Published December 23rd, 2022 at 10:00 AM
Here’s a question that’s hard to ask without stirring up controversy: Who was Jesus of Nazareth?
One response from many Christians, who believe Jesus was resurrected and still lives, is: “Don’t you mean, ‘Who is Jesus?’”
But none of that contentiousness has prevented the launch of a new national $100-million campaign, paid for through a Kansas City area funder, The Signatry, to introduce Jesus as someone a lot like all of us. As of late November, the campaign already had nearly 350 million views on YouTube alone.
The “He Gets Us” campaign, in the words of Steve French, The Signatry’s president and chief executive officer, presents Jesus “in the light and in the standing and in the stature which he so richly deserves and merits by being the king of kings and lord of lords.”
The Signatry, based in Overland Park, oversees donor-advised funds, using them on projects that advance its mission “to equip people to lead generous lives reflecting the image of God.”
The online statement of the beliefs that The Signatry promotes is in harmony with the theology of many Christians who would identify as evangelical or conservative.
For instance, it promotes the idea of biblical “inerrancy,” at least in scripture’s original manuscripts (so far not found). Advocates of inerrancy contend that the Bible is accurate in all ways, including historically, scientifically and theologically.
But French insists that “we’re not putting forth a denominational position. We want to engage the entirety of the body of Christ.”
To guide the campaign, which began in March of this year, The Signatry hired Haven, a marketing firm in Grand Haven, Michigan.
Haven’s president, Jason Vanderground, says the campaign’s purpose is simple: “We’re not trying to do a lot other than help people understand how relevant an example Jesus was, knowing that many already respect him. If you put the example of Jesus in front of people and they are intrigued by that and want to pursue that, really good things are going to happen in their spiritual life.”
But why now?
“In the last 10 years, if not longer, the image and person of Jesus have been horribly confused and confusing to people,” French explains. “Christians … have been painted — sometimes rightly so, sometimes wrongly so — with this moniker that we’re not very understanding, that we’re very judgmental. The list is fairly long. There’s no question that it’s getting worse.”
So the new campaign shows up in various public places, including sporting events, with the message that Jesus understands who people are because he was human, too, and therefore “gets us.”
As the campaign’s website says: “We’re confident that as people clearly understand, read and learn for themselves about who Jesus is, they’ll find wisdom, hope and peace unlike any other offered. Be assured, though, that we’re not ‘left’ or ‘right’ or a political organization of any kind.”
That sort of disclaimer is necessary because since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, and even earlier, many Christians have been criticized (and others praised) for aligning themselves with politicians who identify as conservative, including some who have even adopted Christian nationalism as a goal.
The “He Gets Us” campaign leaders are aware of that fraught history but say they’re doing their best simply to let people know that they can find in Jesus a model for how to live in generative and generous ways.
“The focus,” says Vanderground, “is to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible, especially his confounding love and forgiveness.” And the campaign’s website adds this: “We simply want everyone to understand the authentic Jesus as he’s depicted in the Bible — the Jesus of radical forgiveness, compassion and love.”
That website then offers people various reading plans to learn more about the man whom Christians call the Christ, or Messiah. Each of those plans is original to the “He Gets Us” campaign. But it’s important for newcomers to the Bible to know that there is a wide range of commentaries on the Bible available online and in print, and they can reflect conflicting approaches.
For instance, this study of the New Testament book of Romans comes from the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia., the church once led by the late Jerry Falwell but now led by his son Jonathan Falwell, brother of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the disgraced former president of Liberty University.
A Bible study offered by a Falwell-led church is likely to draw different conclusions from one approved by, say, American Catholic bishops or by Mainline Protestant denominations. So anyone moved by the “He Gets Us” campaign to learn more about Jesus should know that Christianity is quite divided internally — not only institutionally among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox but also theologically within those and other subheadings.
The reality is that from the time of Jesus’ life on Earth until now there have been many different Christian understandings about who Jesus was and is.
Vanderground, who grew up in a Christian missionary family, says the first step for people curious about Jesus is simply to begin to look into the question of his identity: “Christians believe in the divinity of Christ, but before someone who is spiritually open but really skeptical can get to that point they need to spend some time in this area of respect and personal relevance, and that’s what the ‘He Gets Us’ campaign is really focused on.”
And French says this is what campaign success would look like: “Ultimately, our goal over the next three years is real, true movement. That will come in the fact that Jesus will be the most recognized brand, if you want to use a corporate term. Jesus would be the most recognized person and the most recognized person to want to emulate and to follow and to be like in the world.”
That’s the goal, even if not all current Christians can agree fully on the meaning of Jesus’ life or even who he was — or is.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated that the Thomas Road study on Romans was found on the “He Gets Us” site.
Bill Tammeus, an award-winning columnist formerly with The Kansas City Star, writes the “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website, book reviews for The National Catholic Reporter and for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is “Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.” Email him at email@example.com.