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A general semantics view of the changing perceptions of Christ (excerpts): the American Jesus: a paradigm shift.

As a nation, America allows it citizens greater religious freedom than any other state. This freedom allows for the development of national religious perceptions different from those found elsewhere. These perceptions lead to the formation of paradigms. In American history there have been two significant paradigm shifts relating to Jesus Christ. The first was in the settling of the nation; and the second was in the 1990s when the WWJD? craze swept the country and brought Jesus home.
 Known as "What Would Jesus Do?" or WWJD?, this idea rocked the
 traditional paradigms. Especially popular among teens, this
 phenomenon brought Jesus closer to home than ever before. Jesus was
 more personified in the American culture. He became someone that
 people could identify with, someone to query about daily life
 decisions. The paradigm was changing, Jesus was no longer an aloof
 religious persona, he was a friend. WWJD? paraphernalia began
 popping up everywhere, bracelets were especially popular but also
 included were necklaces, book bags, t-shirts, pens, pencils, bible
 covers, and posters. People began consciously including Jesus in
 their daily lives, not only by wearing the WWJD? slogan but also by
 incorporating him into their thoughts and actions. (Beaudoin, 1999,

While some people, religious and otherwise, welcomed this shift toward Jesus, others found problems with the WWJD? movement. In his article, "A Peculiar Contortion," Tom Beaudoin pointed out some flaws with the craze. Overall he noted that the image of Jesus has been rather malleable in recent pop culture, Jesus has been appearing regularly in movies, music, and literature. This leads to an over-commercialized perception of spirituality. Jesus and his image are being bought and sold on the open market. The ability to buy and sell Jesus simply debases the legitimacy of the WWJD? movement. Anything that can be so easily marketed and lead to such profits also leads to knock-offs of the product. Beaudoin noted the "What Would Journey Do?" spin linking the movement to an 80s rock band, as well as the "We Want Jack Daniels?" takeoff (Beaudoin, 1999, p.2).

While Beaudoin noted the potential cultural harm of the WWJD? movement, he also took into account the new trend toward religious narrowmindedness. As WWJD? became the singular religious force in a person's life, it lead to a reductionistic trend (Beaudoin, 1999, p.2). Individuals would focus so much on wondering what Jesus would do about their daily questions and problems that religion was otherwise left out of their lives. Over-focusing on what exactly Jesus would want for them was potentially harmful to their overall relationship with Christ and reduced their religious life to a single question.

Beaudoin also noted that the WWJD? movement meant different things to different people and religions. While Catholics should not have had a problem with their followers developing a personal relationship with Jesus, they were not overly enthusiastic about the movement. This was largely because a singular question could take the place of two thousand years worth of receptions, reflections, and perceptions of Jesus and try to determine a final, permanent answer to age-old questions. This, to Beaudoin, also reflected upon the American trend of self-worship and individualism (Beaudoin, 1999, p.3).

Across the board, the WWJD? movement did spawn a semantic jump. After four hundred years of American history, Jesus became more popularized, personal, and identifiable in a few short years than ever before. People were able to think of him as a person, a friend, a counselor and confidante more easily and readily than in the past; however, the paradigm shift did not suit all Americans. There were some die-hard Jesus followers that refused to accept the new trend into their lifestyles. Their resistance, however, did not totally dissuade the movement. WWJD? is still visible today and the effects are far-reaching. While some people still prefer to think of Jesus as aloof and commanding, like some early Americans, others have embraced Jesus and his image into their lives as a result of the movement.

Those most affected by the WWJD? movement, the adolescent or Generation X age group, are also the most perplexing age group for religious teachers, preachers, and experts. They "stay away from most churches in droves but love songs about God and Jesus" (Langford, 2000, p.3). While they choose not to actively participate in organized religious activities they identify closely with Jesus on a personal level. At times they seem "almost obsessed with saints, visions, and icons in all shapes and sizes ... and post thousands of religious and quasi-religious notes on bulletin boards in cyberspace" (Langford, 2000, p.3). Perhaps this personal change is indicative of a true semantic jump in present-day American society. The paradigm has shifted from one where Jesus is viewed as a religious icon to be worshipped only in a true religious setting to one where individuals can adapt Jesus into their own lifestyles and love him personally. One indicator of this is a Harris Poll conducted in August 2001 which found that Jesus Christ was most often mentioned as a personal hero among participants (Taylor, 2001). The fact that he can be identified as someone that people wish to emulate signifies that he is viewed on a personal level by the population, no longer as a far-away persona.


Beaudoin, Tom. (1999). "A Peculiar Contortion." America. Retrieved April 17, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

"Christianity in America." (2000). Retrieved April 17, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

Langford, Jeremy W. (2000). "Ministering to Gen-X Catholics, Jesus Style." America. Retrieved April 17, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

Spray, Lisa. (1992). "'Jesus'--Myths and Message." Retrieved April 17, 2003 from the World Wide Web:

Taylor, Humphrey. (2001). "America's Heroes. The Harris Poll Interactive." Retrieved April 17, 2003 from the World Wide Web:
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Title Annotation:Conference Papers
Author:O'Byrne, Megan
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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