According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations
Jesus in a Variety of Forms
Jesus in Current Non-Trinitarian Christian Faiths
If we are to look at Jesus in contemporary culture, I believe it is important to begin with a quick overview of Jesus as understood by many of the Christian churches around us with which we are less familiar. These will include Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, Christian Science and Word of Faith. While Christian Science is slowly declining as a world-wide church the other three are rapidly growing around the world.
Mormonism (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) - Mormonism was originally founded in the 1820s by Joseph Smith. Claiming to have seen a vision of God and Jesus, and then directed by an angel to a set of golden tablets (the contents of which became the Book of Mormon) Smith founded what was first known as the Church of Christ. Today the various Mormon churches have more than 15 million members world-wide.
Jesus, in Mormon theology, is both similar to and different from that held by Orthodox churches (meaning those churches which believe in the Triune nature of God). The similarities are that Jesus was pre-existent, was incarnate in human flesh and died for our sins. The differences are that Jesus was not one with God (but was instead the offspring of God and God’s wife), was a created spirit who became a person (just like all of us, so Jesus is called our elder brother), is a brother to Lucifer (another of God’s spirit children), died not to save us but to give us free will, and that he was married to Mary and Martha, through whom he conceived children (this is a very early teaching of the church).
A summary of Jesus in Mormon theology is that he is the one who shows us how men can become god, as he was, and shows women how they can become the wives of gods, who together can create more spirit children.
Jehovah’s Witness – Jehovah’s Witness is a Christian group that emerged from the Bible Study Movement in the 1870s. It was founded by Charles Taze Russel and significantly changed by Joseph Franklin Rutherford. The name Jehovah’s Witness was adopted in 1931 in order to distinguish them as a particular group of Christians. They currently have around 20 million members world-wide. Their central tenants are: that there is no hell or immortality of the soul, they reject religious holidays, military service, blood transfusions and the Trinity, that Jesus was not physically resurrected and they believe that Christ is soon to return. They reject the Trinity because they see Jesus as a created being (actually the only being directly created by God with the rest of creation being co-created between Jesus and God). Even so Jesus is the redeemer who offered himself as a ransom sacrifice for our sins (meaning Jesus death was a payment for Adam’s sin). He is also the intercessor between humanity and God.
A summary then of Jesus in Jehovah’s Witness theology is that he is a created being (a human being) who died for our sins, who was spiritually resurrected and will become the judge of humanity at the end of time.
Christian Science – Christian Science was founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy. She saw her religion as a return to “primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing.” They are known for their belief that there is no material world (it is all an illusion) and that reality is entirely spiritual. Currently they have around 400,000 adherents world-wide and about 100,000 here is the United States.
Jesus in Christian Science is the way-shower, the one who shows us how to connect with the infinite love of God. This connection is possible because all of creation is an extension of the divine realty. Sickness, death and evil occur when human beings are not spiritually connected with God. Thus in Jesus life of healing, death and resurrection, human beings can see the way to overcome sin and death. As the church puts it, “We acknowledge Jesus' atonement as the evidence of divine, efficacious Love, unfolding man's unity with God through Christ Jesus the Way-shower; and we acknowledge that man is saved through Christ, through Truth, Life, and Love as demonstrated by the Galilean Prophet in healing the sick and overcoming sin and death.” And “We acknowledge that the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection served to uplift faith to understand eternal Life, even the allness of Soul, Spirit, and the nothingness of matter.” (these are tenants 4 and 5 from the official Christian Science website)
A summary of Jesus in Christian Science then is that he is part of the divine as are we, yet he understood how to escape this life and be in full connection with the divine.
Word of Faith – The Word of Faith Movement is one of the fastest growing movements in the world. Its main tenants include that God is not sovereign (we can control God), that human beings are god (because we were created by God, just like dogs beget dogs, God can only beget gods…). "Man… was created on terms of equality with God, and he could stand in God’s presence without any consciousness of inferiority…God has made us as much like Himself as possible…He made us the same class of being that He is Himself…Man lived in the realm of God. He lived on terms equal with God…The believer is called Christ…That’s who we are; we’re Christ!" (Kenneth M. Hagin, Zoe: The God-Kind of Life (Tulsa, OK: Kenneth Hagin Ministries, Inc., 1989, pp. 35-36, 41.) and that all human beings can be healthy, happy and wealthy if they have enough faith. Jesus in this system was wealthy (Benny Hinn claimed to have seen the wonderful clothes that Jesus was wearing in heaven), died spiritually on the cross (not all Word of Faith adherents believe this) then was born again after death (having defeated Satan in hell). In addition, Jesus is not one with God even though he, like we, was a god.
A summary of Jesus in Word of Faith is that he is us and we are him. Thus we, like Jesus can become healthy and wealthy.
Jesus in Contemporary Church Culture
In addition to the afore mentioned religions there are also some current movements within Trinitarian Christianity. We will look at a few of these in order to understand how the image of Jesus is being altered in our time.
Manly Jesus – this is my way of describing Jesus in many American churches. This view was popularized by Marc Driscoll, formerly of Mars Hill Church in Seattle (He resigned in 2014). Driscoll was known for using profanity in the pulpit, making fun of non-male clergy as well as male clergy who are not manly enough, preaching about sex in very graphic ways, insisting that wives completely submit to their husbands, calling women “chicks” and declaring that feminism is unacceptable to God. He is particularly offended by what he calls a “Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” who was also a “sky-fairy of pop culture who would never send anyone to hell.” At one point he said that the way to deal with errant elders in his church was to “break their nose.” This concept of church leadership and belief has become prevalent throughout many large, contemporary churches. Jesus in the Man Church is someone who preaches hellfire and damnation, and is a really tough guy who would be offended by the feminization of the church.
Pop Culture Jesus – This is the image of Jesus as the laid-back, cool guy of scripture. Jesus has become a best friend who you can hang out with who gives you really good advice. This image can be seen in most contemporary praise music in which Jesus is to be swooned over rather than followed into a hurting world. Thus no real sacrifice is called for. Images that bring this home are those such as the bobble-head Jesus and the Jesus of Jesus the Vampire Hunter movie.
Political Jesus – This image for Jesus has been used by both major political parties in the United States. Each has cherry picked passages about Jesus, or Jesus’ sayings to support their political agendas. Each has said, “There are two kinds of people. Democrats/Republicans and Christians.” This use of Jesus removed Jesus from any Biblical context and uses him as a cultural war icon.
Revolutionary Jesus – This image was first popularized during the 1950s and 1960s in South America where it grew out of a movement within the Roman Catholic Church. It focused on social justice and was crystalized by the publication of Liberation Theology, by Gustavo Gutierrez in 1971. This movement now has many offshoots including feminist, Asian, Black, Queer and Palestinian liberation theologies. Jesus in this movement is the one who calls people to social justice, human rights and the struggle against oppression and poverty.