If you’ve spent much time around fandoms, online or off, you’ve surely heard something like, “Celebrity X (or TV show, or book series, etc.) is great, but my God, their fans are the worst.” Of course, sometimes the celebrity or work in question may itself deserve critical scrutiny, or even condemnation, but throngs of maniacal fans show up to shout down anyone trying to start that conversation.
Enter Jesus. Because man, does that dude have some obnoxious stans.
But wait, let me back up for a minute.
Fandom has become such a constitutive aspect of many people’s identities in this internet age that pop-culture commentators have adopted the language of religious studies to describe it, noting, for example, that strong “in-group preference and out-group bias” fuels the “cultish fanaticism” and persecution complex that characterize what are often referred to as “toxic fandoms.”
Writing for Vox in 2018, Emily VanDerWerff came up with a nice, pithy term for the “near-religious zealotry” that some fans exhibit: “fandamentalism.” According to her, the term applies to fans who “aren’t just looking for meaning in the work itself, but for the work to impart meaning” to their own lives.
Imparting meaning, of course, is one of the key functions of religion. But when Christianity collides with social media in conjunction with high-stakes debates about hegemony, discrimination, inclusion, representation, and pluralism, perhaps we have just as much perspective to gain from viewing religion through the lens of pop-culture analysis as we do from viewing fandom through the lens of religious studies. Indeed, it might help some folks who are deeply invested in their notion of Jesus being the “correct” one, to take a needed step back.
Many toxic fans of the original Star Wars Trilogy or the original (yes, fun, but very sexist) Ghostbusters are obsessed with “saving” their faves from “wokeness” or “political correctness,” because they view more inclusive sequels and remakes as somehow threatening to them. Likewise, toxic Jesus fans are obsessed with “saving” Jesus from criticisms of himself, of Christianity, or of particular Christians.
In some cases, they even say the quiet part out loud, as when evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas, the My Pillow-loving, Jericho-marching puncher of protesters, tweeted, “Jesus was white.” Like his fellow whiny white man-babies who just can’t take seeing women play the leads in Ghostbusters, Metaxas cannot handle the idea of a Jesus who doesn’t look just like him, or who would disapprove of his support for Donald Trump and the “Stop the Steal” disinformation campaign that led to the violent January 6 insurrection.
But wait, you say, Jesus would of course disapprove of Trump! Let me respond with a modest proposal, as it were: Jesus does not need you, or anyone, to save him, so perhaps you could hear me out? If you do find yourself becoming angry on Jesus’s behalf as you read this, I would ask you to take a breath and try to consider how your very defensiveness might be belying a subtler, but still problematic, form of Jesus fandamentalism.
As I’ve argued on a number of occasions, Christian supremacism is baked into the American public sphere to the extent that it’s very difficult to get many people to see how American cable news and legacy media outlets whitewash the power and breadth of Christian Right extremism. They let “respectable” evangelicals dominate the conversation unchallenged by critical outside researchers, ex-evangelicals and those who are most harmed by white supremacist patriarchy. When the trauma and abuse inherent in fundamentalism and Christian nationalism come to light, too often they are represented as mere “hypocrisy,” while the Christians behind them are dismissed as “fake Christians,” conveniently shielding Christianity from any systemic criticism.
I don't know the Jesus some have paraded and waved around in the middle of this treachery today. They may be acting in the name of some other Jesus but that's not Jesus of the Gospels.
— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) January 6, 2021
These moves, often made by people with good intentions, serve to reinforce Christian supremacism by equating “Christian” with “good,” a privilege our society does not afford to religious minorities or the nonreligious. Those of us who fall into one of those categories are in fact directly harmed by discourse that protects Christian privilege. And I would like to suggest that when Christians fall back on asserting that the “one, true” interpretation of Jesus is the one they find most congenial, they’re essentially pulling the “fake Christians” deflection by proxy.
If we admit, after all, that Christianity is what Christians do in the world, and that this in turn is subject to communally mediated interpretation, leading to a multiplicity of competing “Christianities”—then we must also admit that competing interpretations of Christianity hold up competing understandings of Jesus. And that those various “Jesuses” have real power in their respective Christian communities.
Put aside, for a moment, the question of what the historical Jesus “was really like.” New Testament scholars have often found Jesus to be an admirable healer and anti-authoritarian figure, but there are others, like Iowa State University Religious Studies Professor Hector Avalos, who have assessed Jesus from an ethical point of view and found him wanting.
But even those critical theologians who admire Jesus recognize a key distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” Is it really so hard to accept that the “Christ of faith” has many faces, some of them ugly and violent in, for example, showing up in a mob aiming to overthrow a fair election, or in support of the isolation, indoctrination, and abuse of children via unregulated homeschooling and Christian schools?
For some people, apparently, it is, as I’ve learned when Twitter arguments over the legitimacy of the “fake Christians” framing inevitably devolve into defenses of Jesus. When Jesus stans concede that authoritarian Christians aren’t “fake,” they tend to maintain that they are at the very least “bad” Christians, un-Christlike, not following “the teachings of Jesus,” or even “Christless.” But when I asked Bradley Onishi, associate professor of religious studies at Skidmore College, to weigh in on this question, he confirmed that “originalism” isn’t a useful means of approaching Jesus, at least if we’re interested in Christianity as the influential social, cultural, and political force that it is in today’s world.
Many readers will know the ex-evangelical Onishi as co-host (with Daniel Miller) of the engaging and informative podcast Straight White American Jesus (full disclosure: I have been a guest multiple times). When I approached him for comment and asked why that name, Onishi explained, “We chose the name of our show precisely because so many American Christians have envisioned Jesus as a straight, white, American, and patriarchal man in the image of someone like Donald J. Trump.”
Onishi is not unsympathetic to those who seek to “save” Jesus from his followers, although he does find their attempts to do so untenable. “I understand gatekeeping within religious communities,” he explains. “If I were a Christian and there were people identifying as such and engaging in acts of racism, violence, and so on, I would not want my faith identity to be matched with theirs. But, and this is the hard thing for people to admit, all theology is a matter of interpretation.” Theology is, further, “an interpretation of texts in which the experiences and influences of the community are refracted.” In light of that, “It makes more sense to say ‘Christian nationalists’ or ‘white supremacist Christians’ than to say that people who have built their identity around Christianity are somehow not Christians.”
And those people—people like the white evangelicals I grew up among—do read the Bible, including the gospels, frequently, and they do quote Jesus and follow him as they understand him. While it’s tempting to dismiss such people as “bad,” if not “fake,” Christians, the harder truth, but one that it’s important to put before the public, is this: There are versions of Christianity and understandings of Jesus that lead good Christians—good in the internal sense that they’re practicing their faith consistently—to be bad people.
But, while “good Christian” and “good person” are not automatically equated, there is no reason for Christians who are also good people to despair if they stop trying to “save” Jesus and instead open themselves up to this more nuanced view. According to Onishi, “Faith communities interpreting sacred texts would do well to recognize that every rendering of Jesus and Christianity is partly inspired by certain values and priorities within the community. Theology is creating God in our image.” Yes, he admits, “That scares many people. But it doesn’t mean their faith is less authentic or real.”
Instead, admitting that the Jesuses of our headcanons and our church traditions are shaped by our own values, “opens possibilities” for believers to ask “why Jesus appears the way he does in our communities, readings, and theologies,” according to Onishi. “What does it say about us? How does our shaping of Christ reflect our values? How should becoming cognizant of that image and those values transform us? Those are questions I think Christian communities would benefit from asking.”
Like Onishi, I don’t want to take away the particular “Christ of faith” that inspires any particular Christian to pursue kindness and social justice from those Christians who venerate him. I would simply like to suggest that there is no need to erase the experiences of those of us harmed by “straight white American Jesus” in order to “save” your anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist Jesus. Insisting that the latter is the only “real” Jesus, even if you attempt to separate Jesus from Christians in the process, still ultimately serves to uphold Christian supremacism. And if your Jesus is truly opposed to all unjust hierarchies, then he probably wouldn’t be a fan of any fandamentalism that upholds them, don’t you think?