Popular Views of Jesus

The religion journalism site Get Religion has a post entitled Dueling Messiahs, discussing “the temptation to remake Jesus in our own image by emphasizing only the portion of his message that confirms our pet ideas.” Popular views of Jesus portrayed in the post and another article referenced in the post include Jesus as “Free-Market Messiah,” as “Cool Older Brother Jesus, who loves absolutely everyone just as they are,” and as “Live Long and Prosper Jesus, who wants to shower people with health and wealth.” Can we do better?

It seems like Mormonism, too, creates its own popular and simplified views of Jesus. While the “Live Long and Prosper Jesus” might get a Mormon vote or two, I would offer the “I Will Shower You With Blessings Jesus.” Rather than happiness, salvation, or even wealth, I have noticed lately how constantly Mormon discourse invokes the obtaining of generic blessings as the ideal quest of obedient Mormons. Do this and you’ll be blessed, pay that and you’ll be blessed, read or pray every day and garner even more blessings.

Do you have any other nominations for how we as Mormons “remake Jesus in our own image by emphasizing only the portion of his message that confirms our pet ideas”? [Note: This is not making light of a serious topic. This is creatively thinking about how our popular view of Jesus simplifies the complex view presented in the scriptures to fit our own limited or biased understanding.]

Comments

  1. This is an interesting question. I have long thought that if Jesus were to walk into a room we would have no idea who he was. My own pet peeve is when we put words in Jesus’ mouth that he never actually said, like “I never said it would be easy, only that it would be worth it”. Huh? “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” comes to mind.

    Anyway, who’s the Jesus of Mormon culture? Well, note that we tend to call him “Christ” or “the Lord” rather than “Jesus”. This suggests a certain formality in our relationship. I notice that when I want to break down that formality myself I refer to him as “Jesus”. He’s “Jesus” when he’s “the Saviour” (another popular Mormon term), and “the Lord” when he is leading the institutional Church.

    So maybe there’s a Jesus vs. the Lord dichotomy that needs exploring.

  2. There is a heavy emphasis on the principle that Jesus knows each and every one of us by name or that He loves each and every one of us. Maybe we really can’t emphasize those ideas enough but I sometimes feel we neglect to teach other characteristics of the Savior. Consequently we might end up with the image of a “Cool Older Brother Jesus, who loves absolutely everyone just as they are.”

  3. danithew, the thing is, Jesus does love everyone just as they are, doesn’t he? I think he wants us to do certain things, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love us, does it?

    It seems like these images may be incomplete, but I don’t think they’re all wrong, necessarily. In fact, in addition to being an actual person, I think Christ fills some archetypal roles as well. He embodies perfect love, perfect authority, perfect what-have-you. I think it’s natural (if perhaps short-sighted and naive) to focus on certain aspects of Jesus’ nature that are most relevant to us at the time. It’s nice that he can be whatever we need whenever we need it, whether it’s a loving older brother or a motivation to do better.

  4. Actually Logan (you poacher!), there have been some interesting things in the Ensign about whether the love extended by God and by Jesus can be fairly defined as unconditional. Russell M. Nelson wrote on this point.

  5. Don’t bring that up, Steve (you crybaby!). It forces me to say that I find his argument unconvincing and based on semantic games. And I don’t really feel like having that conversation. So maybe I’ll just bow out of this one, too.

    Carry on, then. Forget I said anything.

  6. Logan you quitter!

    Dave, I think Mormons overall confuse the notion of a personal God with the concept that someone is always looking out for them. It’s a leap, I think, to go from a God that knows each of his creations to a God that is your crutch through life. It stifles independent thought and action, and renders us more likely to be commanded in all things.

  7. Steve, so I guess we might call Elder Nelson’s portrayal the “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not Jesus”? This is certainly a corrective to the “Cool Older Brother Jesus.”

  8. While not exactly on point, this topic reminds me of ways people appropriate Jesus for their own use. Common instances of this manipulation include the teenage/collegiate rebel who goes around saying “Jesus was a rabble-rouser, man. He was always challenging authority and making people think out of the box. Totally progressive.” Not quite so common with Mormons, but still blasphemous (no, it’s not blasphemous to mention that Jesus did rail against wicked authority, but to use him as an excuse for generalized rebellion). The flip-side is the conservative element that appropriates Jesus’ condemnations of certain people, almost as justification for their own habit of being judgmental.

    I heartily agree with the main message of Dave’s post– that we must accept the whole Jesus, including his sweet, loving side and his fiery, stickler side, as well as his “spirit of the law” thinking along with his strict adherence to important rules. Anything less is creating a slightly different God in our own image.

  9. The propensity to remake deity to fit popular cultural constructs is part of every society. When I studied Old Saxon, it was very illuminating to read the Heliand- the Old Saxon version of the New Testament story presented by the gospels.

    The Heliand portrays Christ as a mighty “chieftain” (OS “drohtin”) not unlike a typical OS chieftain. From the very first scene where horsemen are watching over their herds of horses (rather than shepherd abiding in the fields…), the setting is clearly Germanic. When Christ turns the water into wine during the wedding feast, he is able to do so because he knows the “secret runes” (and incidentally, Christ is portrayed in this scene as a generous and perfect OS host, drinking with his guests and being exceedingly generous with the wine).

    When Christ is baptized, rather than the Holy Ghost descending on him “like” a dove, the author(s) elaborately describe how the Holy Ghost actually lands on his shoulder and whispers in his ear, an symbol surely not lost to the Saxons who would surely have immediately thought of their Germanic God Wotan with the ravens Nunin (memory) and Hugin (mind) perched on his shoulder, whispering to him all things that he should know and bringing all things to his remembrance.

    I know we do the same things today, both as a Latter-day Saint culture and more generally. Trends I have noticed in my lifetime include emphasizing (perhaps overly so) the roles of Jesus as our “best friend” or as out “older brother.” Mormons often seem to see Jesus as an older, wisened, perfect Mormon, forgetting sometimes that he was a social revolutionary.

  10. Not that it matters, but this is a topic I have found quite interesting in my graduate studies. I wrote a couple of papers on what I called “cultural constructs of deity”.

  11. Jordan, it’s interesting to study this as a cultural construct, but I think we can also see this happen on an individualized level — we all remake God in our own image, to a certain extent. Cultural constructs are just the accumulation of these, aren’t they?

  12. I remember being a teenager at a creche exhibit and noticing that the nativity scene from Africa portrayed a black Mary, Joseph and Jesus. I scoffed at this cultural blindness at the time. After all, everyone knows that Jesus is an almost blonde caucasian with American movie star cheekbones and jaw.

  13. I’m not sure if its more of a reimagining of Jesus so that his “teachings” coincide with our present belief system or if we are basing our belief system on a specific portion of his total teachings.

    To some degree this is the same fallacy that the buffet style religions come into. I like what Jesus said on page X but not on page Y and I don’t even understand what page Z is all about. My church beliefes in the Lord Jesus of page X!

    I believe we are all trying our best understand Jesus Christ’s total teachings. I’m grateful that our Stake and Bishop encourages us regularly to read the OT, NT, BoM et al. I can recall from so many other religions I’ve studied that the church never really encouraged the congregation to read the whole thing. Usually there was a 3-5 year cycle that they followed teaching specific chapter and verse, but they never encouraged the congregation to read ahead or even beyond what was presented.

    The best I can think is that we remember Him as a living Christ. Not just one that did things for us but one that still does. If this fits the Jesus of blessings then so be it. But I believe its only one facet of his life and ministry.

    All that being said. I like the Buddy Jesus: http://shop.store.yahoo.com/jsbstash/budchrisdass1.html

  14. Of course Mormonism’s most radical proposal is that Jesus is Yahweh of the OT. OK, in the Trinity, Jesus is by default also Yahweh, but there’s a difference. In Mormonism, Jesus is God almost alone, with *the* Father largely absent. This idea becomes very stark for me when my son watches the Prince of Egypt. “Who’s speaking from the bush, daddy?. Is it Heavenly Father?”

    “Well, yes, er, no, um sort-of”.

  15. Ronan, I’m not sure that it’s as cut-and-dried as the way you’re saying. The doctrine of Jesus=Jehovah is well-established, but we don’t really know who was speaking much of the time. Boundaries between the Father and the Son are difficult to establish, as you can tell by reading Mosiah 15:1-5 (ironically, this is the clearest separator of Father and Son that we have!).

    The only time we can safely distinguish between actors is when the two persons are both involved in one event: Jesus’ baptism, the First Vision, etc. Otherwise, the Father and the Son are largely indistinguishable. Makes you long for a traditional view of the Trinity — at least then you’d know who was speaking at the time.

  16. I’d second the comments that we put words in Christ’s mouth. When we don’t do that, I find we tend to emphasize what he said through revelations to Joseph Smith or as Jehovah, rather than his earthly ministry. There are exceptions, of course, but overall I find that we like to focus on those things that, as Dave noted, confirm out view of the world. So we tend to spend considerable time talking about the Word of Wisdom (even inventing tales that the wine in the New Testament was actually grape juice) and the Law of Chastity, two things Jesus either never, or rarely mentioned in the New Testament.

    We’re also very good proof-texters. We can take what we want out of the Gospels and apply it to Mormonism quite well.

  17. I’m reminded of a recent book by Stephen Prothero entitled _American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon_, which features a long chapter in which the author comments on representations of Jesus in LDS scripture, teachings, doctrinal writings such as _Jesus the Christ_, the temple, hymns, and art.

    For instance, Prothero points out that W.W. Phelps rewrote the lyrics of Calvinist Isaac Watts’s hymn, “He dies! the Friend of sinners dies!” Among other changes, Phelps replaced “Friend of sinners” with “great Redeemer.” Why did Phelps object to “Friend of sinners”? Prothero argues that Phelps’s substitution represented his refusal “to invoke in his lyrics the feminized Jesus beginning to win the hearts of American evangelicals. His Jesus was unabashedly masculine and unapologetically majestic” (p. 178). Hmmm.

    Prothero writes: “Like millions of Americans from Thomas Jefferson onward, Mormons have pledged their allegiance to Jesus. In fact, in many cases Mormons exceed liberal and evangelical Christians in their adoration of him….Their Jesus is a flesh-and-blood God, the Jehovah of the Old Testament, and a person quite distinct from God the Father. Although Mormons have gravitated in recent years toward more intimate relationships with Jesus as a companion and friend [Prothero earlier reviews the McConkie/Pace "personal relationship with Christ" episode in 1982], most continue to hold him at arm’s length, approaching their Savior with at least a modicum of formality. In other words, the Mormon Jesus remains an Elder Brother, who is significant chiefly for charting the path we must follow if we are to attain exaltation and godhood” (pp. 198-99).

  18. Thanks Justin. I had intended to read that book. Anyway, I think he’s right, hence our preference for names such as “the Lord”, “the Saviour”, “Christ”, over plain ‘ol “Jesus”.

  19. Steve, of course some claim that the Jesus=Jehovah doctrine is an early 20th century one and not part of Joseph’s theology. To be honest, I haven’t looked into it that much…

  20. In my opinion it is the 3 Nephi chapters of the Book of Mormon that best bring together the (often destructive) Jehovah of the OT and the (turn the other cheek) Jesus of the NT so well. But for more on that, read this post written by some guest-blogger crank over at T&S some time ago:

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?p=1493#more-1493

    [Shamless self-promotion]

  21. I prayed to Jesus until I was 19 and started hastily reading Bruce R. McConkie to prepare for my mission. I had always thought of God the Father as austere and huge and terrible. He was Denethor to Jesus’s Faramir, and I was Pippin. It was very, very difficult to make the switch. I hate the “big brother” talk as much as anyone, but I can sympathize.

  22. Kingsley, it’s not surprising that you would find praying to Jesus easier. For many religions with a notion of the Trinity, God made himself flesh in order to be one with us, for us to more easily approach Him. I think that there’s something to Jesus’s physical life and experiences that make him more approachable than his Father.

  23. Steve: correct: and then you have all those nice pictures of Jesus in primary, and all the NT and BoM stories, and He gets way, way more air time in Sacrament Meeting, Sunday School, General Conference, etc., than the Father; so that you end up (when young at least) feeling like the one is accessible while the other is an utter, utter capital M Mystery.

  24. John H:”When we don’t do that, I find we tend to emphasize what he said through revelations to Joseph Smith or as Jehovah, rather than his earthly ministry.”

    There is actually a large variation among the apostles in this respect. Here’s a graph I made using the new search feature on the church website, showing which scriptures were cited in conference talks:

    The horizontal axis is the percentage of cites that are to the BOM, and the vertical is percentage of cites to the Bible. Whatever’s left over are cites to the D&C/PoGP.

    As you can see, the percentage of citations to the Bible ranges from about 75% (Monson) down to about 20% (Scott). Most of the cites from the bible come from the New Testament.

  25. The way that I have become more comfortable in my relationship with Heavenly Father is to realize that Jesus tells us to forward all our calls to his Father. All glory to the Father, all prayers to the Father, etc. The confidence of the Son helps me better approach the Father.

  26. Frank McIntyre says:

    ed,

    that was cool, but weird.

  27. Steve: there’s something to Jesus’s physical life and experiences that make him more approachable than his Father.

    If you really want to do some deep sea diving, then of course there’s the notion that the Father DID indeed have a physical life! Do we still believe that?

  28. Yeah, I think we do still believe that, Ronan, since the Father has a body.

    That being said, we know little of what the Father did during his mortality, save what Jesus tells us, like in John 5:19 — “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” Some (I think including Joseph Smith) have interpreted this quite literally, that the Son saw his Father’s actions and learned from them.

  29. Tom Manney says:

    Recently I’ve been wondering about the implications of the atonement on Jesus’ life. We’re taught that he descended below us all, that his punishment was an infinite punishment. I really have no idea what that means, but I suspect that his suffering was so excruciating (no pun intended) that it pales in comparison to anything anyone else has ever felt.

    The world is full of people with emotional scars — insanity, flashbacks, etc. — because of the pain they’ve experienced. So how does Jesus cope? It seems logical to me that a resurrected being has a far better if not pristine memory of everything that has ever happened to them, so I can’t help but wonder how much of that pain does Jesus live with every day? Is there a part of him that always feels it? How does he cope?

    It’s a sobering thought.

    This conversation is interesting to me in light of the comment in another discussion that Joseph Smith’s view of himself was constantly evolving and changed dramatically over his life. If Jesus is our example, then clearly we all undergo even more dramatic change throughout our eternal lives, and perhaps we can take some lessons from that. In the pre-existence Jehovah was dramatic, fiery, terrible and pious. In mortality, he was humble, forgiving and tolerant (at least that’s the Jesus I see in the New Testament). He was an intimate friend of all who knew and loved him. In the resurrection, Jesus is regal and maybe a little distant. As Lord of the Restoration, he comes across to me in the Doctrine & Covenants as calm and assured, as patient but only to a point. Something of a merger between the Old Testament Jehovah and New Testament Jesus. But if revelation is any judge, we’re going to revisit the fiery Old Testament Jehovah at the second coming. I can’t say for sure if I’m looking forward to that — I guess I’m not sure if I’ll be numbered with the righteous or the wicked.

  30. It is interesting, in light of some of the discussion about Joseph Smith’s development, to think about Christ gradually coming to an understanding of His full role in history. “He received not of the fullness at first, but continued from grace to grace,” etc. That He learned line upon line about who He was doesn’t negate His literal Messiahship, of course; that Joseph Smith received the same sort of education shouldn’t surprise or upset anyone.

  31. I think that the reason we have issues, baggage, and flashbacks of our pain and grief is that we’ve not fully gotten past it. We haven’t yet “descended below all” of our burdens, so to speak. We haven’t fully drank from the bitter cup. Whenever Jesus speaks of the pain of Gethsemane, it’s always in the past, with an air of finality. I think that when he said, “It is finished.” It was truly finished.

    MRKH

  32. Last_lemming says:

    Ed,

    Fascinating graph. What period of time does this data cover? A single conference? Multiple conferences?

    Also, if your software allows it, you might consider adding diagonal lines to make it easier to discern the D&C/PoGP percentage. For example, a line between 1 on the vertical axis and 1 on the horizontal axis would represent 0% from the D&C/PoGP. A line between the two 0.9s would represent 10% and so on.

  33. Last_lemming:

    The graph covers all GC talks by a given person in their GA career, including any talks given before they were apostles, I believe. (I made the graph a while ago, so I’d have to check to be sure.) Of course this somewhat obscures the time element…part of the difference can be attributed to an increased emphasis on the BOM over time. I the overall rate of citations has also increased somewhat.

    The source for the data is actually at byu, not the church website, check it out:

    http://scriptures.byu.edu/

    I found this resource via a post on Mormon Wasp, that you should also check out if you’re interested in this stuff.

    http://mormonwasp.blogspot.com/2004/10/lds-general-conference-scripture.html

    I don’t think it’s easy to add lines to the graph, unfortunately. I recommend you print the graph and draw your own lines on with a ruler :-).

  34. Wow, my own thread so morphed out of recognition I didn’t even recognize it at first. But I think Justin’s pointer to the Prothero book on Jesus as a national icon and Ed’s cool graph are great additions. Seems like the conservatives in leadership gravitate to the lower right. I’ll bet FLDS leaders are even further that direction. I’m surprised but encouraged to see President Hinckley leading the pack moving up and to the left. Aim high, aim left.

    What occurred to me reading the thread was that we need a post discussing how easy it is to remake the Church to be in conformity with our own pet ideas.

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