Book of Doctrine and Forgetting
What Would Yeshua Do?
Rick de Yampert/Candide's Notebooks, February 4, 2006
As the Muslim world contemplates what would Muhammad do in response to CMD (Cartoons of Mass Destruction printed in Danish, French and German newspapers), some American Christians have been jousting with their own spiritual crisis: Namely, what would Jesus do if he had seen “The Book of Daniel,” that controversial TV show which NBC “dropped” from its schedule (as opposed to “canceling”) last week?
What would Jesus do if someone waved the current issue of Rolling Stone in his face — the issue that boasts a photo of rapper Kanye West looking very Jesus-like with a crown of thorns and bloodied, wounded face. (Or is West merely auditioning for the sequel to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”?)
When some Christians began a “WWJD” campaign several years ago (via bumper stickers and wristbands), I assumed the idea was to plant little seeds of morality and spirituality in people. You find a wallet with $10,000 in it and are pondering whether to turn it in to authorities or head out to Vegas? Ask yourself “What would Jesus do?” You’re pondering whether to bomb a country that has not attacked or threatened the United States? Ask yourself “What would Jesus do?”
However, pop culture, via “Daniel” and Kanye, has brought some interesting twists to “WWJD” — as, indeed, pop culture always has done. “To hold Jesus up to the mirror of American culture is to conduct a Rorschach test of ever-changing national sensibilities,” writes Stephen Prothero in his book, “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003). “What Americans have seen in him has been an expression of their own hopes and fears — a reflection not simply of some ‘wholly other’ divinity but also of themselves and their nation.”
Prothero says his book “is not a history of American theology” or about “Christ the messiah.” Rather, he wanted to examine films, novels, visual arts and other pop culture, as well as theological tracts and treatises “to know what Americans see in him — whether he is aloof or friendly, dour or merry, masculine or feminine, homely or handsome. I am interested in the man, not the metaphysics.”
Tour Prothero’s book and you realize the provocative nature of “The Book of Daniel” or Kanye’s pose is not a fresh phenomenon. Jesus is depicted as a boxer in one painting, on an “outlaw wanted” poster in another, and as a “buttoned-up CEO” in another.
Prothero also notes the alarming time “the Ku Klux Klan distributed an image portraying Jesus as a Klansman handing out bread marked ‘Tenets of K.K.K.’”
Of course, a Jesus that provokes sincere contemplation of faith issues to some can seem horrifically blasphemous to others. “Evangelicals and fundamentalists have in recent decades become the most vocal critics of American Christianity’s captivity to culture,” Prothero says. He then cites Christian musician Steven John Camp, who laments contemporary Christian music has lost its way. On the Web site worship.com, Camp rues how the music has become plagued by “theological ebonics — Biblical language diminished to cultural unintelligible chatter affirmed as profound, acceptable spiritual truth.”
A similar schism seems at play with “The Book of Daniel.” Bob Waliszewski, of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, said the TV show was “extremely repulsive in its portrayal of Jesus Christ and intentionally offensive in its flippant attitude toward behaviors almost universally agreed upon as unhealthy to society, morally bankrupt, and, dare I say it, sinful.”
However, the Rev. Barry L. Mick of the Deltona ( Florida) United Church of Christ wrote in an e-mail to me that he found the show “a brilliant depiction of a mainstream minister’s life and congregation. The challenges the family face are realistically portrayed, if a bit exaggerated (and they should be, for dramatic license’s sake). In my sermon last Sunday I encouraged the congregation to watch it. My rationale was that it was ‘prophetic.’ Prophetic because, in the truest sense of the word, it spoke out boldly about a state of affairs that deserves ‘more light and truth.’”
Of course, the very Christians who prod us to play WWJD will chastise any non-Christians who take up the game and come up with different answers: “You’re not a Christian — how can you claim to know what our Savoir would do?”
But such referees of WWJD should stay their hand before throwing the penalty flag on non-Christians. Check the rule book. As history professor Donald Harman Akenson reminds us in his excellent book “Saint Saul — A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus” (Oxford, 2002), Yeshua was never called “Jesus” in his lifetime (that name was a later Hellenisation), and, more importantly, Yeshua “was not a Christian (he never heard the word ‘Christian,’ much less embraced it), was not intentionally involved in founding a Gentile religion, and was completely loyal to the Yahweh-faith, which he wished to purify, not destroy. So, we use the name he called himself: not Jesus, Yeshua.”
And what would Jesus . . . er, what would Yeshua do about “The Book of Daniel”? Similar to the Rev. Mick, I found the show provoked me to think about matters of faith, spiritual conflict, human desires and human frailties. I imagine Yeshua would say that was a good thing.
Rick de Yampert is a columnist for The Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida, where a different version of this piece appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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