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5 WWJD? and the History of Imitatio Christi Who Would Jesus Bomb? Over the past twenty years, WWJD? and the question it abbreviates, What would Jesus do?, have become prominent features of American culture, appearing on book covers, buttons, bracelets, blue jeans, board games, bumper stickers, teddy bears, T-­ shirts, ties, key chains, coffee mugs, pencils, and even ­ women’s underwear. (This last item is truly a complex cultural artifact: is it worn by the devout or the derisive, to deter seducer or seducee, and by aesthetic or ethical deterrence?) In more recent years, the question has given rise to scores of spin-­ offs, devout and derisive alike. The book How Would Jesus Vote? aims to help readers determine ­ whether their “po­ liti­ cal views ­ really align with the Bible.”1­ Those seeking a “Christian nutrition handbook” need look no further than What Would Jesus Eat?, which bills itself as a “healthier, Bible-­based eating program.”2 (Think ­water, bread, and lots of fish.) The Evangelical Environmental Network, a progressive evangelical group, launched the “What Would Jesus Drive?” ad campaign in 2002; now the question appears on bumpers across the nation.3 Parodic spin-­offs of WWJD? sometimes retain the moral ambitions of the original. Antiwar protesters hold up signs that read “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” Other popu­ lar variations, in which Jesus is replaced with another name (usually that of a popu­lar athlete), are markedly less rich in satire and ethical intent: few have received genuine moral guidance from asking themselves “What would Johnny Damon do?” or “What would Michael Jordan do?”4 The question and its derivatives have even edged their way into academia . John D. Caputo, a notable scholar of deconstruction and proponent of theopoetics, published What Would Jesus Deconstruct?5 The 2008 Modern 131 WWJD? Language Association convention featured a panel entitled “WWWD? What Would Wharton Do? Edith Wharton and Politics.” A diverse array of names of secular as well as sacred exemplars now substitute for Jesus: a Google search for the string “what would * * do” retrieves instances in which the wildcards are matched by Buddha, Muhammad, Gandhi, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Nietz­sche, Reagan, Bernie Sanders, Trump, Atticus Finch, Jane Austen, Steve Jobs, Rosa Parks, and many, many ­ others. For many Christians inside and outside the evangelical community, WWJD? has become the ethical question par excellence. Like the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative, the princi­ ple of utility, or the veil of ignorance , it serves as a distinctive kind of moral deliberation. We might hypothesize that at pres­ ent WWJD? is a more popu­ lar ethical guide than the systems offered by Immanuel Kant, J. S. Mill, and John Rawls, although perhaps not the Golden Rule. And while some Christians turn to the question in times of moral difficulty, ­ others use it to direct ­ every aspect of their daily lives. The question of what Jesus would do is, in one sense, an old one. It is part of the tradition of imitatio Christi, in which believers model their actions on the pattern set forth in the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. But it is also, in another sense, far more recent, a novel form of a practice some two millennia old. The phrase What would Jesus do? has usually been traced back to the late nineteenth ­century, to a short novel by Charles Sheldon called In His Steps.6 While Sheldon’s novel is an influential document, and one that I ­will discuss at some length, it is only a waypoint in a longer history that runs back at least to late-­ sixteenth-­and early-­ seventeenth-­ century ­ England, when preachers and theologians increasingly began to use a new kind of ethical formulation that challenged Christians to do not as Christ did but rather as he would do. The advent of the conditional in the discourse of imitatio Christi is among the most consequential events of the practice’s two-­ thousand-­ year history, marking a dramatic change in the dynamics of imitation. The cause of this modal shift, I argue, was a deepening sense of the disparity between the modern world and the authoritative past of the Gospels. The conditional (specifically the unreal or counterfactual conditional) entered the discourse of imitatio Christi as a means of overcoming this disparity, imaginatively bridging the historical gap between the life of Jesus and the lives of his followers and allowing his example to serve as a guide even in a radically changed world. The effects of this...


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