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How Personal Impressions Shape the "American Jesus"

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Montage by Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News
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The Bible tells its readers, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." And while many Americans may agree with those words, in practice people of faith tend to view the chief figure of the Christian religion though the lens of personal views, biases, preferences and values. The result, Stephen Prothero writes, is what he calls the "American Jesus," a personalized version of the man from Galilee. Jesus is, in essence, bespoke and unique to each person.

Prothero, who teaches religion as a professor at Boston University, says that explains the memes commonly deployed on social media that argue Jesus and his teachings support a variety of views and causes.

"You really do see Jesus changing over time," Prothero told WUOT's Brandon Hollingsworth. "This is a person who has religious authortity, who should be able to make us shake in our boots...and yet there doesn't seem to be a lot of that going on in American history, because Jesus seems to be so malleable and so adjustable to the shifting of our political and cultural winds."

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Credit Tina Shepardson, University of Tennessee
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Stephen Prothero in the WUOT studios, Tuesday, February 18, 2020.

So prevalent is the practice that Jesus has been adopted as a figure of admiration, thought and in cultures and religions outside Christianity. And even the religiously unaffiliated.

"There's a lot of people who identifity now as what we call religious 'nones'...and then, well, what do you think of Jesus? [And they say] 'Oh! Greatest guy who ever lived. He's my spiritual teacher,'" Prothero said. "Jesus resonates outside religious circles. And Jesus resonates outside Christian circles."

Prothero spoke about the personalized Jesus, and more broadly about religious literacy, at the University of Tennessee Department of Religious Studies' annual David Dungan Memorial Lecture on Tuesday, February 18.