“Today’s Christianity is first and foremost dynamic,” writes Tom Breen in the new book The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus. “It is not merely something people are guilted into doing on Sundays by their nagging, churchy spouses.” No, Christianity has put a the mask of cool on top its ancient head (often with a goatee and ear mic as additional props) with the success of multi-million dollar businesses and megaplex churches.
So how does a 2000-year-old religion keep up with the contemporary world? Tom Breen suggests a few things in a Stephen Colbert-ish vein.
First, segmentation. The Reformation gave birth to the denominational mall that is today the consumer friendly church like the Emerging Church - “white people in their twenties and thirties who have at least one tattoo or body piercing.”
Second, scripture. Breen rightly identifies that the need is not only for translation into new languages but new dialects. "You see, the Bible is not a fixed document menacing us with its canonicity," he says, "rather, it’s a fluid work waiting to be shaped by each age as it sees fit. The Bible can be repackaged, retranslated, and even redacted, and still remain the Bible." If you’re lost on the word “canonicity,” Breen defines it a few pages earlier as a “popularity contest,” naming three criteria: “(1) Was this written by a big shot famous apostle? (2) Is this the kind of thing the Gnostics will be able to twist easily to support their nonsense? (3) Would this make a good film? Potentially starring Harrison Ford as Paul?”
Third, Christian music and business. “Why is that only Christianity has spawned an industry raking in millions of dollars by basing faith-centric lyrics on the conventions of popular songs? Where are the Jewish rappers? The Muslim heavy metal bands? How many Zoroastrian bands are there?” (The footnote says one: Queen.)
Fourth, Jesus building. This circles us back to the first. Breen offers a “Field Guide to the Major North American Jesuses.” He charts out several famous ones including “Extreme Jesus”, “Christ Among the NPR Listeners”, “President Jesus”, “Jesus H. Buddha”, “Big Bank Jesus”, and “Pop Historic Jesus.”
I talked with Tom Breen on the day his book released on Baylor Press (Yes, that’s a seemingly odd match, a university press, especially given Breen’s warning to stuffy professor types.)
MHP: Explain the title The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus.
Tom Breen: That was actually the suggestion of the publisher. It does reflect the overall thrust of Jesus and Christianity inside pop culture where the real meaning often times gets lost. It’s not straight-faced.
MHP: So, what is it that you do and what motivated you to write a book like this?
TB: I’m a reporter for the Associated Press. I write about healthcare. But, when I was in Connecticut (I’m now in West Virginia) working for a newspaper, I had a blog called The Medicine Box which had a similar tone to the book. When The Christian Century reprinted one of the entries, I received a call from Baylor Press. They asked me if I ever thought about writing a book. I hadn’t.
MHP: So, I guess you hadn’t thought of selling your book with a “Build-your-Own-Jesus” kit in line with the Build-A-Bear craze?
TB: No, I hadn’t but that’s an idea. You should copyright that.
MHP: Thanks for the suggestion. Now to your methods. You advocate skimming the results of Google searches and filling in the blanks with speculation. Is that the norm today? You later state as a credo, “Facts Can’t Stand in the Way When Truth Doesn’t Matter.” Can you elaborate?
TB: Nothing matters more than the easiest possible research. It makes you an instant expert and as long as you are not seduced by cranks, it’s pretty easy. My credo is from Reagan who said “Facts are stupid things.” The big picture is impressing people with assumed knowledge, right? It really doesn’t mean getting it right; an arguably correct fact will work.
MHP: In your discussion of the Bible as best seller, you present ways to cut down what is unneeded and use Leviticus as an example. You summarize, “God gives Mo’ the 411 on snacking.” Are there other books you've researched?
TB: Yes. Let’s take Exodus. You can narrow it down to a single admonition: “Bring a map.”
MHP: How about a New Testament example?
TB: James: “Be nice to panhandlers.”
[Breen also gives the example of John 3:5-7 in text message shorthand language -
JCMSIAH316: POS what r u doing LOL!
DISIPL23: IMHO :>) WTMIRL???
JCMSIAH316: :-) ROFL
We encourage you to add your text message shorthand examples in a reply to this article.]
MHP: Good. Now, talk about the making of translations and “The Word of God for the Parents of Today’s Cool Christian Teens.”
TB: To make a translation yourself, there are several things to consider. The most important in translating the Word of God comes from Athanasius who said, “Identify a market segment.” Remember that in today’s market micro is better than macro. Think about Martin Luther. His target was way too broad. All Germany? No, maybe just concentrate on professional women. That idea of segmentation is key. Like the text message Bible version. That has a market.
The second is to pick your title. It can’t be “Bible.” That’s used up and will put people to sleep. Maybe something like “A User’s Guide to Bars in New Orleans.” Think also about your market. Do rap songs work?
The third is celebrity endorsement. If Bono approves, it’s bono-fied. [The Message, for example.]
The last point is about text. It’s an afterthought. It doesn’t matter as long as the consumer buys it. That means the word has been passed along. Job complete.
I don’t know if producing these Bible products creates a need or not. Are people unwilling or so impatient to read that the Bible has to be couched in bite-sized verbiage to be successful? It goes back to times when people didn’t read the Bible.
MHP: The Emerging Church… you tackle this in a paragraph. Can you explain why they like candles so much?
TB: I actually wish I dealt with the Emerging Church in more detail. The ideal emergent liturgy appears to be a mix-match of new and old. There is a nostalgia and a longing for those things Catholic and Orthodox but they seem unwilling to take steps into those churches. Young people do like retro things for the timelessness. Again, it’s American; it’s make your own religion.
MHP: How about the sections about The Angry Part of God and the Happy Part of God, the two sections of the Bible that you repackage in those terms.
TB: Well, the Happy Part of God is most popular. Titling it that way fits into the prevailing mood of the culture which wants a fuzzy, glib message where Happy God becomes Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver, always understanding. Because, you know, there is a high percentage of people who believe in Hell, but there is a low percentage of those who think they’ll be going to such a place.
For me, in all seriousness, faith is wrapped up in history, in the Church councils, in definite answers. Christianity is not dependent on culture. It is not available to accommodate yourself in it. There are right answers.
MHP: You site a few examples of where this love affair of Christianity and popular culture has come from at the beginning of the book and where it might go in the age to come. Is it your belief that this has been and will always be the Christian thorny side - appeal versus manipulation, honesty versus skirting it for the sake of rock and roll, etc.
TB: Yes. I think there will always be the danger that the presentation of Christianity will obscure or distort the content of Christianity if people aren't vigilant in making sure that doesn't happen. Christianity has the challenge of being intended for as large an audience as possible, but at the same time being complex and sophisticated. Even something as seemingly elementary as translating the Bible is fraught with risk; the goal is to produce a version that will engage whatever culture it's aimed at, but at the same time you don't want to find yourself turning the psalms into gangsta rap anthems (or maybe you do, depending on your chosen niche market; I'm just saying that's a difficult task). That tension, though, can be creative and ultimately helpful; I don't think it's something Christians should seek to avoid.
MHP: How does one develop Christian taste?
TB: Wow, what an excellent question. My starting point is a thinker who was certainly not Christian: the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He once wrote that an aesthetic work can only be politically correct if it's first aesthetically correct. The same holds true of Christian culture: if a work of art - a song, a movie, a novel, whatever - doesn't satisfy as art, then it won't satisfy as Christian witness either. There's a lot more evangelism in Bach or Mahalia Jackson or "The Power & the Glory" than in a thousand well-meaning sermons and tracts. Once you accept that _ the notion that the terms of art and Christianity aren't mutually exclusive _ you're already developing Christian taste.
MHP: You have charts detailing different Jesuses. I didn't see BeJesus or GayJesus or even SheJesus. Any reason? Also, can I have my own Jesus or does it have to identify with a group?
TB: The field guide was a way of gently satirizing some of the more popular variations on Jesus that have sprung up in American culture, with the goal of having readers get the sense of "I recognize that!" in at least some of the instances. I'm not familiar with a widespread popularization of the Jesuses you mention, but the charts in the book certainly weren't intended to be definitive. I suppose you could probably fill an entire book with different American interpretations of Jesus (possible title: Kung-Fu Jesus and a Nation of Messiahs). As for the second part of the question, I think one powerful tendency in American Christianity is certainly to create a custom-made, individual Jesus for every believer. That's certainly one possible outcome of the theology that demands a personal relationship with the Savior.
MHP: So, I listen to Christian radio, go to a Christian university, hang out with Christian friends, and critique movies and TV in relation to my Christian conviction. What do you say to me?
TB: Godspeed and best wishes. Seriously, I don't have a problem with any of that. My only caution would be that it's probably unwise to mistake that stuff for Christianity itself. Christianity existed long before Christian radio, Christian universities and Christian TV shows. While there's always been Christian art, there's also always been a recognition that Christianity is more than passive consumption of culture, that it actually requires believers to believe and do specific things. To the extent you can do that and hang out with Christian friends at Christian concerts, more power to you. But if you can name 10 Christian heavy metal bands without blinking but are a little shaky about what this whole "Trinity" thing is, maybe it's time to hit the Christian books and attend some Christian church services.
Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.