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Tom Breen: The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus

I first heard of Tom Breen, author of The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches from the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture [link], when he covered the Ergun Caner situation for the Associated Press. I did a tiny bit of searching and discovered that he’d written this book in his guise as The Internet Theologian, not as AP Reporter Tom Breen, so I should have suspected that it would be a satire, not a serious piece of cultural analysis (or whatever) like Terry Mattingly’s Pop Goes Religion.

It isn’t easy to mix Christianity and satire. It’s difficult to mix Christianity and humor, period. Once you get away from super-safe stuff (Isaac Air Freight, I see that hand) there’s not a lot of safe material within Christianity, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of safe material looking out at the secular world, much less from the outside looking in. I really have no idea why this is, fundamentally, unless it’s because humor requires a certain incongruity, and Christianity has historically tended toward considering studied earnestness as a virtue. Regardless, it’s a rare satire that looks at anything Christian without seeming harsh, scornful, or cruel.

That being said, Breen manages a sort of studied goofiness that lets him handle the following topics while still being funny:

  • History of Christianity
  • Niche marketing of Bibles
  • The War on Christmas
  • (Bad) Christian pop music; this includes a puzzled and barely-disguised visit to the Cornerstone Festival
  • American Christology, both general and from a particular Sixties grown-up-hippie point of view
  • Christian professional athletes and coaches
  • Eschatology and the Left Behind phenomenon
  • Projected future trends in Christian pop culture

Here’s a pull quote that’s as good as any other:

Of course, this vast exchange of ideas between Christianity and pop culture is not without critics. Aside from the egghead brigade, you have a number of Christians who wonder whether it’s appropriate to produce a version of the Word of God billed as “The Get Funky Bible 4 Xtreme Teens.”

That’s pretty much the flavor of the whole book: Breen’s comic sense starts and ends there. If you don’t mind that, and can imagine yourself enjoying 217 pages of it, this is the book for you. I didn’t mind, and this turned out to be about the right length for a cross-country plane flight.

This is pretty light fare, and a bit consciously cute, but not too much so, and I got the sense that Breen actually loves his topic, even while he’s a bit disturbed by some elements of Christan pop culture (any editing of Scripture for consumer taste, custom Christology, etc.), and he managed to distill into words things I only had vague unease about. It is helpful, almost necessary, to know the orthodox Christianity he refers to when he makes jokes (“the Rasmussens .. are going to fry eternally in a boiling lake of fire because they omit the words ‘and the Son’ when reciting the Nicene Creed at church on Sunday”); otherwise anything you remember may set your personal mastery of theology back years.

Finally, I picked this book up in part to try to figure out what Breen’s own theological disposition was, and I came away without a clue. The book was published by Baylor University Press, and while he does mention the Reformation there are no clues he really wishes he was living there. So I’d guess he’s Baptist, some kind of Baptist refugee, or maybe a once-and-future cafeteria-style Baptist. And probably not Reformed Baptist.

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