PW: You've spent much of your career studying Asian religions—how did you get interested in Jesus?
Stephen Prothero: I was working on Asian religions in America, but I kept stumbling over Jesus. I found Japanese-American Buddhists singing hymns like "Onward Buddhist Soldiers" and "Buddha Loves Me, This I Know"—both songs that are actually in hymnals of the Buddhist Churches in America. In the Vedanta Temple of San Francisco there's a painting called Christ the Yogi that depicts Jesus meditating in the half-lotus position. The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have both written bestselling books on Jesus. I started a file of these encounters and the file eventually got so big I realized I had a book.
PW: In American Jesus you talk about "resurrections" and "reincarnations" of Jesus. What led you to these two categories?
SP: What intrigued me is that all Americans—Christian or not, religious or not—seem to love Jesus. One group, though, uses Jesus to support Christianity, while the other uses him to subvert Christianity. I use "resurrection" to stand for interpretations that see Jesus as a unique figure, largely in light of the New Testament, from Thomas Jefferson's philosopher-sage to Bruce Barton's "Man Nobody Knows." "Reincarnation" I use for understandings of Jesus that give him life outside of the Christian mainstream, seeing him as one avatar among many, one bodhisattva among many.
PW: Why do Americans devote so much attention to Jesus?
SP: First, for all its religious diversity, the U.S. is still populated overwhelmingly by Christians. There are more Christians in the U.S. than there are in any other country in the world. And American Christianity has become focused on Jesus. During the decades after independence, Americans moved away from the patriarchal God of Calvin toward Jesus, whom they saw as more egalitarian, loving and personable—in other words, more American. Jesus replaced God the Father as the dominant figure in the Trinity.
At the same time, religious dissent has always been strong in the U.S.—strong enough to permit non-Christians to claim Jesus as their own. Christians have enough public power to put Jesus on the agenda, but not enough to give them a monopoly on defining who he is. So when Christians say Jesus matters, other groups say, "Amen, and let us tell you about him—he was such a great Hindu, or he was such a great Buddhist." All this makes Jesus "the man nobody hates," the man who speaks on behalf of all religions rather than just one.
PW: Of the many different Jesuses you describe in the book, did one emerge for you as a favorite?
SP: The images of Jesus as "Black Moses" appeal to me. Early Afrocentrists like the Reverend Albert Cleage made the incredibly bold claim that Jesus wasn't just metaphorically black, or somehow on the side of African-Americans, but was literally, biologically black. Artists like Janet McKenzie have created images where Jesus is not only African-American but androgynous. Now, I don't think Jesus was literally black, but I like the audacity of that claim. And it has a long history, going all the way back to slave times and the Negro spirituals—it's not just a flip contemporary innovation.
I'm interested in the transformative power of religion, its power to change both individuals and societies—and black Jesus pictures have that prophetic quality. I don't find it very interesting to study pragmatic religious people. I'm much more attracted to hard-core religious folks.