Jesus in the Modern World

By Robert A. Rees

Rees-Jesus-Neon-smJesus is like a Rorschach test. He is like the doubloon Captain Ahab nails to the mast in Moby Dick, a mirror in which we see our own reflection staring back at us. As a Christian who teaches religion at both Graduate Theological Union and the University of California, Berkeley (as well as at my own LDS ward in Marin County, California), I am alert to the many ways in which people conceptualize Jesus: believers, non-believers, scholars, politicians, entertainers, journalists, comedians—they all see something different. As the most powerful and pivotal figure in all of human history, Jesus belongs not only to the ages but to anyone who opens his or her heart and imagination to what he represents to the human family.

Paul became all things to all people in order to bring them to Christ, but Christ has become all things in a different sense—in the way people have conceived, catalogued, and imagined him: as the Savior of the World (in a thousand different figurations), a great teacher, a religious fanatic, a radical political figure, a blasphemer, a bastard, a dreamer, an anarchist, a healer—the list seems endless. Is he the Messiah, just another great teacher, the Christ, Ezra Pound’s “mouse of the scrolls,” or the great being who divides with a two-edged sword?

In this column I intend to look at the way Christ is seen by different religious traditions (including my own Mormon tradition), how he is portrayed in literature and the arts, how he is revealed in the popular arts (including television and film), how he is presented on the Internet, and how he is experienced in the lives of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) people. Future columns will address such subjects as the way Jesus is portrayed by Mormon artists, talked about in general conference, and discussed on Mormon blogs; conceptions of him in such books as Bruce Bawer’s Stealing Jesus, Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, and Jack Harrell’s wonderful short story, “Tegan’s Mettle” (which includes a jeans-wearing, pony-tailed, heavy-metal-loving Jesus). I also invite readers to send ideas, stories, new scriptural insights, and their own close (or not so close) encounters with Jesus that might stimulate future columns. Below is one example of the kind of thing I hope to devote this column to.


Marathon Man:

Jesus Runs the New York City Race


Runners and spectators in New York City’s annual marathon race on 1 November 2013 were surprised to see a barefoot Jesus running along the streets of New York with a cross strapped to his back. The runner—Makoto Takeuchi from Chiba, Japan, wearing a white loincloth and a crown of thorns—provoked reactions not only from fellow runners and spectators but from a host of social media commentators.

While some considered Takeuchi’s Jesus a refugee from a Halloween party, he apparently had a serious motive for entering the race—calling attention to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. On the back of his cross was a sign, “Pray for Boston.” Some commentators were inspired by the sight of Jesus running the marathon; others found it sacrilegious; still others couldn’t resist a comic comment: “This is what Jesus does while you are in church!”

The image of Jesus running in the New York City marathon can be read variously, just as Jesus himself was. Some saw him as a prophet or the Son of God while others saw him, to use Matthew’s language, as “a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Matthew 11:18). I like to see Takeuchi’s act as a response to Jesus’ invitation to take up our own cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24) and to help carry the crosses of others by sharing their burdens that “they may be light” (Mosiah 18:8). Takeuchi symbolically carried the cross of those whose lives were shattered by the terrorists’ bombs, thus fulfilling the covenant Christians make to share the pain of others. He reminds me that those who perform such acts with love will inspire “hope in the LORD [that] will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).