The American Christ

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The two most popular novels in nineteenth-century America were Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880) and Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps (1896). (In fact, Sheldon’s book remained the dominant twentieth-century best-seller right up until Peyton Place overtook it in the late 1950s.) Although the first of these two books is set in ancient Palestine and the second takes place in the contemporary American Midwest, they are dominated by the same central character, Jesus. Wallace’s Judah Ben-Hur is a wealthy Jew. At first he intends to throw off the yoke of Roman domination by leading an insurrection, but when his mother and sister are healed of leprosy by Jesus, Ben Hur turns from the ways of war to the Christian promise of peace and love. The actions of Sheldon’s characters spring from a scene early in the novel in which a Midwestern minister, Henry Maxwell, pledges that before he makes any decision or takes any action, he will ask himself: “What would Jesus do?” Just as Ben Hur’s life is transformed by Jesus’ message of love, so too is the life of Maxwell’s city. Prostitution, drunkenness, and political corruption are gradually replaced by Christian faith, simplicity, and honesty.

 

Between them Ben Hur and In His Steps sold more than ten million copies, were translated into twenty languages, and were adapted for the stage and screen. These two novels are the most famous examples of an abundant and well-circulated literature on Jesus written in the United States during the last two centuries. Novelists, biographers, reformers, poets, and businessmen joined theologians and ministers in the attempt to explain what Jesus was really like, hoping that Christianity could be understood in modern terms. Some were sincere, others disingenuous, but they almost invariably described a Jesus sympathetic to their own concerns. Bruce Barton, a businessman, wrote that Jesus was really an early advertising genius and his disciples a group of marketing executives; Eugene Debs, the American Socialist party leader, declared that “Comrade Jesus” was a hardworking carpenter who came to the rescue of the Galilean working class; and Robert Ingersoll, the most famous self-proclaimed atheist of his day, argued that Jesus, like himself, had come to save the world from the tyranny of organized religion. Clearly, most of these self-serving portraits of Jesus tell us more about the lives and times of their American authors than they do about Palestine two thousand years ago.

It is a powerful advantage in a predominantly Christian nation to believe that Jesus approves of one’s way of life. By identifying oneself with Jesus, one stands a good chance of seizing the American moral high ground. The ambiguous character of the four Gospels made it possible for each of these authors to find the Jesus and the idealized vision of themselves that they were looking for. The Gospels are short, they sometimes contradict one another, and they leave a great deal unsaid about the life of Jesus. Two of the evangelists, Matthew and Luke, describe the miracles surrounding Jesus’ birth, but the other two start with his ministry at about the age of thirty. Apart from a single reference in Luke to Jesus as a twelve-year-old boy questioning the priests in the temple, none of the Gospels speak of his early life. But where the Gospels were silent, the American biographers of Jesus rushed in with a spectacular variety of explanations of what he was doing for all those undescribed years.

 

Biographers continued to differ on the significance even of those portions of Jesus’ life that are recorded in the Gospels. They disputed whether Jesus saw himself as the promised Messiah of the Old Testament and whether his greatest work was his teaching, the healing miracles, or the inspiration he provided for social reforms. The speculation continues today. In 1987 Marjorie Holmes published The Messiah, a novel about Jesus in which his greatest concern is the preservation of the family, while Hannah Wolffs Jesus the Therapist (1987) argues for his great psychological insight.

 
To judge Jesus simply as a notable historical figure was—and still is—a blasphemy to many Americans.

For American Christians in the colonial era, Jesus’ death and resurrection were more important than the events of his life. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was believed to have redeemed mankind from the sin of Adam and Eve and offered the hope of salvation and eternal life. The missing details of his life as told by the Gospels raised little concern. But in eighteenth-century Germany biblical scholars of the Enlightenment had begun to question the reliability of the Gospels as history. Hermann Reimarus, for example, tried to explain the New Testament miracle stories as naturalistic events that the evangelists had misreported.