Fake Jesuses may be popular among U.S. Christians, but we distort and misrepresent the real deal.
Fake Jesus is far more preferable to people than the genuine article. By “fake” I mean the ethnocentric identity theft of Jesus’ name given to ideas more congenial to American cultural values. Fake Jesus equals congenial Jesus.
This past Sunday was the Solemnity of Christ the King. American Catholics ought to ask: Who is this Jesus we celebrate as king of the universe? In order to arrive at who Jesus really is we ought to eliminate various and popular identity thefts spread that distort his reality.
Fake Jesus, Fake King
Alarmingly, the fake “King Jesus” and “Christ” of our private beliefs drastically differs from the Jesus of history. Often the fake Jesuses our culture accepts and celebrates is quite different from Christ of the Church’s faith, as well. People make of Jesus Christ into who they want to be for them—a fake, congenial Jesus.
The consequences of this identity theft are dire. Fake Jesus is easygoing. This construct cannot challenge us. And thus, the real Jesus cannot challenge us to conform to him. Instead, we make Jesus into us, projecting onto him everything we are or ideally desire ourselves to be. So any affirmation by us that Jesus is Lord and King becomes inescapably idolatrous self-affirmation. Therefore, we worship a congenial Jesus and identity theft. Our amens are given to a fake!
Beware a Fake Jesus!
If we are hazy and confused about our own Western cognitive world that shapes what we perceive, how can we ever encounter the real Jesus? Would we recognize the real deal from our beloved fake Jesuses? Addicted as we our to the familiar, our homilies and sermons remain at the level of cultural pep-talks. We cannot help but be deaf to what the evangelists and Jesus are communicating. Though we praise the name Jesus in prayer and song, the Christ we imagine is a fake, a congenial identity theft of our own construction.
United States Catholics and other Christians seem crippled at being able to distinguish their Western Culture from Christ. We sing hymns praising Jesus as Lord like verbally-orthodox parrots, but our actions constantly demonstrate that we are far more committed to our cultural values than to Christ. Pick whatever stripe of Christianity—in America, it is shaped by culture far more profoundly than by canon or tradition. American Catholics are no different.
Solutions begin by identifying the problem. So here are some popular and congenial Jesuses to be on the lookout for.
Fake American Jesus One: The Intellectual Sage
In the West we adore smarts. Our culture admires cleverness, quickness, brilliance. We relish the intellectual “smack down.” Politically and often in racist superiority, we present ourselves and intellectually superior while demeaning the other as stupid. In the 21st century West, we adore the Intellectual Sage.
Is it any wonder why liberal and conservative U.S. Christians, whether scholarly or nonscholarly, present Jesus as the “Intellectual Sage”? One popular version of this congenial Jesus is “the Teacher” who, for fundamentalists Catholics, becomes a vehicle for exaggerating the doctrinal side of Christianity. With this identity theft of Jesus, the magisterial role of bishops, the virtues of docility and obedience, and the sin of dissent are exaggerated and warped along the lines of various agendas.
Robert Funk and his Jesus Seminar present another version of the Intellectual Sage, “the Itinerant Cynic.” Here Jesus resembles a philosopher or academic spliced together with a 1960’s American wise ass trading pithy sayings. “Congratulations, you poor!”
Jesus was not Mr. Spock, Sherlock Holmes, or Dr. House. All versions of Jesus the Intellectual Sage are idealized American autobiographies, identity thefts congenial to our Western cultural values. Western religious, conservatives, liberals, agnostics, and atheists have ethnocentrically and anachronistically retrojected this costume onto Jesus. It all starts with misunderstanding the sayings of Jesus and placing undo emphasis there. In contrast, should we rather begin with Jesus’ healing acts rather than his sayings, the idol of the Intellectual Sage vanishes.
Fake American Jesus Two—The Great One
“Make America Great Again!” We love the great in the U.S., and here, bigger is better. Indeed, for us often great is preferable to good. American Christians, while often playing lip-service to the poverty and humble origins of Jesus, get saved from tasting this by our sappy Christmas feels caking over the stark realities of first century peasant village life in Syro-Palestine. We take a sleigh-ride with Santa (sponsored by Coca-Cola) through the ugly of the Incarnation to an American-made Jesus, the ever-popular Great One.
The Western idol of Jesus the Great One is an identity theft distorting his reality. It exaggerates his function as ruler, shepherd, and judge, first century Mediterranean analogies misunderstood by Americans.
Jesus the Great One isn’t exclusive to the West. So many Christian leaders over the past two millennia have cooked up a version of this false-Jesus. It justifies their adopting the lifestyle of elites, of rich and powerful persons. It legitimates governing parishes and diocese in severe, authoritarian ways. It glories in the pomp and circumstance of Church ceremony and titles. The clericalism that enables the sex abuse and financial scandals happening right now has a powerful ally in this congenial Jesus!
Jesus the Great One is a mask for the cherished demon Cruelty. So many lay Catholics are addicted to this congenial Jesus. Look how ready they are to identify “the Church” with its hierarchy, especially the pope. Watch how their brainwashed to treat clergy as if they are demigods with almost unlimited authority and jurisdiction. How far we have come from the humble poverty of the Crucified and his peasant followers!
Fake American Jesus Three—Alien Lifeform from Planet Kitsch
In the 1950s Americana Catholicism that knew little critical reflection, one could readily see heresy disguised as holy by pious devotional fluff. “When God walked the earth disguised as a man,” and other Docetic expressions could be heard readily in Churches everywhere. For centuries the majority of Catholics knew their only function—to pray, pay, and obey. The devastating ignorance harvested from these centuries is on ready display even today, over half a century following Vatican II. Go to any Marian or Devotional group and you should see Jesus, Mary, and the other saints being presented as alien lifeforms.
Jesus the Alien Lifeform is a congenial, otherworldly Jesus presented in many varieties of holy cards, songs, prayers, devotional literature, and social media. Watch EWTN and you can’t miss this identity theft. Such a fake Jesus is almost totally removed from human life, especially that congenial to Jesus’ time and culture.
The expressionless features of Jesus the Alien Lifeform communicates that his true home and concerns lie somewhere other than earth. Such a Jesus is apathetic to challenging rape culture or racism or any unjust structure, be it social, political, economic, or religious. This false Jesus is from another world, a fantasy world. He suits the sentiments of the throngs of folks who cherish such images. The mission of this Alien Lifeform is completely spiritual, and so must the Church’s be.
What a contrast is this congenial Jesus with the real Jesus. Real Jesus was very political. Messiah and king are political categories, as was Israelite theocracy, that which Jesus proclaimed. “Jesus Christ” is a political religious expression. Over two thirds of his sayings concern peasant economics. Jesus’ healings were messy and very much this-worldly.
Fake American Jesus Four—The Progressive Liberator & Rebel
United States society is the most individualistic culture of all time. We dig rebels, those with or without causes. Rebels with causes, so much the better. Should the cause be just and noble, even better still. Progressives, pacifists, feminists, environmentalists, socialists, communists, and various activists are attracted to seeing Jesus as a Progressive Liberator and Rebel.
This congenial Jesus is romanticized and presented anachronistically as a first century Mahatman Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. He is seen as a post-Enlightenment, post-Industrial activist or even revolutionary-type. Despite the Matthean Jesus’ very typical stance on Samaritans, Gentiles (Matthew 10:5-6), and foreign women (Matthew 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30), Americans distort Jesus into being a universalist, accepting of all and tolerant of everyone.
This is just another congenial Jesus that celebrates Western individualism and many good things. Jesus was neither Jim Morrison nor John Lennon. It’s true that he appeared as a rebel to elites. Jerusalem elites saw his dietary and washing habits as shameful rebellion to the Great Tradition. Hellene Israelite elite scribes (the Evangelists) interpreted these breaches of Judean custom as honorable but rebellious all the same. The historical reality was that Jesus was a poor peasant who, like so many Galileans, could not afford to keep the Great Tradition even if he wanted to!
The Spirit of Jesus keeps blowing past our expectations. The Spirit keeps unpacking with us the Mystery of Christ. Our understanding has broadened in who belongs and who does not. The foundations lie with the prepaschal Jesus, sure. But it is stupid and unfair to think of Jesus as a first century feminist, socialist, environmentalist. It is an identity theft.
Fake American Jesus Five—My Friend and Brother
Context Group scholar Richard Rohrbaugh spoke truth when he said of Western Christianity: “Ours is the only culture that could write the hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’” It took a post-Industrial, introspective personality, and possible suicide, Joseph Medlicott Scriven, to write such words. Here Jesus is seen as a close friend of a psychological personality undergoing depression from guilt.
Jesus the American Brother and Friend is a human being inspiring his fellow individualists to each other as brothers and sisters. To Western Christians understanding Jesus this way, Christianity becomes “the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.” This is the congenial Jesus romanticized in the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the musical, Godspell.
Jesus the American Friend symbolizes joy and life, but mystery surrounds his cruel death. Why would the Roman authorities fret over and crucify such a universally admired figure? This social constructed identity theft is a far cry from the historical Jesus, Mediterranean master of the insult.
Don’t Fake Jesus!
Each of these “Jesuses,” taken alone, represents a selective reading of the historical record. There is truth in each. But they are selective and exaggerated, distortions filtered through the prism of one’s own experience and culture.
We all want a congenial Jesus and congenial Bible. That tendency to make idolatrous our cultural values is not unique to Americans and Westerners. We cannot tolerate a Jesus who is not buying American values—same for Chinese Christians, Nigerian Christians, Ukrainian Christians.
We have to respectfully rethink Jesus, King of the Universe. Let’s admit our cultural ignorance about the Bible and Mediterranean culture. We need to learn about the cultural world of the Bible, yes, but that’s just for starters. We also need to increase our self-knowledge about how we 21st century Westerners communicate and understand things.
Beware a Congenial Jesus
We cannot escape misunderstanding and distorting Jesus if we continue to read the Gospels while assuming the American way of communicating is universal.
So here in this blog post, we have come to understand who Jesus could not be but is often distorted into being. Next time, we will explore how to see Jesus in a plausible way.