Ordinary transcendence: Christianity, authority, and crisis in American literature and culture, 1865–1990
Bryant, Timothy Joseph
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This dissertation examines representations of social authority in popular culture at times of crisis in the United States since the Civil War. My analysis focuses on popular depictions of Jesus as an ideal leader whose diverse figurations in popular literature, film, and other media correspond to a broad shift of cultural authority away from religious ministry toward secular authorities. I argue that such depictions of a secularized spiritual authority attempt to consolidate and manage shifting cultural values in times of social crisis caused by extensive changes accompanying the industrialization and urbanization of American society. I identify four rhetorical strategies for negotiating the terms of social authority amid such divisive shifts: imitation, denunciation, conversion, and adaptation. Chapter One, "Imitation: Civic Christ, Spiritual Biography, and the Social Gospel, 1865-1930," identifies imitation as the primary strategy for writers of spiritual biography (Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mary Hunter Austin, William Stead, Charles Sheldon, and Robert Norwood) within two strains of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Christian dispensationalism— premillennialism and postmillennialism— to define the terms of a common culture. Chapter Two, "Denunciation: Capitalist Jesus, Social Satire, and Self-Help Religion, 1915-1935," examines images of a capitalist Jesus (in Bruce Barton's The Man Nobody Knows and Forbes magazine) and a Socialist Jesus (in Upton Sinclair's They Call Me Carpenter and the Socialist magazines The Masses, The New Masses, and The Liberator ) as reciprocal denunciations not only of each other's claims to moral economy but also of the possibility for a common culture after World War One. Chapter Three, "Conversion: Secular Saviors, Comics Propaganda, and Popular Psychology, 1935-1975," reinterprets Dr. Fredric Wertham's campaign against American comic books (vis-à-vis Seduction of the Innocent ) as a result of contemporary anxieties about the psychological effects of mass media, the spiritual vulnerability of children, and the rise of popular psychology as a secular variation of ministerial authority. Chapter Four, "Adaptation: Celebrity Jesus, Cinematic Passion, and Counterculture Performance, 1960-1990," analyzes films about Jesus ( Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and The Last Temptation of Christ ) whose fusions of traditional and countercultural values in spectacular performance foreground interpretive anxieties about fidelity in adaptation for both religious and secular audiences. My thesis is that iconic depictions of Jesus emerge in popular literature and culture at points of crisis to become the spectacular sites where competing authorities—religious, spiritual, secular, professional, and academic—reimagine the terms of American cultural values and social order. Social perceptions of crisis summon forth rival manifestations of a cultural savior who is supremely able to satisfy the pressing needs of the day. It is in the realm of the popular where these representations achieve visibility and vie for influence. These efforts at representative authority are called acts of "ordinary transcendence" because they invoke multiple registers of spiritual and secular discourse across the typically perceived divisions among religious, professional, academic, and civic cultures. Analysis of this contested field of imagery related to Christ reveals the diverse range of American cultural values, fears, and aspirations.