I listened to a lecture a few months ago by Dr. Richard Wightman Fox, the author of Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession, who spoke on the diversity of images present in our American culture relative to Jesus. I thought it was fascinating that he would state at the beginning of the presentation that everyone in America has a “Jesus experience” in some way or another, regardless of their system of belief they are aware of Him and have a mental image of who He is/was.
His focus on Christians in America was also revealing because he used statistics to prove how America is still a predominantly Christian nation. According to Fox:
- 80% of Americans say they are Christian
- 70% of Americans say the Jesus is divine
- 40% of Americans claim to be born-again and go to church every week
- 80% of Americans say that religion is important to them
Since religious diversity/tolerance in America is growing, people of varying backgrounds have a wide variety of opinions about Jesus, but, among Christians, the religious experiences with Jesus in America are intense, direct, and profound. According to Fox, Protestants and other Christian groups (i.e. Jehovah’s Witness, Pentecostals, Apostolics, and Mormons) place great emphasis on revisiting their original experience with Jesus. This is especially true of those Christians who emphasize being “born-again,” because of the intensity of connection in that first contact with Jesus.
Another point of interest for Americans is the continued growth of the Muslim community in this nation (about 1 million at present). However, because Jesus plays such an important role in our nation, American Muslims place more emphasis on Jesus here than in other nations.
Fox also reminds us that the first Christian images of Jesus to enter into this culture were from the Spanish and French Roman Catholic missionaries, not the Protestants. Modern images of Jesus in America stem from Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Hollywood, labor, and Muslim sources.
Fox says, “Christian faith renews itself by being critical of its self.” I think that one area of criticism that Christians need to look at is the increasing commercialism of Jesus in our culture. Music, fashion, art, literature, and even travel industries have been honing in on Christians through advertising at an unprecedented level over the last few years. This attempt to market Jesus in an economically productive manner has the danger of diminishing the influence of Christianity in America as it becomes less Christian and more like the world.
Does Jesus “unsettle all our settled ways of thinking,” as Dr. Fox believes, or do Americans use Jesus to justify and support their various causes and positions? I think that in an attempt to get to the heart of the matter we need to be honest with ourselves and realign our perspective of Jesus with the Bible, because, while the American Jesus is a cultural reality it is not a biblical one.