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American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon Hardcover – December 15, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

No religious personality has captivated so many Americans for so long as Jesus. Indeed, as Boston University historian Prothero demonstrates in this sparkling and engrossing book, Jesus is the one religious figure nearly every American, whether Christian or not, past and present, has embraced. From Thomas Jefferson's cut-and-paste Bible to Jesus Christ Superstar, from the feminized Christ of the Victorians to the "manly redeemer" of Teddy Roosevelt's era, from Buddhist bodhisattva to Black Moses, Prothero surveys the myriad ways Americans have remade Jesus in their own image. He usefully divides these American Jesuses into "resurrections"-revivals of Jesus within mainstream Christianity-and "reincarnations"-appropriations of Jesus by outsiders. This scheme allows Prothero to range widely, and if he sometimes drifts from his primary focus, the digressions are fascinating in their own right. Nearly every page offers a fresh portrait of some corner of American religious history. A work of this breadth must depend heavily on other writers, but Prothero almost always has a judicious interpretation of his own to add-most of all, his contention that Jesus' enduring appeal confirms America's essentially Christian character even as it also demonstrates America's growing religious diversity
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

To the Puritans who settled the Colonies, Jesus was a marginal figure, and the Old Testament more important than the New. In the four centuries since, however, he has slipped the bonds of Christianity altogether to become icon and brand, as American as Mickey Mouse or the Coca-Cola bottle. This wide-ranging history traces a dual evolution: of American religion (not only Christianity but Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism) in terms of its relationship to Jesus; and of his multiform manifestations in response to changing cultural currents, from Thomas Jefferson's publication of a book of Jesus' life and sayings that excised all mention of the miracles and the resurrection to the Hindu Vedantists' veneration of "Christ the Yogi."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (December 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374178909
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374178901
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #680,587 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and chair of the religion department at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, Oprah, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, National Public Radio, and other top national media outlets. He writes and reviews for The New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Salon, and other publications. He holds degrees in American Religion from Harvard and Yale.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Marc Axelrod VINE VOICE on August 13, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This was a fascinating, well written book. Prothero discusses how Jesus has been co-opted and claimed by numerous groups in the United States. He discusses the Jesus Movement's Hippie Jesus, the Black Jesus, the Oriental Jesus, the evolving Jewish understanding of Jesus, and the Sweet Savior Jesus of the 19th century church hymns.

Prothero also has a chapter about the movement in the early 20th century to make Jesus more muscular and masculine. He also has an informative discussion about the impact of the classic Sallmann painting "Head of Christ."

I also enjoyed the chapter about the Elder Brother Mormon Jesus. I had no idea that there was such a difference of opinion about how to approach Jesus within Mormon circles.

The only comment I have by way of criticism is that Prothero tends to be a bit sensationalistic in the way he writes. He speaks of the Second Person of the Trinity breaking free from the control of God the Father, as if there was a heavenly falling out between the two.

He also makes unneccesarily sharp bifurcations between Calvinism and evangelicalism, apparently not realizing that many Calvinists were evangelicals (Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield).

But this book is so well written and well researched in spite of its flaws, that I have no choice but to give it my highest recommendation. Again, it must be stressed that this is not a book about the biblical Jesus or the historical Jesus, but it is a look at the cultural American Jesus, and how He has been viewed by Americans.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Harold McFarland HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on January 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In "American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon", Boston University historian Stephen Prothero examines how Jesus has moved from being a divine Savior to a folk icon. No matter what his or her religious inclination, or lack thereof, nearly everyone in America has embraced Jesus in one form or another. For some it is a religious understanding, for others a recognition of Him as the great teacher, for others a recognition of the political benefits of being associated with Jesus, and to still others He is the ultimate sales tool or the ultimate appeal to a higher authority in support of their particular beliefs.
This is a fascinating trip through American history as Prothero discusses the progressive change of the American view of Jesus from the Puritanical lawgiver to a tender, caring and effeminate Jesus, to a strong, muscular Jesus and finally to our current state where images of Him are likely to appear on a refrigerator magnet, rock music poster, or a bumper sticker. During this trip he examines incident after incident of how this transformation slowly took place. In addition to discussing these various changes he explains how the various societal factors of the time influenced them.

One of the most interesting points on the relationship of Americans with Jesus is that while His popularity as a celebrity or bumper sticker continues to grow, Bible study has continued to decline. What are the factors that have allowed the average person to so effectively separate Jesus from the religious trappings that have always been associated with Him in the past? How have these small changes allowed us to come to a point where He is truly a celebrity figure with only minimal traits of divinity? These are some of the questions that Stephen Prothero looks at and what makes "American Jesus" an interesting and highly recommended read.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Fritz Zimmerman on September 16, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Whether you're a believing Christian or not, you probably have some idea in mind of what Jesus is/was like as a person. And since the USA is arguably the most Jesus-centric culture on earth, you might believe that those around you share that idea. But that may, apparently, be a mistake. As Prothero's engaging and far-reaching book explains, the American Jesus is able to conform to just about any perception one wants to have of him, depending on the national mood (or even one's individual mood). Is Jesus the compassionate, soft-spoken proponent of hearth and home and simple pleasures? Is he the manly firebrand who overturned the money-changers' tables? Is he the free-spirited, counter-cultural flower-child of 'Godspell'? The Elder Brother of the Mormons? An avatar of Vishnu? A Boddhisatva? Or was he fundamentally a Jewish teacher who should be studied in a Jewish context? In America, Jesus is all of these things at once, or some of them, or something else entirely. In America, everyone's entitled to a Jesus they can call their own, and this book shows how we came to that pass. I only wish the author had spent some time covering Islam, but the Muslim presence in this country has been of recent enough beginnings that there may not yet be an American twist on the Koranic Isa (Jesus). Still, I recommend the book to believers and non-believers alike.
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Format: Paperback
Deny it if you wish, but Jesus has played and continues to play a huge role in American culture. People have looked for the Biblical Jesus and some people think its more important to know the historical Jesus, but in AMERICAN JESUS, Stephen Prothero examines how Jesus has been viewed by Christian Americans from the founding of the country through the current era. Even though the Bible hasn't changed, American Christians' perspective of exactly who Jesus is has. The book is divided into two sections. The first is called "Resurrections" and is a historical exploration of how Jesus has been "resurrected" in different periods of American history, reflecting the way that Christians have worshipped. In less than 200 years Jesus has been seen as everything from an enlightened sage to a feminized Savior to a manly redeemer to a hippie and an outlaw. John Edwards, "Jesus Christ Superstar", Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, church hymns, WWJD bracelets, and many, many other people and events are mentioned and discussed.

The second part of the book is called "Reincarnations" and examines four ways Jesus has been seen in four different areas of American society: the Elder Brother of the Mormon church, a black Moses of slaves and oppressed African-Americans, a forgotten rabbi, and an Eastern mystic that Hindus, Buddhists, and New-Agers all can embrace. In advertising, sex sells, but when it comes to religion Jesus sells (TALLADEGA NIGHTS anyone?).

Sometimes books similar to this suffer because the authors fail to do their research and write upon speculation. That's not the case with AMERICAN JESUS. Prothero's has done his research. Some might even argue that it has been too well researched and documented.

I enjoyed reading AMERICAN JESUS.
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