Abstract

One of the most memorable images in American inspirational literature is Bruce Barton's portrait of Jesus as the archetypal businessman who “forged twelve men from the bottom ranks of business into an organization that conquered the world”. This essay analyzes Barton's best seller to illustrate one method for understanding the appeal of images of Jesus and of the truly Christlike life in popular religious literature. Critics and historians are nearly unanimous in judging The Man Nobody Knows to be a prime example of the materialism and “glorified Rotarianism” of the Protestant churches in the 1920s. I argue that the appeal of Barton's book rested with his articulation of a system of familiar stereotypes and symbols as a pattern for thought. Barton reminded readers of a classification system capable of structuring experience on a continuum between opposite poles represented by life in a small town (Nazareth) and life in a city (Jerusalem). He mapped a moral or symbolic geography in which each pole symbolized sets of admirable and dangerous qualities. The Sunday-school Jesus, caricatured by Barton as a moralistic physical weakling, was the incarnation of the worst of both worlds, Barton's Jesus combined the best. Advertising furnished many more examples for demonstrating the accuracy of such a world view. In conclusion I suggest that while the content of these opposing worlds varies from book to book, inspirational best sellers often organize experience in a structurally similar manner.

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