When I teach my Introduction to Religion course and arrive at the requisite Jesus material—the "human" Jesus of Mark's Gospel, the "messianic" one in John's, the quest for the historical Jesus beginning in the early 20th century—I do my duty and plow through the standard stuff. But lately I am waiting for a student ask the now inevitable question: "What did you think of The Da Vinci Code'sJesus?"
At this I brighten. I launch into a talk about the Gospel of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and history versus fiction in the wake of Dan Brown. Yes, I am one of those people who watched the National Geographic special on the Gospel of Judas with rapt attention. No, I can't help stopping at the newsstand when "Who was Jesus" features show up on magazine covers. And this season the bookshelves offer a feast for people like me, my hand already sore from shaking hands with the many versions of Jesus they boast, all campaigning for my attention.
This is the year of Politician Jesus. Whether he's a card-carrying Republican made in the image of Bush (or dare I say, Rumsfeld) or a Democrat struggling to save face with the voters depends on which book you happen to grab.
Meet Mark Galli's Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker, July), a man from the Gospel of Mark who "is Jesus the consuming fire, the raging storm, who seems bent on destroying everything in his path, who either shocks people into stupefaction or frightens them so that they run for their lives." Galli's is a Jesus fit to inspire the soldiers of war, for the "men willing to risk life or serious injury in order to save others," who engage in "hand to hand combat with demons," who aren't concerned about being rude or hated. He is a savior for an America that makes the world uncomfortable with its brazenness, its power, its willingness to police and the way it doles out "tough love" by invading other countries.
Or perhaps you'd rather look at The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (W Publishing, Apr.), with author Brian McLaren introducing a man who scoffs at "blind patriotism," is an essential member of God's "crisis response team" and whose words "are the primal, disruptive, terrifying, shocking, hopeful words and ways of a revolutionary who seeks to overthrow the status quo in nearly every conceivable way." Yet unlike Galli's right-wing sympathizer, McLaren's revolutionary rebels against "lions" (think Bush, Cheney, corrupt corporate executives) who refuse not only to lay down with the lambs but to lay down their weapons and lay out their bankrolls in the service of the poor and oppressed. McLaren's Jesus most closely resembles the radical, egalitarian, pacifist Jesus described in Gary Wills's What Jesus Meant (Viking, Mar.; InProfile, p. S14), who rebukes leaders for their "pride and ostentation of power" and opposes wealth and hierarchy.
Though each author's politics may differ, a common message awaits in this season's crop of Jesus portraits: Jesus is not who you thought he was. Gone is friendly-guy Jesus, replaced by a Jesus waging a rebellion, but against who and what will be determined by whether Wills, McLaren or Galli do the honors of the introduction (or rather, reintroduction). We are in an era of the Jesus that confounds, connives, holds secrets, wages war on terror, shocks and awes and who, if he turns the other cheek, as McLaren's Jesus surely does, does so with as much bravado and macho flair as Stephen S. Sawyer's Undefeated, the stunning painting of a ripped figure in a boxing ring that adorns the center photo in Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (FSG, 2003).
As I read through this stack of books, at least one thing is clear: Jesus wants my vote in 2008, and maybe in 2006 as well.