How the Son of God Became a National Icon
By Stephen Prothero
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
343 pages

Reviewed by Jules Siegel

In "American Jesus," Boston University professor Stephen Prothero
diligently ponders the changing manifestations of Jesus in American
culture over the years and finds -- surprise! -- you don't have to be a
Christian to love Jesus. Believers of all faiths have adopted Jesus as
one of their own icons. If only "Studies in Iconology" author Erwin
Panofsky were alive to see this. You've got your black Jesus icon, your
Moslem, Jewish and Mormon Jesus icons. How about that Hindu Jesus doing
yoga? Far out!

Professor Prothero would never stoop to such outmoded hippie
exclamations of joyous awe. His prevailing expression is a carefully
almost concealed bemused smile. The Establishment lip will curl
distinctly on trailer-trash-type trends. Anything decidedly Californian
tends to produce a raised eyebrow. One would have to be a very
well-informed religious scholar to challenge the accuracy of Prothero's
library research. When he gets into areas that ordinary folk might know
something about, however, he can be much less convincing.

He writes about the Jesus freak movement, "As heroin replaced pot as the
drug of choice and overdoses multiplied, many came to associate drugs
with captivity rather than freedom." (127) Few in the Bay Area will
agree that heroin ever replaced pot as the drug of choice. Heroin has
never been an important drug numerically. In the Federal 2002 National
Survey on Drug Use and Health, 75 percent of illicit drug users admitted
using marijuana, compared with 0.1 percent for heroin.

A principal social characteristic of the time was the belief among users
of marijuana and the hallucinogens that they were sacramental
substances, one of whose main results was the feeling of closeness with
the Great Spirit, whether the flavor was Aquarian, Mesoamerican,
Oriental or Christian. Many an atheist found God through LSD and other
drugs. For Christians, especially, getting to know Jesus was a common
psychedelic experience. To this day, some Jesus freaks quote holy
scripture to support their belief that God made drugs to help human
beings, and that Jesus himself was a mushroom eater.

Prothero is a very gifted and astute observer with an attractively
clear, direct and concrete literary style, but he is not easy to trust
even when he gets his facts right. In writing about the way Jewish
thinkers have attempted to come to terms with Jesus as a Jew, he must
explicitly mention each and every one's condemnation of Paul's invention
of some of the most irritating aspects of Christianity. Maybe this is
just awkward writing, but it comes across as subtle ridicule. His humor
is limited to a few Black Jesus jokes ("Yo Mama's so old she was a
waitress at the Last Supper"), and two very lame Jewish Jesus jokes. He
rarely writes about how people feel, but concentrates on institutional
political motives and strategies. See how Jesus became a focus-group
celebrity through astute marketing techniques such as seeker-sensitive

It's really quite awkward for orthodox Christians to accept fully how
others see Jesus and the uses they make of him in their own belief
systems. The Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam --
are exclusionary. You can't be any combination of Jew, Christian and
Moslem at the same time, although you can recognize Jesus. Oriental
religions are inclusionary. As Prothero points out, to the followers of
the Hindu religions, Jesus is merely another avatar of the universal
life spirit.

As a child, Prothero's "most sacred Christmas moment" was his father's
annual reading of "The Christ Child," a children's book illustrated with
"wondrous color lithography, and always, that halo bursting forth from
the page." (xi) Today, he seems rather annoyed by "crazes" such as "What
Would Jesus Do?", "What Would Jesus Eat?" and "What Would Jesus Drive?"
He notes that the 110-foot-tall, 750-pound Jesus hot air balloon
"continues to lift off each Easter over northern California," and new
controversies such as the dubious brother of Jesus burial box and Mel
Gibson's "gruesome" movie continue to arise.

"What would Jesus make of all this?" Stephen Prothero asks at the end.
"That is anyone's guess," he writes. "But I rather doubt that he is
leaning back and laughing." (302)

Gee, why not? That Jesus balloon sounds a lot more appealing than some
Christo wrap performance. In spreading the Gospel, your best guide is
"in my Father's house there are many mansions." Better yet, go to the
New Testament, Acts 2: "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost,
and began to speak with other tongues.... Now when this was noised
abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because every
man heard them speak in his own language." Jesus speaks the language of
universal love. Each soul receives it and reflects it with a personal
twist -- even Stephen Prothero in "American Jesus." Isn't that just great?

Jules Siegel has written on national trends for Playboy, the Village
Voice and Rolling Stone.
JULES SIEGEL Apdo. 1764 77501-Cancun Q. Roo Mexico