This Christmas season, Jesus is a grown-up
In the wake of 9/11, public interest in Jesus's teachings as an adult is outshining the traditional emphasis on the Bethlehem babe.
Take a look at newsstands and other pop-culture outlets and you'd think that Jennifer Lopez, rather than Jesus, is the reason for celebrating this month.
To be fair, J. Lo probably isn't bumping the humble Nazarene off magazine covers. Images of Jesus - as an adult, at least - aren't usually as abundant in December as they are around Easter.
And it's unusual to find much about the religious meaning of Christmas in mass culture anyway, unless you catch a performance of Handel's "Messiah" or watch Linus's sweetly earnest retelling of the nativity on "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
But the smattering of references to Jesus in pop culture this season suggests a post 9/11 interest in the grown-up Jesus and his teachings - as opposed to an emphasis on the miraculous aspects of the story of the Bethlehem babe.
"I suspect that the manger is not going to get as much emphasis this year as the adult man or the message that he came to give - to the extent those can be separated," says Phyllis Tickle, author of "Godtalk in America" and contributing editor in religion at Publishers Weekly. People are "trying to get at him - get at the heart of [Christianity]," she adds.
The search for the grown-up Jesus stems from a trend in learning about the mature leaders of other religions after Sept. 11, and not surprisingly, it's being communicated in pop culture in the "Entertainment Tonight" fashion of the day.
The media are covering the modern search for Jesus - and other figures - in much the same way they cover celebrities. What Jesus looked like is a popular topic - the cover story in the December issue of Popular Mechanics is about using forensic science to figure out "The Real Face of Jesus." A recent novel "Cloning Christ," explores what would happen if his DNA were recovered from the cross. And Abraham - who was the common ancestor of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity - got pop-star treatment on the cover of the Sept. 30 Time magazine.
"It just says 'Abraham,' just one word. Like Cher, like Madonna," notes author Bruce Feiler, who wrote "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths," the bestselling book that prompted the cover story.
The Bible is "perpetually now," explains Mr. Feiler, and is more relevant to everyday life. " 'Now' is celebrity culture. So we're basically making Abraham into a rock star. We're making Jesus into a movie star. What did he look like? What did he eat? It's sort of making them relevant to the 'E.T.' culture," he says.
Interest in the historical Jesus - his teachings and actions, rather than the more symbolic stories about his birth - was strong in the past decade, but is heating up again thanks to curiosity about the teachings of other religious figures post 9/11. People are turning to Jesus, Ms. Tickle suggests, after they get up to speed on Muhammad.
"Politically, we've had to engage the question, What did Muhammad say? What was the core of what he was a conduit for?" she says. That leads to similar questions about Jesus and Christianity, "because there's a political necessity, as well as a cultural one, for understanding what these two men had to say and what their adherents see as their obligation," she explains.
An example of this multifaith learning can be found at beliefnet.com, which currently has a feature with quotes from the Bible and the Koran called, "Jesus and Muhammad: The Parallel Sayings."
That Jesus would be of interest to media and pop-culture outlets doesn't surprise Marcus Borg, author of books about Jesus and a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University. Jesus has had an impact on not only the history but the psyche of Western culture, he explains. As a powerful figure, "he's there in a deeper way than simply at a conscious level," says Professor Borg.
Signs of that are evident in two December magazines, whose discussions about Jesus stem not so much from religious searching, but from scientific curiosity.
Wired magazine's cover this month features a man on a cross and looks at the relationship between science and religion. One article, about the Vatican's team of astronomers, touches on a question about alien life that theologians have debated since medieval times: Would intelligent beings on another planet need their own Jesus, or did Mary's son come to save all creatures?
The December issue of Popular Mechanics sticks with the more basic question of what Jesus actually looked like. Offering more detail about "probably the most well-known man who ever lived" is what Joe Oldham, editor in chief, hoped to do with the cover story.
"We have about 9 million readers," says Mr. Oldham, "So certainly there are a lot of people talking about Jesus and what he might have looked like who wouldn't have been three weeks ago."
His interest in the subject grew out of reading a book called "Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts," and watching a documentary about him on the Discovery Channel.
In the magazine's cover story, scientists combined what they know about Semites who lived when Jesus did (they were very short) with a few clues about his appearance from the Bible (he had to be pointed out to Roman soldiers because he looked similar to his disciples, for example) to come up with an image.
They used special software to help them build features on the skull of a man who lived in the time of Jesus. In the end they had a face with dark features, short brown curly hair, and a beard. Not quite the Sunday School picture of a willowy man with light-colored eyes and flowing hair. Oldham says the article has generated "tons of letters and phone calls" from fans and critics.
In the same way pictures and details about celebrities make them seem more real to fans, followers of Jesus may feel closer to him and find proof of his existence in the images presented in the media.
"What images can do is they can present the appearance of a physical, historical reality," says David Morgan, an art historian at Valparaiso University, in Valparaiso, Ind., who specializes in religious imagery.
That may be what many people looking to learn more about Jesus and his teachings are after - some confirmation of of their beliefs, especially today.
"I think it's a struggle toward authenticity," says Tickle. "We are in pursuit of our faiths right now."