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The ever-changing face of America's Jesus Christ

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The history of American Christianity just closed a fascinating week. You don’t have to look much further than the headlines to see that the Son of God must be having an identity crisis.

On September 13, 2001, in the rubble and the dust of the World Trade Center, social service worker Frank Silecchia discovered an intersection of steel support beams roughly 18 feet tall and weighing about three tons. It had broken in precisely the shape of a cross. For five years it stood over Ground Zero, offering an odd solace to countless grievers. Last week it was moved — via flatbed truck and crane — to St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, where it will reside until its permanent installation in the World Trade Center Memorial to be completed in 2009.

The effect this artifact has had is religion at its best. It offered a sense of purpose to the men and women charged with the Herculean task of removing mountains of debris from downtown New York. It comforted and uplifted them, its three tons an insignificant weight compared to the burden of the workers that it helped to shoulder (giving new meaning, in my mind, to the phrase “support beam”).

Somehow, in the same breath, religion made itself a sinister player in the week’s most heartbreaking story. The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, led by the nefarious Reverend Fred Phelps, planned to picket the funerals of the Amish schoolgirls slain on October 2 in Nickel Mines, Pa. A representative of the church claimed that God was merely punishing the Amish for following a “false religion.”

Phelps and his congregation of ultra-conservative Christians gained notoriety by protesting at funerals for American soldiers killed overseas. They claim that God is punishing America for, among other things, tolerance of gay culture and feminism. These guys make Rick Santorum look like a granola-eating, tree-worshiping, bike-riding, Simone de Beauvoir-reading campaign manager for Hillary Clinton.

But in a surprising twist, the congregation did not take this tragic opportunity to pour scorn on the Amish, one of this country’s most piously peaceful communities. Conservative talk-radio host Mike Gallagher offered the Westboro Baptist Church an hour of national airtime in exchange for a written promise not to picket the funerals. The church accepted his offer and complied with its terms.

Gallagher, though he vehemently opposes the group’s message, sacrificed the airtime so that the Amish of Nickel Mines wouldn’t have to grapple with additional anguish. He willingly submitted to a personal anathema so that the suffering of others might be eased.

How Christ-like.

Amid all this, evangelical Christians are beefing up their pop-culture blitzkrieg; they are worried about retention. A troubling number of teenagers are leaving the flock, they say, giving in to salacious impulses fostered by MTV and that mainstay of teenage mentality, the coolness of not caring. The people who brought us the phenomenon of the megachurch — add a wicked sound system to a shopping mall, throw in the zest of worship, and you should have a pretty good mental picture — are re-energizing their efforts to make evangelical Christianity a mainstream part of American popular culture.

Setting Christianity to a three-chord riff might get some of the broader, more contentious points across (save it till marriage, homosexuality is a no-no, etc.), but I wonder how well it conveys the more challenging themes (loving thy neighbor and whatnot).

Recently, many evangelical Christians have adopted environmental causes, and thank goodness. Once upon a time, before falling into the inescapable pigeonhole of hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage, religious activists concerned themselves with feeding the impoverished, securing peace around the world, and fighting for human and civil rights.

(I withdraw that last statement; the NSA just called to inform me that all’s peachy in Darfur, detainees are having a blast at Guantanamo, and that contrary to popular to myth, children don’t actually need health insurance.)

My point in all this is that evangelicals should be careful employing — and exploiting — the same visceral, cultural tendencies that they’re trying to counter. They can’t beat MTV by imitating it. Christianity has a habit of latching on to popular customs as a propagation strategy; it’s why Christmas conveniently coincides with old pagan solstice celebrations and the resurrection of Christ supposedly takes place in spring, when the Earth renews itself. (That’s no heretic conspiracy theory a la Dan Brown. Read the medieval memoirs of St. Augustine; he’s quite frank about it.)

The Amish have a favorite piece of scripture, Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

Evangelicals needn’t go to Amish levels of nonconformity to this world, but they would be wise — and righteous — to renew not their music or megachurches, but their minds and hearts.

Jesus must be awfully confused. He’s been pulled in so many directions by our country that He’s like an unmoored teenager awash in the ocean of popular culture. From New York’s soothing steel cross to Topeka’s hateful Reverend Phelps to hipster evangelicals who put Jesus on a T-shirt and sell Him, America has wildly different expectations of our Lord and Savior. Whose imploring does He obey? To whose authority does He concede?

We’ll never know. Let’s hope He does.