Teaching American Jesus in 2015

Elesha Coffman

After several semesters teaching church history to seminarians, I got a chance to teach American religion to undergrads again, so I went back to a text I hadn't taught in a while, Stephen Prothero's American Jesus (Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2003). I still like the book a lot and find it very useful as both an (admittedly incomplete) overview of American religious history and as a model for the cultural analysis of artifacts. A few things seem different this time around with the book, though, and I wondered if other people who teach it have made similar observations.

1. Many students struggle with what I would deem the book's pretty basic theological language. Granted, I have not taught undergrads at my current institution before, so I cannot make a longitudinal comparison. Still, I expected terms such as "Calvinism," "creeds," and "second person of the Trinity" to be, if not familiar, at least manageable in context. Not so, for about half of my students.

I wouldn't draw too many conclusions from such a small sample if it weren't for the same phenomenon cropping up among seminary students. Seminary colleagues of mine lament that some students begin an MDiv now needing what would have been deemed a remedial level of biblical and theological instruction 20 years ago. Surely this complaint has been raised for generations. Still, I feel like I do see effects of a widespread erosion of theological literacy (another topic Prothero has addressed) in the undergrad classroom, and these make my instructional task more difficult.

2. The near-absence of Muslims is really conspicuous. Aside from a few lines about the Nation of Islam in the "Black Moses" chapter, Islam makes only very fleeting appearances in the book. Efforts made by Hindus and Buddhists to interpret and appropriate Jesus get more attention. But because Western observers have waded so deeply into debates about "true" Islam since 9/11 and the onset of the War on Terror, it would be nice to see how Muslims have engaged in debates about Jesus. Who came before Reza Aslan?

3. I wonder how much the rise of the "nones" will affect Prothero's thesis. Prothero argues that "Jesus functions as common cultural coin" in America (300), which he classifies as a Jesus nation though not a Christian one. Plotting the book's protagonists on a Venn diagram, there's a circle of Christians enclosed in a larger circle of people who have a stake in interpreting Jesus. That larger circle, according to Prothero, includes pretty much everybody--from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Lloyd Webber to Swami Vivekananda--except Orthodox Jews, who "ceded to the Christians the right to define Jesus" (250). So, where would the "nones" go?

I asked Prothero about this, and he replied by first pointing out that many "nones" hold quite traditional Christian beliefs, so their self-reported "none" status is best understood as a reaction against the association of Christianity with right-wing politics. "As to the bigger question," he continued, "I think Jesus is doing pretty well in the US right now. Not going away any time soon."

I know that the "nones" are a variegated group, and I also know that, if you go back as far in American history as Prothero does, Christian affiliation has been even lower in the past than it is now. The relatively low levels of church membership in Jefferson's day don't cause me to doubt Prothero's argument about the importance of Jesus in American culture. Still, with "nones" poised to become the single largest "religious" category in America, and with religious pluralism (in discourse even more than in demographics) having far exceeded anything Jefferson could have imagined, I'm not convinced that Jesus will remain the coin of the realm into my next decade of teaching.

One of my students, who described herself as a "none," said she had no stake in the project of defining Jesus, as long as the self-proclaimed followers of Jesus weren't causing mayhem and violence. "So, isn't that saying that you do still have a stake in defining Jesus?" another student asked. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. At the very least, the discussion is changing.


Anthony Petro at: March 19, 2015 at 7:26 AM said...

This was a great read, Elesha: thanks! I teach Prothero's chapter on "Oriental Christ" in my Christianity survey course, when we read the gospels and try to think about the various manifestations of Jesus/Christ. (We also look at a lot of the common Western depictions -- Sallman's, Hook's, plus Janet McKenzie's, etc). It really gets students thinking, particularly about representation and race.

I guess the silver lining in students not knowing much about Calvinism is that you get to teach them TULIP!

Just wondering -- were there any chapters in particular your students gravitated toward?

Eric Thurman at: March 19, 2015 at 10:43 AM said...

"At the very least, the discussion is changing."

Interesting thesis. I wonder if there is any evidence of this in the recent CNNs doc, "Finding Jesus," which I haven't yet seen. I'm also curious about its viewership: are the numbers higher or lower compared to similar docs in the past?

Elesha at: March 19, 2015 at 2:52 PM said...

Thanks, guys. Anthony, I'm not sure which chapters my students preferred. I asked them to write about gender, so they got very familiar with chapters 2 and 3. They were also supposed to write about the role of non-Christians in making Jesus an icon, a question that mainly elicited essays on the Rabbi and Oriental Christ chapters but also turned up some rather confused thoughts on other chapters. Prothero's placement of African Americans in the second half of the book threw a few students. Prothero explained the book's "resurrections/reincarnations" division as insider/outsider, but some students perceived it as Christian/non-Christian. Then again, some students also wrote about the feminization of Jesus as a non-Christian development, when Prothero clearly attributed that shift to white American Protestants in the 19th century.

Eric, I haven't seen the CNN doc, either, and I'm sure I won't, what with basketball on. I'd guess viewership is down because it's down on practically all TV programs these days. From the promos, though, it looks like more "Quest for the Historical Jesus" stuff (not even Quest Of, which was what that scholarly trajectory ostensibly set out to explore). So, as far as CNN is concerned, the discussion about Jesus isn't changing, at least not in the ways it's changing in my classroom. Archaeology yields better visuals than does analysis of discourse, I suppose.

Tom Van Dyke at: March 21, 2015 at 12:11 AM said...

This essay continues to trouble me, that an education in America could concern itself in the least with the Islamic conception of Jesus while the learner might continue to lack a reasonable understanding of Calvinism. The former is a footnote to the American experience—a footnote to the Muslim experience!—while Calvinism for good or ill was a vital part of what got us here today.

Perhaps it was reading Roger Scruton's latest in First Things today, that in its ideology of "equality," the university has replaced what one might consider the [civic?] necessity of understanding of our own culture with a "multicultural" approach that in valuing all knowledge equally, perhaps leaves us with knowledge but not understanding, which surely is the purpose of education.

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