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"What Would Jesus Do?": A History

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 8, 2011 09:49 AM

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In times of trouble, how do you decide what's best? Some people talk to their psychiatrists, others write to The Ethicist - but, around America and the world, still more ask "What would Jesus do?" According to Daniel Shore, an English professor at Grinnell College, "We might hypothesize that in the present day WWJD? is a more popular ethical guide than the systems offered by Immanuel Kant, J. S. Mill, or John Rawls" - probably the Golden Rule is the only more popular route to moral reasoning.

Writing in Critical Inquiry, Shore (who, N.B., was a classmate of mine in graduate school) offers a history of "What would Jesus do?" It speaks, he argues, to a "deepening sense of the disparity between the modern world and the authoritative past of the Gospels."

"What would Jesus do?" has its roots, Shore explains, in the tradition of imitatio Christi - that is, of imitating the life of Christ. In this tradition, which dates back to early Christianity, a true believer might imitate Jesus by giving to the needy, traveling to the Holy Land, or, in the case of Saint Francis of Assisi, "receiving the stigmata, the bodily marks of Christ's suffering." Imitatio Christi encouraged Christians to "do as Jesus did."

What's novel about "What would Jesus do?" is, of course, the word "would." Whereas before the question had been historical and factual, it was now hypothetical; in grammatical terms, it moved from the indicative mood to the subjunctive. "To put too fine a point on it," Shore writes, "the subjunctive mood first enters the English discourse of imitatio Christi in 1631." It was then that Edward Reynolds, a Presbyterian preacher, wrote: “What ever action therefore you goe about, doe it by Rule, enquire out of the scriptures whether Christ would have done it or no, at least whether he allow it or no.”

Why the change? The English clergymen Jeremy Taylor explained it this way in 1649: "Some states of life also there are," he wrote, "which Jesus never lead" - and yet "many cases do occurre, which need a president, and the vivacity of an excellent example." Shore's argument is that, starting in the 17th century, Christians began to feel the vast temporal distance between their time and Jesus's, and needed the flexibility of "would" to apply his life to theirs. He cites the critic Thomas Greene, who had a wonderful phrase for this feeling: "historical solitude."

Thus was born a question that would not die. "What would Jesus do?" was only to become more popular as time went on. It exploded into the public consciousness in 1896, when Charles Sheldon, an American novelist, wrote In His Steps, a novel about a congregation which pledges, "for an entire year, not to do anything without first asking the question, 'What would Jesus do?'" In His Steps - despite being published only four years before 1900 - is "by many estimates the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century." (It's since sold more than 30,000,000 copies.)

How useful is it to ask "What would Jesus do?" Very, it turns out. Often you find that Jesus would do whatever you're inclined to do anyway. Over the years the question has revealed that Jesus would be, for example, a Communist revolutionary as well as a Christian reformer (those two vocations being closer in outlook than one might think). The point is that, rather than asking you to come to Jesus, the question asks Jesus to come to you. Normally, Shore writes, "Christ's example posits a definite set of events, experiences and actions that must be ritualistically reproduced in the life of all believers." But substituting "would do" for "did" reverses things. Instead, "The believer begins with his or her own present situation (what should I do about x?) and then turns to Christ's life as a way of imagining the right answer":

The subjunctive frees one to perform a Christ-like action that Christ never performed himself even as it frees one from the obligation to perform all, or even any, of Christ's actions in order to be Christ-like.

The question, Shore explains, has the great advantage of instantaneously overcoming the vast historical distance between the time of the Gospels and the present. (It's also, surely, part of the larger movement in Protestantism toward a friendlier, more 'personal' Jesus - that's why it isn't "What would Christ do?") Perhaps, though, Shore suggests, it's too successful - it makes it seem as though no time has passed at all. "Blindness to the historical process," Shore concludes, "is the price modern imitation pays for its ability to overcome historical difference."

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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