Radical Jesus is Back

Janine Giordano Drake

No matter now we look at it, the Radical Jesus is definitely back in our popular consciousness. I'm not just talking about Reza Azlan and his bestselling suggestion that Jesus was essentially a political radical. As quite a few commentators have now shown, Azlan's ideas are nothing new. This essay by a theologian in the field helpfully lays out some historiography. But, the fact that the book sold so many copies, so quickly, indicates Americans' great hunger right now to entertain the idea. 

We will probably have to wait for official survey statistics to be sure, but it seems to me that Americans are again thirsting for an historical Jesus who protested systematic oppression-- imperial powers, systemic racism, sexism, and ableism, as well as the social and economic degradation of the working classes. The online communities of Red Letter Christians and Sojourners are thriving. Tony Campolo and Shaine Claiborne's "radical" visions for incarnational ministry (defying suburban values, living in working class neighborhoods, consuming responsibly) are no longer as radical as they sounded a decade ago. 

Within American popular culture, the popularity of a Radical Jesus has ebbed and flowed. The 1880s and 1890s was definitely a highpoint (as David Burns' indicates in his newest book, pictured to the left and reviewed by our colleague Paul Putz on this blog here). There were at least seven or eight very popular books in these decades which demanded that Jesus' ministry was focused on transforming social and cultural relationships. The years 1918 and 1919 were another high for a radical and even Communist Jesus. One might argue that the Liberation Theology moment of the 1960s saw yet another major spike.

These spikes in popularity for a Radical Jesus have come in response to a strong counter-narrative in our culture. Of course, the lifeblood of this quintessential American trope has been the presence of its alterego--the muscular, shrewd, inventive, and charismatic Businessman Jesus. Historians usually trace this trope to Bruce Barton's 1925 The Man Nobody Knows. This Jesus was inimitable not because he was impossibly sacrificial, but because he was so shrewd and charismatic. To Bruce Barton, Jesus was a lot like an executive ad man. In the 1920s (and to this day) quite a few pastors retired to the advertising industry, where they put to work their skills in captivating and retaining audiences. By the middle of the decade, more and more Protestants got comfortable suggesting that advertising was not about deception any more than Jesus' oblique ways of starting conversations was deceptive. The 1990s saw renewed attention to Jesus as a shrewd business manager, especially in the popular books like Jesus, CEO and Christian financial planning guides by Gary Moore and Dave Ramsey. This era brought us important interpretive books like R. Laurence Moore's Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture and Susan Curtis' A Consuming Faith: The Social Gospel and Modern American Culture.

Today we see such a deluge of scholarly projects on belief in a Radical Jesus that I would say it constitutes a subfield in the history of American Religion. If the field circumscribed by Edward Blum's book on W.E.B. DuBois' Christian radicalism and Paul Harvey's Freedom Coming was not already a coherent body of work on Protestant interracial protest against American racism, their co-written Color of Christ made it so.

Now we have a growing number of books and articles which have done the same with class that Blum and Harvey have done with race. We have several books by Jarod Roll, with another on the way. We have Dan McKanan's Prophetic Encounters, David Burns' The Life and Death of the Radical Historical Jesus and Matthew Pehl's article on "Political Ideology and Working-Class Religion in Detroit" in the Sept 2012 issue of the Journal of American History. As I will continue in a future post, these are so promising, and this is only the beginning.

But what about our Jesus narratives-- our popular-focused books which remind us of the humble Carpenter who refused to resist authority, even as he sacrificed his life? We have that too, and better than ever. I recently finished Paul Buhle's Radical Jesus, a brand new compendium of graphic histories which feature Christians fighting systematic oppression. If you don't already know his work, Paul Buhle has been working on the interface of US Radical History and popular culture for decades. He used to be known for his encyclopedic work on Marxism and the Left in the United States. Now he is  probably more widely known for his wealth of graphic histories of the working class, especially this history of the Wobblies, this on the Beats, and this on the SDS. 

This newest graphic history seems to be as good our better than any graphic history I've ever read. It begins with a short set of narratives in black-and-white which discuss Jesus' encounters with regular people. The Sermon on the Mount is set in its cultural and historical context, and we learn how unusual Jesus would have founded to people of his day.

The rest of the 175 page book is a chronological set of histories of Christians who sought to throw off oppression (of the Catholic Church, the state, and dominant culture) for the sake of responding to Jesus' radical calls to not resist authority, but also love one another deeply and sacrificially. Anabaptists take center stage as people who kept alive the radical nature of Jesus' ministry from its imminent desecration by powerful authorities and pushover Christians. The book is published by an Anabaptist press, and serves as a graphic history of Anabaptists and their ideas, but its goal is not really to compare the Anabaptists to others, nor to convince anyone to be an Anabaptist. Other Christians are praised too, at times. Rather, its thesis is the (Anabaptist) claim that Jesus resisted the authorities of his day nonviolently but firmly, and that following Christ involves daring to defy worldly power and imitate this orientation toward the world. 

The book could be assigned as a history book in a course on the History of Christianity, for it is filled with true stories about groups (Hugenots, Hutterites, Lollards, etc) and individuals (known and less-known) who resisted those who desecrated the name of Christians, in the name of Christ. The art is fantastic; the historical details are concisely but completely explained, and I could hardly find any quibbles with the historical arguments (despite the fact that spare prose easily lends itself to oversimplification). Overall, the book seems to have been very well-edited. It concludes with very recent history of radical Christians, especially far outside Europe, and their daring and encouraging ways they have kept alive this faith in a radical Jesus. (And, for those wondering, Jesus' skintone is on the lighter side, but his features definitely look Semitic. He is no Warner Sallman image.)

I must admit that I loved this book immensely, and immediately wanted to buy a copy for friends and family for the holidays. The book is enormously educational, but you hardly notice--it passes like a really good movie.

I finished it thinking that W.E.B. DuBois would have loved this book. Eugene Debs would have endorsed it. Upton Sinclair would have been thrilled that it found a religious publisher, because his attempt at publishing this kind of work (especially Profits of Religion and They Call Me Carpenter) left him very frustrated at church publishers--and indeed the future of churches overall in the United States.

 I wonder a great deal why our imagination of the Radical Jesus has ultimately changed so little over so many generations. Why don't these stories ever grow old and tired? Why doesn't the Radical Jesus ever completely stomp out his strong, Businessman alterego and put the debate to bed? Our present-day tropes of a Long-Haired Jesus and a Suit-Wearing Jesus seem to have strayed very little from their prototypes over a century ago. Sometimes our challenge as historians is not to figure out what has changed, but to identify what has stayed so remarkably the same.


Gadfly said…
Actually, doesn't Businessman Jesus trace in some way back to TR's "Muscular Christianity"?

And, while I as a left-liberal, but a skeptical one, might wish that more people were thirsting for a radical Jesus, reality in America says otherwise. Of course, I'm an atheist as well as a skeptical left-liberal, so, per the Marquis Laplace, "I have no need of that hypothesis."
Gadfly said…
A follow-up to my first comment.

Secular humanism/atheism now has its own charitable organizations, etc., email activism, etc., as part of the picture. That's why many of us who are liberal or left-liberal aren't thirsting for a radical Jesus.

Of course, not all atheists are liberals, either.
Janine Giordano said…
Gadfly, great points.

Is there a Jesus figure in particular in TR's prose or speeches? I definitely agree that his explanation of manliness and Christianity does give us an impression of a late nineteenth century businessman more than a poor carpenter. And, I may be missing something from the late nineteenth century on a conservative and businesslike Jesus figure. I was going more literally for a depiction of Jesus (like Bruce Barton's literal depiction of Jesus).

And to your second point, yes, yes, there have always been secular atheists with no thirst for a radical Jesus. Great point. I should have qualified that it's the religious folks who make these connections.
ShirleyHS said…
I was excited to see another Herald Press author's book reviewed here, at one of my favorite history blogs.

Thank you for inspiring me to go buy and read this book post haste!