Does American Christianity overemphasize a personal relationship with Jesus? Mark "Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" Noll has some challenging words on the subject. Talking about Dinner With a Perfect Stranger, a new book about Jesus by David Gregory, Noll sharply condenses a few thousand years of theological debate into two paragraphs:
Less traditional is the book's answer to a question that the medieval philosopher-theologian Anselm of Canterbury asked in the title of his 1098 volume: "Why Did God Become a Man?" To David Gregory the answer is clear and worth repeating: so that individuals could have "a personal relationship" with God; he wanted to build a "relationship" of "trust" with humans; Jesus, more than anything, wants "to have a relationship" with individuals.
In traditional Christianity, teaching about a personal relationship with Christ is common but usually hedged about with other, more demanding themes. Catholics, Orthodox and some older Protestant communions hold that membership in a church is an intrinsic feature of any relationship with God. In "Dinner," by contrast, the church is mentioned only as an institution that formalized and then obscured Christ's true mission.
I don't have an answer to the question of whether we over-emphasize the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus. But if I'm understanding him right, Noll is pointing to a tendency among Christians to focus on, and perhaps sometimes over-emphasize, those characteristics of Jesus that appeal most strongly to their own cultural experience. Medieval thinkers saw Jesus as the ultimate king because Europe's political instability at the time made that a highly attractive idea. We focus on a personal relationship with Jesus because amidst the hectic-ness and shallow commercialism of modern life, that sort of unconditional personal relationship is what we crave the most.
Jesus' role in our salvation, of course, remains the same whether we picture him as a conquering king or a personal friend. But it's interesting to wonder about the different cultural filters that have colored the way Christians throughout history have pictured their Savior.
For further reading, the Christian Mind blogs in response to Noll's piece.