In Our Own Image

Reading Charlotte Allen's study, The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus, I was reminded of King of Kings, the Technicolor treatment of the New Testament I saw with some friends when it opened in 1961. On screen, Jesus turned out to be blue-eyed, square-jawed, and indisputably Californian. This was worth a smile. But it got better. When this poster-boy savior was finally stretched for the nailing, he displayed armpits remarkably innocent of hair. We were quite moved, as I recall. In fact, the balcony so shook with our laughter that people in the orchestra felt obliged to hiss our reckless impiety. I cannot blame them: It was a time when good citizens still wanted to trust popular culture.

Why do I mention this? Because in its small way it confirms Allen's thesis: Images of Jesus all too often say more about the people making them than about the Savior. This is not exactly revelation, of course. What makes Allen's book worth attention is her demonstration that this theological narcissism afflicts not only Hollywood vulgarians but serious intellectuals and scholars as well. She argues persuasively and, I might add, very amusingly that many of those who most pride themselves on being rigorously scientific in their pursuit of the historical Jesus are nothing of the sort. They too have shorn His underarms, albeit in the cause of ideological purity rather than wide-screen hygiene. "The deists,"...

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