Jesus According to Pop Culture

David Zahl
Saturday, October 31st 2015
Nov/Dec 2015

Back in 2005, the satirical newspaper The Onion issued one of its better mock headlines, ‘Vatican Gives Popular Jesus Character a Whole New Look.’ According to their sources, ‘the shabby robe-and-sandals look is out, as Vatican makeover artists unveil a new, sleeker son of God featuring a white leather trench coat, short gelled hair, and a throwing star of David.’ They went on to quote fictional Vatican PR executive Giovanni Ramola: ‘We tried to think of it as, ‘What if Jesus wasn’t the son of God, but the son of Vin Diesel?”

As with most of The Onion’s material, the report contained more than an element of truth. Like a blockbuster franchise that gets rebooted every decade, Jesus Christ is constantly being repackaged for popular consumption. In fact, the writers of the report explicitly invoke Hollywood language, positioning Christ as one character in a stable full of them. Their motives may be cynical, but they are not mistaken. When we talk about Jesus in pop culture, we are talking about Jesus the Character, not Jesus the Second Person of the Trinity.

Of course, Jesus isn’t just any character. His name carries weight, regardless of context. Old, young, male, female, white, black, blue state or red’it is impossible to grow up in our culture without developing some picture of Christ. The associations may be positive, or they may be negative, but they are there. I would not be the first person to suggest that popular conceptions of Jesus can tell us quite a bit about the world in which we live. What we choose to emphasize or omit about him is always revealing. Pop Christ is a repository for our projections and preoccupations, our fears and our hopes, and so on. He has proven to be remarkably malleable in this regard.

A couple of qualifications at the outset: One of the main challenges in discussing Jesus in pop culture has to do with the pace of said culture. Technology has quickened exponentially the rate at which we consume cultural artifacts. Social media and smartphones can create (or squash) a cultural phenomenon in a matter of hours. Trends often pass as soon as they are identified. Hashtags evolve by the hour. Plus, there’s so much of it! Any attempt to take the pulse of the culture will therefore be both incomplete and quickly outmoded. It might be helpful, then, to limit our survey to portrayals of Christ himself’which means no ‘Christ figures,’ as tempting as they may be. We are interested here in explicit depictions of Jesus.

I’m taking the term ‘pop culture’ as a euphemism for mainstream culture, which tends to be secular. Christian communities have produced innumerable variations of Jesus, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous (and sometimes, horrifying). While there may be points of contact with religious ‘riffs’ on the object of our faith, the interest of this article lies with the larger culture’with Hollywood and prime-time television, Top 40 radio, the major Internet outlets, and so on.

It should be acknowledged that a number of these portrayals can be offensive to those who confess faith in the historic Jesus Christ. None of us like to see Christ openly mischaracterized or mocked. It is troubling to see him coopted by preordained agendas. We know full well how harmful such distortions can be. That said, if we honestly want to point those around us to the Jesus of the Bible, then it is important to have an idea of the Jesus they’re familiar with. Plus, some of these images are also so outlandish that they’re amusing. The Onion was right to pick up on the potential humor. The point of this overview is not so much to incense as to inform, and maybe laugh a little.

Jesus is, by and large, a positive figure in pop culture. The precise contours of that positivity vary according to what attributes of his identity are being highlighted, but Christ himself remains well liked’if not revered’appreciated and seldom reviled, especially if he can affirm an opinion we hold dear. There are minor instances of malice on the fringes of society, yet as we will see almost every significant portrayal of Christ in the wider culture is flattering in some way. Most people like him, but that doesn’t mean they see themselves as needing him.

Of course, his followers are a different story. Religion is not a happy topic in our culture. It’s the target of immense skepticism and the source of deep division, and we see this at pretty much every level of pop culture. To avoid dissonance, culture-makers have tended to separate Jesus from his church as much as possible, sometimes even setting him up as antireligious. ‘Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus’ was the title of an enormously popular viral video in 2012 (30 million views on YouTube)’a perfect distillation of anticlerical, pro-Jesus sentiment. The fact that young Christians have adopted the same attitude should come as no surprise.

So what exactly do we like about Jesus? Who exactly is being celebrated, and what relation, if any, does he have to the Jesus of the Bible?

Jesus and the Christ

There are, to my eyes, three main faces that are culturally ascendant and/or dominant at the moment: Macho Jesus, Hipster Jesus, and Urban Jesus. Again, this is not a comprehensive list. Several archetypes are conspicuously absent (such as Hippie Jesus and Revolutionary Che Guevara Jesus). Yet each of these three characterizations has established some kind of a beachhead, whether it be earnest or ironic or both.

Macho Jesus is probably the most well-known, and he goes by other names. You may know him as Muscle Jesus, or Coach Jesus, or Super Jesus. He boasts a highly Anglicized appearance’white skin, light brown hair, sometimes blue eyes’and espouses American values. Macho Jesus is often depicted with formidable biceps and bears a suspicious resemblance to a long-haired Bruce Springsteen. Or, more appropriately, Billy Ray Cyrus, since Macho Jesus often doubles as Country Music Jesus.

The emergence of Macho Jesus represents a not-so-subtle rejoinder, one presumes, to the perceived feminization of the church that was trumpeted so loudly a decade ago. In fact, many blue-state dwellers first learned of Macho Jesus’ popularity via Molly Worthen’s 2009 profile of Mark Driscoll, titled ‘Who Would Jesus Smack Down?’ in the New York Times Magazine. Macho Jesus is brazen and tough’on sin and on those who don’t believe in him (or believe differently). He is unafraid of ‘hard sayings.’ In the post-Driscoll era, depictions of Macho Jesus haven’t gone away as much as become transparently non-serious.

Of the two most memorable paintings of Macho Jesus that have made the rounds on the Internet, one depicts Jesus in a white t-shirt and blue jeans, showing off his heart-shaped Father tattoo. The other shows a shirtless Christ leaning confidently against the ropes of a boxing ring, holding his gloves. We have Kentucky-based artist Stephen Sawyer to thank for both of these images. He once memorably pointed out, ‘I scarcely think Jesus could have overturned the tables of the money-lenders and driven them from the temple if he was a wimp. The model I use for my paintings is a surfer guy who’s built like a brick house.’ (1) Again, one wonders how serious the whole thing is.

A slightly less offensive but no less absurd iteration of Macho Jesus is Coach Jesus. This Jesus isn’t as much a fighter as a father, one who takes a special interest in his children’s athletic endeavors. Coach Jesus entered popular consciousness via a series of top-selling statues manufactured by Catholic gift retailer Devon Trading Corp. and which have only gained notoriety since debuting fifteen years ago. These six-inch, Franklin Mint-esque figurines depict a fully robed Jesus playing a variety of sports with little (white) children, from hockey and soccer to Tai Kwon Do. The most popular is probably the basketball one, in which Christ appears to be scoring over two much smaller kids. Sports Illustrated spotlighted the statues in a tongue-and-cheek column, and late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien famously featured them on his broadcast.

While the statues themselves are indefensibly kitsch’doubtless part of their popularity is due to those who are looking to lampoon sincere belief’they point to the clear affinity that Macho Jesus finds in sports circles. Indeed, nowhere in pop culture does Jesus get more airtime than among professional athletes, especially after Super Bowl victories, prize fights, and playoff games.

That Christ would come to be linked with sports culture should come as no surprise. But that doesn’t make it any less strange. Outside of the Apostle Paul writing about races to be run, sports are noticeably absent from the New Testament. And the stadium spectacles most closely associated with Christian history have to do with lions, not touchdowns.

Of course, one can hardly begrudge exhausted players from expressing their gratitude to their Lord and Savior after a draining performance. One wonders, though, if the unintended result of all the locker room shout-outs is that Jesus is more concerned with improved performance on the field than, say, the salvation of souls. Indeed, the implicit message broadcast across pop culture is that Macho Jesus cares more about victory than suffering.

Macho Jesus also has a cousin’Super Jesus, the perfect icon for a culture saturated with superheroes. After all, comic books have not just invaded the multiplex over the past decade; they have conquered it completely. Batman, Spiderman, The Avengers, even Ant-Man’these guys are everywhere. What was once a novelty on the screen has become something of a default, as Hollywood cranks out sequel after sequel and the dollars follow. It was only a matter of time until Jesus himself took the plunge. After all, he already had the muscles. (2)

Super Jesus made his big screen debut in 2013 in director Zack Snyder’s film about Superman, Man of Steel. I know I promised at the outset to avoid ‘Christ figures,’ but this one cannot be passed up. Snyder seized upon the opportunity to play the Superman myth as an on-the-nose allegory to the New Testament’a brazen choice.

When Russell Crowe, playing Superman’s father Jor-El, sends his only begotten on a ship to Earth, he promises his wife that ‘he will be like a God to them.’ As he grows up, Clark Kent does his feats of strength and charity in secret, waiting until his thirty-third birthday to reveal himself to the world’or until a hologram of his Father in Outer Space charges him to ‘save all of them.’ Supes then strikes a Jesus pose and heads to Earth, before torpedoing the allegorical potential with an endless (and surprisingly boring) scene of climatic violence. He turns out to be just as caught up as his Macho brothers in a theology of glory; that is, a view of God as revealed in strength and power, rather than humility and defeat. A man of steel rather than a man of sorrows, you might say. Of course, as fun as they can be, superheroes are predominantly fantasies of empowerment. They are the opposite of Philippians 2.

The Countercultural Culture Club

The next major pop culture Jesus on our list would not have come into being had he not become a meme. I’m talking about Hipster Jesus’a ‘hipster’ being a largely pejorative term for the fashion-conscious liberal arts grads who congregate in Brooklyn and Portland(ia); that is, modern-day bohemians who are both more materialistic and more cynical than their Boomer forebears. Hipster Jesus wears horn-rimmed glasses and asks that you follow him’but not just on Twitter. He turns water into PBR. He is highly conversant in irony. He ‘loved you before you were cool.’

Hipster Jesus first made a noticeable splash in 2010 with the release of author Brett McCracken’s book Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, which was accompanied by a viral editorial in The Wall Street Journal. McCracken put into words what many in the wider culture had already noticed, namely, the attempt by Christians to rebrand Christianity, and Jesus in particular, as ‘cool.’ Since beards and carpentry had come back into fashion among a particular class of urban males, it probably would have been strange if perceptive believers had not tried to make the connection.

In mid-2012, Newsweek went so far as to feature Hipster Jesus on its cover, wearing both plaid and a crown of thorns, walking through Times Square in Manhattan in a nonthreatening manner. The occasion for the image was an article by popular blogger Andrew Sullivan titled, unsurprisingly, ‘Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.’ Again, the divorce between Jesus and religion here should be a foregone conclusion, part and parcel of the countercultural appeal.

One could easily theorize that Hipster Jesus is a blue-state response to Macho Jesus: unassuming, nonaggressive, technologically savvy yet environmentally conscious’at times a tongue-in-cheek update of Jesus-meek-and-mild. Hipster Jesus has a lot to say about community but relatively little to say about eternal life. He takes an interest in social causes, but not so much in personal morality. These are broad strokes, perhaps, but you get the idea.

Yeezus, Not Christ

No overview of Jesus in pop culture would be complete without a mention of the ubiquitous Mr. Kardashian. Kanye West is far from the first hip-hop artist to incorporate explicitly Christocentric imagery into his public identity. Tupac Shakur, for example, made numerous appearances on a cross, even performing from one in the video for Scarface’s ‘Smile.’ But Kanye has been the most successful at it. After his song ‘Jesus Walks’ became an international smash in 2004, he adorned the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns. This was not just Jesus as person of interest or object of devotion. Kanye seemed to identify with Christ, in both the majesty and the martyrdom. The hubris may have been off the charts, but it was also deeply compelling if by no other measure than the accompanying record sales.

But Kanye was only warming up when it came to self-deification. In 2013, he released his record Yeezus to universal acclaim. Of particular note was the track ‘I Am God,’ in which he infamously bragged: ‘I know he the most high / But I am a close high.’ There’s a shock value clearly at work (Kanye is a master of the art), but that’s not all. On his subsequent tour, Kanye had a Jesus impersonator join him on stage during his performance. He explained the decision by saying, ‘One of the things I wanted to get across’¦is that you can have a relationship with Jesus, that you can talk to Jesus.’ Perhaps his fixation on Christ is more than merely artistic.

Whatever the true motivations may be, Kanye’s curious mix of blasphemy and reverence succeeded in making Jesus/Yeezus both cutting edge and commercially viable. His Jesus is the champion of the misbegotten, their comfort but also their model. This Christ inspires his followers to persevere when they are persecuted, holding out the promise of eventual glory, commercial as well as spiritual. This may not be the most humble version of Jesus’or his followers!’but it is certainly one acquainted with suffering. Writing for The Atlantic in 2013, Pete Tosiello set out to answer the question, ‘Why Do So Many Rappers Impersonate Christ?’

The Christ archetype has resonated with Nas, West, and Shakur’s personae because of their humble beginnings and the persecution they perceived from media and competitors in the rap landscape. Their music claims martyrdom by communicating that these rappers would sacrifice anything to have their voices heard and messages spread. As Blum says, ‘For hip hop artists, the resurrection stands not simply as vindication, but as hoped-for promise. They can rise from poverty, obscurity, media attacks, and economic setbacks to tell their stories and spread ‘the word.” (3)

I could go on’there are many more Jesuses to contend with in pop culture. (I haven’t even mentioned my favorite pop culture Jesus of recent years, the powerful turn Liam Neeson did in the third season of BBC’s church comedy Rev.). But hopefully that is enough to get a sense of the Jesus we engineer for ourselves, the Jesus we sell one another.

This Jesus is benevolent and he is wise. He wants to help and possibly laugh a little. He rarely says anything we don’t already agree with. He has enemies but they are those other people, not us. This Jesus may be our champion and friend, but he is no one’s mediator. The news he brings may be pleasant, or it may be harsh, but it is not urgent or particularly new’not for those who are perishing. In sum, there is much to emulate in the Jesus we find in pop culture, maybe even respect. But there is curiously little to crucify.

And yet, oddly enough, he still has our attention. Twist and turn his likeness as we may, make him over and repackage all we like, we cannot seem to rid ourselves of this Son of Man. He still looms large. Perhaps there is something hopeful about that. Because someone who goes to the New Testament looking for Hipster Jesus or Wrestling Coach Jesus is going to find something else in there’something that may detain them: a Jesus who does not leave sinful men and women to their portrayals of him. Thanks be to Pops for that.

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2 [ Back ] It should come as no surprise that in the name of reaching kids, Christian culture has latched onto Super Jesus. Hillsong went so far as to release a full album of kids' worship songs entitled Jesus Is My Superhero.
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Saturday, October 31st 2015

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