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The American Christ
He was a capitalist. He was an urban reformer. He was a country boy. He was “Comrade Jesus,” a hardworking socialist. He was the world’s first ad man. For a century and a half, novelists have been trying to recapture the “real” Jesus.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
Norwood writes that Joseph has died young, leaving the family threatened with poverty. Jesus steps in and builds up his boat business for his brothers and acquires money for his sisters’ dowries before setting out on his mission: “He had toiled to lift the shadow of poverty from the door of his father’s house. He had left nothing undone. His brothers were prosperous. His mother was happy.”
If lives of Jesus were one route to acclaim in American popular writing, another good bet through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was attacks on Catholicism. Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin the most popular book in America was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures (1836). It purported to describe the sexual degradation suffered by a novice in a Catholic convent. A hundred years later anti-Catholicism was still widespread in America, and Upton Sinclair found a way to combine the themes of Jesus fiction with anti-Catholicism. In Our Lady (1938) Sinclair made wicked fun of the Catholic cult of the Virgin.
The ad man Bruce Barton thought he was doing for the twentieth century what Jesus had done for the first.
American Catholics themselves began writing lives of Jesus only in the mid-twentieth century, much later than Protestants. Their sacramental tradition made the details of Jesus’ life and ministry less significant to them than to those Protestants who regarded him as a personal savior. Catholics used lives of Jesus principally as vehides of moral education. Father Madden’s Life of Christ (1960) is a fine example of the type, full of exhortations about going to confession regularly and avoiding lust, hypocrisy, greed, or pride, and reminding children of the need to follow Christ today, in absolute obedience, just as his disciples followed him long ago. “Yes, Christ called Peter, just as He calls the youth of today. His wanderings no longer take Him along the edge of the sea but into the schools and the drugstores. His call is the same. Follow Me!” As a child, says Madden, Jesus “was obedient to his parents. He never gave His parents any lip. When they sent Him to the store, He went happily.” And he was diligent, too: “He consecrated labor by the touch of His hand to a tool. This was the way He would support Mary when Joseph died. Christ was not a free-loader.”
Concern about juvenile delinquency in the 1950s and 1960s led Madden to emphasize how rigorously Jesus had avoided “the dead-end kids of Palestine,” but his jaunty prose, peppered with contemporary slang, was designed to show that there was nothing unfashionable or prissy about following Jesus: “Without having to resort to barbells, He was in top physical shape all His life. As a boy, nobody kicked sand in His face down on the beach.”
Concern over juvenile delinquency was shared by Catholics and Protestants alike in the fifties and sixties, and it is reflected in other parts of the Jesus literature. Karl Burke’s God Is for Real, Man (1964) sold briskly among the Christian counterculture groups of the sixties. While Madden spoke from the outside, warning against the temptations of delinquency, Burke spoke from the “inside”: he was a prison chaplain, ministering to young criminals. God Is for Real, Man consists of a retelling of many Bible stories by the juvenile offenders in his care. Burke noted that the language of the King James Version and the agricultural setting of the parables meant little to adolescents from city ghettos. The hip language and urban settings with which he replaced them were designed to emphasize the universal relevance of the stories when they are properly translated: “After Jesus busted outa the grave, He met two of his gang on the road. Man! Were they ever spooked and surprised....Thomas’s eyes almost bugged out when he saw Jesus. He just looked and looked. And he says to himself, How about that? They did level with me!”
Even today new lives of Jesus roll from the presses every year. In 1987 Marjorie Holmes published the last installment of a fictional trilogy on the life and times of Jesus, The Messiah. Echoing contemporary American concerns about the decline of the American family, Holmes has adopted the tactic of telling the principal incidents in Jesus’ life through the eyes of a woman and of placing all the Gospel characters in family settings. Indeed, Jesus’ mother and Simon Peter’s wife accompany the wandering disciples around Palestine. The family’s loyal pet dog, Benjamin, is there, too, trotting along beside his master and lying whimpering at last by the foot of the cross.
The Messiah appears in the aftermath of the “sexual revolution,” and Holmes is blunt about sexuality where many of her predecessors gave only veiled hints. Simon Peter’s wife, Adah, now has a physical reason for following Jesus: “She could not bear the thought of having Peter’s great body apart from hers another night.” Jesus himself is shown as having been in love with Tamara, a shepherd girl, and as having the same sexual urges as other men: “His humanity coursed through him, unleashing a pain and longing he had thought he would never feel again. He wanted to confide in Lazarus, to speak of it at last, for never had he felt closer to any man. But he knew he could not, dared not, for once the name of Tamara crossed his lips he would be undone....”