Making Jesus ‘cool’
Christianity’s Suicidal Embracing Of Pop Culture
Churches change. The Catholics threw over neo-Platonism when Aristotelianism turned trendy. The Southern Baptists gave up – evennnnn….tuallllllllly – the overt racism that defined them for a century and more. Anybody who thinks of religion as a bastion of stability as against the temporal flux of modernity is willfully ignoring the warp and twang of religious history.
And yet, while we recognize that religions have and must continue to change, there is a line between a tactical recasting of one’s belief structure and a desperate surrender to the most sparkly qualities of your vanquisher.
Enter Bro Jesus.
Bro Jesus takes many forms, but in each of them Jesus is subjected to a rebranding that has him adopting some trendy shell in order to grasp at a youth culture which has increasingly discovered that pretty much everybody one meets in the course of a normal day has a better sense of morality than Jesus Christ.
In Brooklyn, this manifested as the “Jesus: The Original Hipster” ad series, in which Jesus was pictured wearing a set of Converse sneakers beneath his flowing robes. Monsignor Kieran Harrington justified the ads by pointing out how representations of Jesus change over space and time (which is true), how Brooklyn has a lot of hipsters (which is also true), and how, “Jesus stood in contrast to the culture of his day. That’s what a lot of hipsters do” (which is where we learn that Monsignor Kieran Harrington has yet to meet a hipster).
Everybody wants to think that they’re the great misunderstood rebel in the crowd, the one person who is actually thinking amidst the rabble. Even hipsters, who are perhaps the most cravenly image-conscious conformists on the planet, somehow cherish this notion about themselves in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so maybe there was a deep wisdom behind the good Monsignor’s strategy.
Or there would have been, if the whole effort weren’t counterbalanced by the attention it directed to one of religion’s greatest weaknesses: its accidental foundation.
For if Jesus is a hipster, he’s a product of a socio-economic situation, his words reflections of that time, and doomed to diminishing relevance the more years are placed between himself and his followers. For every hipster who looks at the poster and says, “I was reading the Bible before it was cool. Guess I’ll go anyway, though, to keep a step ahead,” there will be a legion of those on the religious fence who will look at it and see the evidence they needed to step away from religion entirely.
The illusion of eternity having been cast aside, the pop culture reference is in no way sufficient to replace it, and the evidence of having clearly not understood what modernity finds wrong with religion can only repel the children of that modernity.
If Hipster Jesus is the grand example of top-down reform gone wrong, Gamer Jesus is its polar opposite – a creation from the ranks, exemplifying their authentic hopes and interests, marching forward with a true heart even as they lead their savior off the nearest cliff. The creation of GameChurch, a collection of gaming enthusiasts who want, through their convention appearances and articles, to assure us that, were Jesus alive today, he’d be playing World of Warcraft.
It’s hard not to feel a certain sympathy for these people. They are not in this game for the money, or political influence. They don’t want to recast the world as a theocracy with their set of values dictating the laws of the land. They mainly want to play video games and believe that, at the end of the day, some supernatural being of unspeakable power has their back.
They want to be who they are, without guilt, and hold to the notion that, whatever they are or do, they are fundamentally loved and approved of. Which is understandable – love is not something that finds its way easily into the hardcore, twelve-hours-a-day gamer’s life.
For every family brought together by a Friday night of Mario Kart, there are five people whose partners left a month into their relationship, tired of fighting Skyrim for attention, and a dozen who hardly leave the house at all, finding gaming a low-effort and mostly satisfactory substitute for complicated, messy, and exhausting actual relationships.
Caught between a love of their favorite art form with the demands it places on one’s time and attentions, and a very real need for love and approval, these people have found the very tidy solution of Jesus, as have many other quasi-addicts before them. Their main publication, Jesus: For the Win!, stresses time and again the idea of Jesus as a gift – something that you can accept, no matter who you are or what you do.
Did you just spend four hours of actual life trying to unlock an achievement? It’s fine – Jesus loves you. Whoever you are, whatever you do, Jesus loves you, and you have no cause for regrets.
There’s a good sentiment in there. You shouldn’t feel guilty about what uniquely motivates and inspires you, and shouldn’t feel the need to weigh it on some arbitrary scale of what counts as Good Uses of life. It’s a hard thing to believe against the omnipresent urging of the world to Be Respectable, and for many the only way to hold it together is with Jesus, that tried and true Crazy Glue for under-appreciated individualities.
While Jesus conveniently fits in this role, however, the appropriation does nobody any favors. Jesus was, quite demonstrably, all about conditional love. To suggest otherwise is to set people up for a potentially life-destroying disappointment should they be compelled, down the line, to read the actual Bible and not Jesus: For the Win!’s recasting of it.
Resting the entirety of one’s individuality upon the foundations of Jesus’s having stated no criteria whatsoever for entering his good graces is unnecessary and psychologically disastrous. There are ways to feel worthwhile in your passions without wrapping them in a desperate expurgation of Jesus’s message, and humanism offers not a few.
For the deep outcast, Jesus is a quick fix and, like most short-term solutions, the rupture that will be left behind when he fails will be several orders of magnitude more difficult to patch than the original problem. But as bad as Gamer Jesus is for the individual, it’s worse still for Jesus.
At the beginning of Jesus, for the Win! there is a 500 word accounting of the Bible up to Jesus’s time. It’s actually pretty hilarious, both intentionally (its two line account of King Saul is quite priceless) and not (the attempts to make God’s several stabs at genocide ‘quirky’).
The message couldn’t be clearer: All this Old Testament stuff is amusing, but since it doesn’t feed into the Everybody Gets A Gift message, it can be farcically dealt with and then left behind. And that works, if you want a Jesus entirely divorced from historical context to give you a thumbs-up at every turn.
And that’s what we get when it’s the New Testament’s turn – a lot of focus on Jesus as a down and dirty carpenter, hanging with prostitutes and tax collectors, forming up his Raiding Guild (the apostles) to take down the big bad of the Roman Empire before his death and three day Respawn. It’s the same set of moves and focus-shifts various churches attempted in the Eighties with a Punk Jesus (not to be confused with the hero of Sean Murphy’s excellent graphic novel Punk Rock Jesus), and others in the Sixties with a Hippie Jesus.
Every single time it’s been attempted, this street level revamping has ended in the diminution of Jesus as a compelling historical or religious figure. The focus is less on what Jesus stood for, and more on whom he stood next to. In essence, these movements attempt to rewrite themselves into Jesus’s back story, crowding out their savior with their own presence, substituting one of their own for each of the incidental characters in the Jesus canon.
The Bible becomes, “We were there, and Jesus was there in our proximity, and that’s the story.” And while Jesus generally comes off better the less you mention his actual methods and words, it’s hard to say just how this is a particularly faithful service to his legacy.
From the air-brushed Weeping Jesuses on the hoods of tricked out Camaros to the evil-slaying character in Jesus Christ: Vampire Hunter, we’ll never be free of the desire to update Jesus in a bid to grab the attention of new generations with new sets of concerns and psychologically capitalizable fetishes.
Sometimes it’s for pure fun (Nick Marino’s recent comic Holy F*ck, featuring a sleazy, swearing, whoring Jesus action star being a recent notable example), but when it is done in earnest, in an honest attempt to bring Christianity to new hearts and minds, that’s where people start getting hurt, and institutions that seemed sound appear crass and lost.
Jesus was not a hipster, and he wouldn’t be a gamer. He is not your weekend pretzels-and-footie bro. He demanded allegiance, and threatened the direst of consequences for those who would cross him, and to tell people otherwise is the equivalent of making up an innocuous fairy tale on how meat is made before leading a child into an actual slaughterhouse.
They will not thank you for the lie, and oughtn’t.