:18:00 AM : Permalink  

Carlos, Thanks for the comment. I don't know if I've read that particular debate, but I'm familiar with Rorty's arguments on these subjects. You could probably see me shadow-boxing with his idea that "religion is a conversation-stopper." I have been working my way recently through Jeffrey Stout's book on Rorty, Hauerwas, and others, and I hope before long to begin posting on some of it.

Ralph, I was hoping that someone would bring up the abolitionists. I would have addressed them in the post but it already seemed too long.

The "Sweet Savior" paradigm might not adequately describe the Jesus of all radical abolitionists or black abolitionists (Prothero deals with the African American Jesus in a chapter that I have not yet read). Some Garrisonians, for instance, had an image of Jesus that was similar to the "Enlightened Sage." Henry Clarke Wright, a close associate of Garrison's, wrote a pamphlet favorably comparing Thomas Paine to Jesus.

However, the "Sweet Savior" paradigm works very well (or at least as well as any generalized paradigm can) to describe the Jesus of the vast majority of antislavery evangelicals in the antebellum North, particularly in the 1850s. The Jesus of Uncle Tom's Cabin is, like Uncle Tom himself and Little Eva, a Jesus who weeps and who inhabits the heart. And a great deal of antislavery literature can be traced to sentimental ideas about deeply feeling for the suffering of slaves, which again emphasized the virtues of Jesus that were coded as feminine by nineteenth-century middle-class culture.

Already in the 1850s and 1860s, though, the transformation is underway in evangelicalism from Prothero's "Sweet Savior" to the "Manly Redeemer," and you can see that shift in abolitionism as well. Northern resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law gave Christian men an opportunity to demonstrate their manly resistance to Southern oppression. And, of course, by the time of the Civil War Jesus is the kind of redeemer who goes around trampling the grapes of wrath with his terrible, swift sword.

As for the social gospelers, Prothero puts many of them in the "Manly Redeemer" chapter, but he doesn't spend much time on them, except to say that they were seeking, like William James, a "moral equivalent of war," which they found in progressive politics.

Another thing I wanted to say about the abolitionists is this: they are often given as the paradigmatic example of how Christianity and social justice politics might mix. But once we realize how sentimentalized and privatized much antislavery sentiment was (and how personalized the Jesus of nineteenth-century evangelicals could be) we have to be careful about that generalization. For many antislavery Northerners, opposition to slavery was as much about their own feelings and personal purity as it was about the slave. And it is telling that widespread opposition to slavery was sparked by sentimental literature, because many Northern readers could better imagine how they would personally react to an individual encounter with a character like Uncle Tom than they could imagine full juridical equality for the slave.

In other words, many abolitionists were Christian reformers in that they described their duty to the slave in terms of the loving, sentimental "Sweet Savior," who emphasized the duty to "love thy neighbor as thyself." But what Moltmann says in my post might (I stress might, because I haven't given this enough thought) apply to them:

"The "neighbour" who is the object of Christian love is then the man who encounters us at any given moment, our fellow man in his selfhood, but he can no longer be known, respected and loved in his juridical person and his social role. Our "neighbour" comes on the scene only in personal encounter, but not in his social reality."

The "neighbour" for many antislavery Northerners was the fugitive slave who appeared on their doorstep for aid, or the Uncle Tom figure whose selfhood was thoroughly defined. But it was harder for many to think of the African American Southerner in his "juridical person and his social role." The difficulty was apparent in the retreat from radical Reconstruction that followed the abolition of slavery.

I certainly don't mean here to discount the abolitionists as Christian reformers, or to downplay the very real danger they placed themselves in on behalf of other human beings. Their virtues are in many ways ones we should all aspire to have. But we can look at them both admiringly and critically, and when we do so, perhaps we'll find that rather than representing an alternative to a Christianity that is primarily about my personal relationship with my personal Savior, they represent one version of that same kind of Christianity, but with a socially reforming thrust. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/01/2005 07:54:00 AM : Permalink  

Very interesting stuff. Does Prothero discuss anywhere the relationship Jesus has with the other members of the trinity in American Protestant belief? I was raised a Catholic, and we were taught that the three persons of the trinity were equally important, and that we should meditate and pray to all of them in their respective roles.

Also, charismatics--found among both Protestants and Catholics--seem to stress their relationship to the Holy Spirit more than their relationship to Jesus. Not that they aren't Christians, of course, but the difference in emphasis is striking. 

Posted by Jason Kuznicki

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/01/2005 09:35:00 AM : Permalink  

Jason, Prothero does often make reference to the relative weight of Jesus in the Trinity. For instance, on p. 59:

"One important effect of the feminization of American religion was the eclipse of the Trinity's First Person by the Second. Apologists for Hinduism have long argued that even adept polytheists can worship only one God at a time. The same seems to be true of trinitarian Christians. Though they affirm the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they seem to focus most of their devotion on one of the three. For the Puritans of the colonies, that person was the Father; for many contemporary Pentecostalists it is the Holy Spirit; for nineteenth-century evangelicals it was the Son."

Your question gives me a chance to clarify one of the sections in the post: I hope I didn't imply that Prothero never makes comparative references to Catholicism or other strains of American Christianity. For the most part, however, these comparisons are, as in this paragraph, passing allusions to off-stage faiths.

There's only so much one can do in one volume, of course, and my complaint is not that Prothero doesn't do it all. My point is that given the limited attention Prothero does give to a sustained comparison between American Protestantism and other national or liturgical confessions, he should shy away from answering the "so what" question with claims about American Protestantism's unique and unprecedented fascination with the Second Person of the Trinity. Rather, he should stick with his emphasis on comparisons and connections between the various American Protestant images of Jesus that he is able to cover. 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 2/01/2005 05:11:00 PM : Permalink  

I think Caleb is correct in saying that Christianity is so various -- even American protestantism is so various -- that it really is difficult to do a subject like Prothero's justice. The comparative references offer shade and nuance, but they immensely complicate a subject. Justin's point about the American pentecostals emphasizing the third person of the Trinity, for instance, seems pretty clear on the face of things, but there's a whole sub-set of them who are "one-ness pentecostals", who deny the doctrine of the Trinity altogether. When I think about our relationship with fellow monotheists, the one-ness pentecostals remind me that the doctrine of the Trinity is the Christian heresy. 

Posted by Ralph Luker

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