Motivated by not a little shameless self-promotion and a pseudo-masochistic desire for undergraduate feedback on my work, I ventured to present my Introduction to Religious Thought class with a ‘Jesus’ with which they are entirely unfamiliar, the Aryan Jesus, and considering that I teach in the Bible belt, this is especially pertinent.
The campus is proliferated with numerous Christian organizations, many participating in a sort of denominational poaching much more than any outright conversion. Needless to say, but I will anyway, religion is a hot button topic here… especially when Christianity is involved. Championing my liberal professorial persona as professional ‘gadfly’, I decided to do a unit on Jesus. Each segment of my unit focuses on a different appropriation of Jesus via various religious traditions or socio-political sentiments. We are reading about the illusive ‘historical Jesus’, ‘Gnostic Jesus’, Jewish and Muslim perceptions of Jesus, Buddhist Jesus, Germanic warrior Jesus, Jefferson’s Jesus, C.S. Lewis’ Jesus as historical dying and rising god, a feminist Jesus, and an Aryan Jesus.
Amid all these Jesi (my highly technical term for multiple Jesuses), my hope is to drive home to my students that Jesus, much like the concepts ‘religion’ or ‘the sacred’ or even ‘human’, has become somewhat of an empty signifier, meaning so many things to so many people that invoking his name becomes a rhetorical move to claim ownership over a powerful signifier which, ironically, is no longer grounded in any particular content.
As Russell McCutcheon so aptly illustrates in The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric, ‘Jesus talk’ is a powerful rhetorical medium through which to summon support from various disparate groups, who assign significantly different content and signification to the name ‘Jesus’. His example highlights when a politician (in this specific case, George W. Bush), in a highly charged political setting (a Presidential primary debate), cites Jesus as the ‘political philosopher’ who had most influenced him, no one is going to ask him if he is referring to “Crossan’s Jewish peasant, or maybe Borg’s subversive sage”, “Mack’s wandering cynic”, or “Funk’s ‘Jewish Socrates’” (29). McCutcheon cites Robert Bellah’s astute assessment that “the public use of God-talk was effective precisely because it means so many different things to so many people that it is almost an empty sign’”(29).
To use the lexicon provided by Roland Barthes in his work Mythologies, the concept of Jesus (“which is filled with a situation”) has become a form in which case “history evaporates and only the letter remains”… leaving the remnant but an impoverished concept calling for signification (117). How quickly and seamlessly, and often unknowingly, do we answer this siren’s call to supplement our own values and judgments into that void? When we conjure these immensely powerful signifiers (‘Jesus’, ‘religion’, ‘the Sacred’, ‘terror, the ‘human’), how easily the specificities of content get subsumed into the abyss of generalization.
As I stressed with my students regarding the Aryan Jesus, as well as the other ‘Jesi’ we are researching, our job in this unit is not to magically distill the ‘real’ Jesus from the swill of theology and political packaging, but rather to highlight the nuanced processes of constructing ‘Jesi’ and query the discursive strategies deployed to flesh out the impoverished Jesus. Wish me luck… and let’s hope I don’t end up on Fox News.
Katherine Daley-Bailey received her A.B. (2001) and M.A. (2004) degrees in Religion from the University of Georgia. She is currently teaching part-time at the University of Georgia. Daley-Bailey’s primary research interests are Religion, Literature, and the Arts, Theory and Methods, and Religion in Popular Culture. A regular contributor to the online magazine, Religion Nerd, she is currently working on her own column for the magazine, ‘The Sacred and the Strange,” which highlights the sometimes paradoxical nature of religious matters. In 2007, Kate co-authored a chapter titled “Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying: Freedom in Confined Spaces” with Dr. Carolyn Jones Medine, a professor at the University of Georgia.