Jesus: All Things to All People

Not only does Jesus look like his historical Jesus interpreters, but also like the groups who claim him to define their identities. And it is precisely this multiplicity of Jesus that defines his usefulness in popular culture. Kate Daley-Bailey has a post up at the Religion Bulletin blog exploring this idea (also cross-posted in ReligionNerd). In it she summarizes Russell McCutcheon’s reflections:

As Russell McCutcheon so aptly illustrates in The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric, ‘Jesus talk’ is a powerful rhetorical medium through which to summon support from various disparate groups, who assign significantly different content and signification to the name ‘Jesus’. His example highlights when a politician (in this specific case, George W. Bush), in a highly charged political setting (a Presidential primary debate), cites Jesus as the ‘political philosopher’ who had most influenced him, no one is going to ask him if he is referring to “Crossan’s Jewish peasant, or maybe Borg’s subversive sage”, “Mack’s wandering cynic”, or “Funk’s ‘Jewish Socrates’” (29).  McCutcheon cites Robert Bellah’s astute assessment that “the public use of God-talk was effective precisely because it means so many different things to so many people that it is almost an empty sign’”(29).

In that discussion referenced by Kate, McCutcheon also notes, “‘Jesus-talk’ . . . has no need to clarify any specific content for, being utterly devoid of specific content, it means all things to all people” (29). That said, during the 1999 presidential debate in which George W. Bush referred to “Christ” as his “favorite philosopher,” he tapped into specifically evangelical language of Christ: “Because he changed my heart.” It doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus’ teachings and couldn’t possibly be confused with a Crossan, Borg, or Funk Jesus. Tapping into the Christ-heart language, though, Bush also connected himself with the religion of authenticity, which indeed is the American religion. Within that religion of authenticity, there certainly exists a wide diversity of Jesuses. Having just posted on the futility of traditional historical Jesus research, I find this point well worth underlining. Thanks, Kate!

Remember Me?

George W. Bush’s Favorite Philosopher: “Christ. Because he changed my heart.”

Update (4/22/2013): In response to James McGrath’s critique on this post and another, I’ve explored the issue a little more fully in another post. Brian LePort commented on the discussion as well.

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Posted in American Religion, Historical Jesus, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion