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Thursday, March 4th, 2004


American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

by Stephen Prothero

The Fashion of the Christ

A review by Christine Stansell

Jesus is ubiquitous in American life. If the opinion polls are correct, about one hundred forty million adults -- two-thirds of the total -- believe that the historical Jesus was the son of God. Millions in this group claim him as a personal savior. His name streams along the highways on bumper stickers; exhortations to follow him blare from billboards. Everywhere, spanking new Protestant churches dot the land, even in towns where the stores are boarded up and the paint is peeling.

The latter-day Jesus is an American optimist: good-tempered and informal, a generous Jesus sympathetic to the desires of this world. His proffer of personal salvation can mean different things depending on the believer. Mostly, eternal damnation is no longer the pressing problem that he is summoned to address, nor eternal life the urgent goal -- although it is always there in a hazy celestial future -- but rather the sorrows of this world: unemployment, troubled children, loneliness. Since the heyday of "muscular Christianity" in the late nineteenth century, our American Jesus has been known as a fan of physical culture; now he can turn up as a personal trainer, lending his grace to the enterprises of dieting and buffing up. On my own college campus, a colleague's talk on evangelicalism, wryly titled, "Does Jesus Want You to Be Thin?" drew a big crowd of female undergraduates who really wanted to know.

It was not supposed to happen this way. In 1966, Time wondered on its cover if God was dead. Now the question seems a quaint historical footnote, not least because its irreligiosity would draw a ferocious hue and cry. The churches are packed on Sunday mornings. Washington, D.C. is what missionaries to the Indians once called a "praying town." The amiable savior, not only personal but also personable, has pushed the traditional Father, merciful and mighty, off center stage, and with Him the formal elements of Protestant worship. Pop-inspired music for easy listening has ousted gorgeous hymns dating back to the fifteenth century; leisure wear and sneakers have supplanted Sunday best; ministerial raps have edged out liturgy. The emotional restraint that, through a lingering Calvinism, characterized as late as the 1960s the established mainstream denominations, has ceded to an encounter-group model of worship. Elderly worshipers, their temperaments formed in a different time, have to endure the obligatory squeezing of hands in the pews and, in the foyer after Sunday service, moist hugs and moony professions of love from pious middle-aged bounders.

It is an amazing phenomenon that mostly has eluded American historians, a secular group which tends to be comfortable with Christianity at the safe remove of a century or two. Contemporary Jesus worship operates a world away from the favored congregations of the historians: the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritans, with their supreme theological rigor; the early nineteenth-century evangelists of the Second Great Awakening, who spawned the radical anti-slavery and women's movements; the twentieth-century black churches, which fostered the civil rights struggle. Instead, the wildly popular American Jesus arrives from the suburban megachurches beloved of the likes of The Simpsons' irrepressibly cheerful and dopey Ned Flanders: the perky strivers who turn "Amazing Grace" into a mellow paean to a lifestyle choice.

It is tempting to envelop the subject in irony and leave it at that. And the explosion of mosques and Buddhist temples adds to the confusion. The United States has never been so ecumenical. Why, then, are we still fighting over school prayer? The fact is that, although the country may be a spiritual emporium, with something for everyone, Jesus is still the name brand. Although there are more Muslims than Episcopalians in the country, Stephen Prothero points out, there are exponentially more Episcopalians than Muslims in Congress (44 to 0). Jesus has an astonishing global reach. Evangelical converts pour into the fold from Central America, the Philippines, Korea, Nigeria. The Catholic Hispanic population booms. It is necessary to keep all this in the same field of analysis: the profusion of fervent Jesus worship, the evangelicals' turn to ultra-conservatism, and the proliferating ethnic and class diversity. These two books on Jesus once might have interested believers. Now they become important reading for the rest of us.

Stephen Prothero's American Jesus is the lighter of the two, as bounding as its shape-shifting subject. Prothero, a scholar of religion, focuses on the Jesus who materializes at the dead center of cultural trends. Such a perspective makes it easy to locate a Jesus who is the sum of the moment's aspirations and anxieties. Once a pallid, effete presence in the Victorian parlor, then a strapping scrapper for social reform in Theodore Roosevelt's day, a successful salesman of God's word in the go-getter 1920s, and a charismatic hipster in the late 1960s, Jesus faithfully follows the American zeitgeist. Prothero's Jesus is a figure of normality rather than a standard-bearer for struggle in extraordinary times. This means that abolitionism, the Civil War, the two world wars, and the civil rights movement -- those moments when Jesus spoke from the deep recesses of believers' spirits -- are absent from Prothero's account. The black church, where American believers have long labored to mesh the country's tragedy with the Christian message of salvation, gets scant attention, except for African Americans' determination to fashion a Jesus with dark skin. In Prothero's hands, Jesus does not so much shape American culture as soak it up, a happy tourist from the Holy Land.

American Jesus is interested in the country's singular mix of whimsy, obliviousness to theological complexity, and spiritual lust that has created a Son able to serve many -- "the man that nobody hates" in Prothero's phrase. He begins with Jefferson, a thinker willing to jettison the Almighty in favor of a Jesus who, in place of divine might, offered high ethical standards to the new nation. Twice in his life (the first time in 1804, when he was president), Jefferson took a razor to the Bible, excising "Abracadabra" material of fantastical supernaturalism (the miracles), uncorroborated evidence, and secondhand quotations in order to paste together a reliable account of Jesus's life. Although he was raised an Anglican, the rationalist Jefferson saw the Trinitarian creed of his youth as hocus-pocus. The clerisy -- Jefferson made no distinction between Protestant ministers and Catholic priests -- had a vested interest in usurping the real Christianity of Jesus for a counterfeit religion that they controlled, "made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet." Jefferson's Jesus was an enlightened sage who came to earth, Prothero writes nicely, "not to save, but to teach. Or, he came to save by teaching." He was the pattern for "every human excellence": what better model for a self-governing republic of virtuous, reasonable men?

Sin, anguish,suffering, delight: these had no place in Jefferson's life of Jesus. He anticipated many admirers of Jesus to come, both believers and non-believers, in ignoring the atonement, which he dismissed as mystical claptrap. For centuries, believers saw Jesus's anguish on the cross as the central meaning of his story. Jesus Christ was an intermediary between sinful humans and God, who suffered in order that his followers could be saved. This, in a nutshell, was the meaning of the images of a tormented Christ on the cross that Catholics brought to the New World and the import of the sermons of sin and salvation that issued from Protestant pulpits. It was not that Jefferson's rationalism made him tone-deaf to sin: recall his famous dictum on slavery, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just." It was rather that in his view a long-ago episode of martyrdom had nothing to do with present-day evil. It was Jesus's teachings, properly attended to, that could help to eradicate wrongdoing.

Beginning with the Second Great Awakening, the Protestant churches began to minimize the belief in original sin along with their doctrinal differences on the exact division of labor between the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost. The denominations found an informal, unspoken accord: that believers could invite Jesus into their lives and thus choose their own salvation, that his dispensation was wide, and that his saving grace sanctified life in this world as well as the next. In the second half of the nineteenth century, a spirit who was proximate at all times cropped up. Hymns to Jesus the shepherd and Jesus the visitor proliferated. He searched for lost sheep; he knocked on sinners' doors. Traditional Protestant hymns dwelt on the vast distance between sinful humans and the omniscient God; the popular hymns of the nineteenth century celebrated his closeness. "And he walks with me and he talks with me, And he tells me I am His own," testifies the evangelical classic "I Come to the Garden Alone," its wheezy, warbling cadences straight out of Victorian parlor music.

But the nineteenth-century legacy of intimacy was problematic. Jesus was so sweet and compliant, so tender and loving, that he came close to being a sissy, even a bit of a pansy ("lackadaisical and gelatinous," complained a critic). In a convergence that would occur again, evangelicals and liberals alike, looking for a Son whose energies were adequate to the moment, turned him into a muscular man of action. Reformers in the socialist and Progressive movements such as Eugene Debs and Jane Addams embraced a version of Jesus as a tough combatant in the battle for social democracy -- the "Workingman of Nazareth," a natural candidate for a carpenters' union.

But liberals never hung on to Jesus for long. In the 1920s, the reforming connotations dropped away as muscular Christianity gave rise to Jesus the avatar of manly self-help, the charismatic leader of Bruce Barton's hugely successful book The Man Nobody Knows. He was an athlete-businessman who had the genius to pick twelve untrained men and forge them "into an organization that conquered the world." Barton cited chapter and verse, Luke 2:49: "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business." The italics were his.

Barton's booster Jesus would seem to mark a theological nadir. The popularity of the divine entrepreneur was a provocation for the young Niebuhr brothers, Reinhold and Richard, to attack the stranglehold of conformity on Christianity, the church's bondage to "a corrupt civilization." It has been a mark for liberals ever since. But Prothero disagrees. Barton's genius, he proposes in the spirit of the contemporary revival of American pragmatism, lay in his imperviousness to theological dispute. Like Jefferson, he searched for a usable creed. In the decade of the Scopes trial, he evaded controversy to chart a course between fundamentalism and agnosticism, producing a Jesus easily grasped and infinitely serviceable, with crucial moral lessons to teach even Sunday morning Christians.

So the cultural assimilators may not appeal to intellectuals, theologians, and historians, but they modestly served their faith by developing a can-do Jesus, a Twelve-Step master avant la lettre. As popular culture exploded, so did the possibilities for Jesus makeovers. Commercial artists flooded the marketplace with mass-produced color images, pre-eminently the now-familiar Head of Christ by Warner Sallman. Tacked up everywhere in the 1950s -- motel and hospital rooms, living rooms and bedrooms, parochial schools and Sunday schools, locker rooms -- the picture gently hinted to any bystander with a minute to think that the minute could be better used in prayer. Jesus inevitably popped up in the movies. In 1927, with Cecil B. DeMille's The King of Kings, Hollywood turned the Gospels into a blockbuster.

Jesus's star status and his temperamental versatility made him a good facilitator in interfaith dialogue: the same year that Bruce Barton's celebration of Jesus's business acumen became a best-seller, Rabbi Steven Wise claimed him as a great Jewish teacher. Orthodox leaders and the Yiddish press decried the Reform rabbi's pandering, which came close to pushing the Americanized young into fellow traveling with the Christians. Yet by the 1950s, Christians and Jews clambered out of the war's catastrophe to claim a common "Judeo-Christian tradition," whereby the best rabbi of them -- Jesus the mensch rather than Jesus the messiah -- prevailed. Hindus and Buddhists, too, have made their peace with Jesus as a holy man operating on a higher level of spiritual realization, a descendant of Jefferson's enlightened sage.

Perhaps the most brilliant adapters in Prothero's stable turn out to be the "Jesus freaks." In the late 1960s and early '70s, the Jesus freaks were denizens of the counterculture not too far removed in middle-class origins and lobotomized zeal from the Hare Krishna people. Merry pranksters of Christ, they motored around the country in day-glow festooned vans "high on Jesus"; lived by indeterminate means in rundown communes; preached to and gathered in drug users, street people, and disenchanted campus radicals. They faded away, along with other varieties of hippie commitment. But if you thought your old roommate who gave up LSD for Jesus and disappeared into the Christian demimonde in Spokane must surely have returned to sanity and a solid middle-class job, you may be wrong. The Jesus freaks, it turns out, were among the zealots who surged into the evangelical churches in the '70s and '80s and took them over the top to national prominence, out of the enclaves of déclassé Holy Rollers and speakers in tongues and into the white suburbs and national politics.

The Jesus freaks brought Christianity up to speed, so to speak, with their fluency in popular culture. Theological mushiness prepared the way, but the converts' hipness to rock and roll, slangy sloganeering, and consumer culture injected the churches with a true postwar contemporaneity. Conversant in counter-cultural paraphernalia, they opened up stores and mail-order sites selling Jesus T-shirts and posters and "Honk If You Love Jesus" bumper stickers. Jesus the beatnik, the freewheeling "head," went on the road with his followers, spawning youth revivals, permanent missions, and charismatic renewal movements with gifts for speaking in tongues and healing the sick. Biblical language was translated into laconic male cool: "Thou shalt not commit adultery" became "Don't ball anyone you're not married to." Bob Dylan's conversion, memorialized in Slow Train Coming, gave an enormous boost to the movement and spawned a Jesus rock scene. And although Jesus freaks were initially hostile to "Churchianity," many went on in the 1970s to energize campus crusades and fellowships for Christ and to blend conversion techniques and the charismatic gifts into new "seeker-sensitive" churches that abrogated creed to welcome all.

The savior chronicled by Prothero is not a spirit whose powers ever outstrip the culture's -- although you would think that would be a job description for any divinity. Far from transcendent, Jesus is "more a pawn than a king, pushed around in a complex game of cultural (and countercultural) chess, sacrificed here for this cause and there for another." Go to the Internet listings for "What Would Jesus Do?" and see what Prothero means. The "WWJD" movement originated several years ago in the heart of born-again sanctimony, but by now the liberals have appropriated it. Socially conscious Christians demand: Would Jesus drive an SUV? Spank his kids? Bomb Iraq? "If Jesus went to your school, where would he sit in the lunchroom?" demands a sign in the Sunday school classroom of a local church, where the staff tries to make inroads with the adolescents into reallife issues like cliquishness and social shunning.

Prothero ends up bemused by the propensity for endless plagiarism, the American habit of love and theft. There is a touch of the old consensus history in his summation, with Jesus a benign chef stirring the melting pot. Prothero acknowledges the problem, but he cannot resolve it. At the book's end, he himself wonders about Jesus. In the intellectual's manner, the question isn't "What would Jesus do?" but "What would Jesus think?" Say, about a huge Jesus balloon figure that lifts off over northern California each Easter? Or about the recent diet book What Would Jesus Eat? Or about Mel Gibson's gruesome movie? Prothero's Jesus doesn't fret. With an intellectual's sangfroid, he just leans back and laughs.

Richard Wrightman Fox's Jesus in America is quite a different book. Fox acknowledges that he has a big stake in the subject. While Prothero takes a scrupulously agnostic stance, Fox writes as both a historian and a Catholic. The result is an extraordinary blend of historical sophistication, theological discrimination, and spiritual understanding. Fox is interested in living faith rather than in cultural construct, in remarkable occurrences rather than in cultural norms. His Jesus, while very much a creature of history, still evades history's snares. For Fox, faith can be a marvel; stupid, dreadful, blindered at times, easily taken hostage to cupidity, narcissism, and savage righteousness, but also splendid, luminous.

This is American history which, like the best work on early modern Europe, allows even a non-believing reader to sense, without insult, Christianity's power and subtlety. By beginning in the seventeenth century with the earliest Christian New World settlers, Fox picks a Jesus who presides over a historical caesura, a fundamentally non-normative figure. Much has been written about the Spanish friars in the Southwest and the Jesuits in New France, but the treatment here is never standard. Without expunging the clerics of savagery and avarice, Fox stresses the complexity of the religious impulse that led men (as well as women) in New France to renounce one life for another. (The length and the difficulty of the Atlantic crossing meant that most of them left home forever.) If Jefferson is Prothero's touchstone, the seventeenth-century Catholics are Fox's, with their sense of "the world as an enchanted place, filled with mysterious portents and fabulous happenings."

Jesus was the greatest wonder worker of them all: healer of bodily infirmities and soul sicknesses. He bestowed meaning upon the trials and the sufferings that were the common lot for priests and converts alike in these arduous settings, setting pain that humans could not avoid into relation with the anguish that Christ chose. The Indian converts could not take this idea of spirit life too far, of course; Christ as intercessor need be kept firmly within the bounds of the Church's teachings on what he could and could not do. He could heal a sick child, for example, if the parents prayed for his intervention, but he could not appear in dreams, the friars and the nuns insisted. The enterprise was rife with tragic misunderstanding and outright hostility. Still, forgoing European ease to live with the Indians and share their hardships, the missionaries practiced an "astonishingly disciplined piety" modeled on Christ, and they inculcated in their followers practices predicated likewise on a habit of self-sacrifice illumined by divine meaning. The deeper meaning of the missions lay not in mental conquest, Fox suggests, but in finding a shared spiritual ground.

Fox and Prothero trace the same story of the waning importance of the atonement and, in the nineteenth century, the advent of a newly intimate Jesus. But Fox explicates more intricate theological twists and turns, and he investigates a broader cast of characters. Inevitably, the understanding of Christ's "wonder-working providence" in America leads him to the black church. Beginning with slavery, believers created a powerful linkage between Jesus's promise of deliverance and justice in this world. For the slaves, Jesus's love and his promise of redemption was an irruption of the sacred. The savior presided over "a thick atmosphere of spirits and meanings," the dead and the living, past and present, the Jews' flight from Egypt linked to a promised freedom. Jesus's grace could be felt within the soul of any believer -- "Woke up this morning with my mind set on Jesus," testifies the sunny gospel song -- but redemption was also ordained for an entire people in bondage; experienced during and after the Civil War as political liberation along with religious ecstasy, a huge political "Hallelujah."

Black Christianity's fusion of Christian worship with secular goals was perhaps the most successful liberal appropriation in the country's history. It was also theologically brilliant. In a beautiful reading of Jesus's inspiration in the civil rights struggle, Fox shows the ways in which Martin Luther King Jr. comprehended both the powers and the limits of Jesus. King mixed the Old Testament with the New, the old themes of Jewish deliverance so resonant in black history with the lessons of Christ's love and sacrifice. In the majestic "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech that he delivered in Memphis on the night before he died, King seemed to suggest how to "walk with Jesus" and still live fully in a secular nation: in Fox's paraphrase, "you never suggest he loves you more than he loves everyone else, non-Christians and Christians alike." King's testimony to his own fear and his exhortations to courage always reminded listeners that Jesus's company prepared you for suffering and death as well as joy. The civil rights Jesus was not a mentor of upward mobility.

Such readings of individual religious thinkers can be dense and demanding, but Fox's language is so rich and fluent in the complexities of religious life that even the difficult sections never fail to please.

There are lighter moments, too, such as the run-through of Jesus movies, beginning with one of the first, From the Manger to the Cross, in 1912. The earliest films mesmerized some viewers and repelled others. At their best, the magic of moving pictures blended with the magic of Jesus. But the visible Lord posed problems. With long hair and sorrowful gazes, each leading actor hearkened back to the sissy Jesus that the muscular Christians thought they'd forced into retirement. In The King of Kings, DeMille succeeded only in masculinizing Judas, a handsome and virile sort of duplicitous sidekick. DeMille also updated the formulas of the infamous The Passion Play at Oberammergau, turning antiSemitic melodrama into a crime story of gangsters terrorizing the old neighborhood. The boss, Jewish "high priest" Caiaphas and his henchmen (a bunch who care for "revenue not religion") call the shots in Jerusalem. They pressure the other Jews into denouncing Jesus; they engineer his execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate, a sort of cowardly mayor on the take, and threaten to kill the disciples as well. With considerable courage -- this was only fourteen years after Leo Frank was lynched -- the B'nai B'rith called for a boycott of DeMille's movie. That was eighty years ago. DeMille's film seems mild set against Mel Gibson's Via Dolorosa bloodbath.

Boycotts of Jesus films are nothing new, it turns out, and neither is making money off them. The last film to tap the lucrative potential of controversy was Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, which touched off a boycott by fundamentalists, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox incensed by its depiction of a Jesus who struggled with sexual desire, self-esteem (was he really up to the job of being God?) and, on the cross, regret for the path not taken, the mundane life -- marriage, a couple of kids -- not lived. Universal Studios capitalized on the controversy to turn Scorsese's film, otherwise destined for art houses, into a draw at the box office. Gibson's defenders like to portray him as a courageous believer willing to sacrifice his own millions in order to tell the real story of Jesus, the little millionaire defying the big-Jews-who-control-Hollywood, but in truth Gibson is behaving not in the Vatican way but in the Hollywood way. His showbiz calculations are perfectly plain. After all, Scorsese's experience demonstrated that the bigger the furor, the bigger the take.

About the ascent of Jesus as cultural icon, Prothero and Fox are both loath to judge. Neither wants to succumb to crusty old-fogey jeremiads. Prothero pulls his punches by turning into a bit of a skeptical postmodern spirit. Fox is more conscientious. He does take the Republicans to task for sacralizing politics and criticizes the churches for politicizing the sacred. But he, too, wants to preserve a forward-looking spirit. His last chapter predicts, with slightly strained equanimity, the entire disappearance of the concept of sin from the churches and the increasing influence of Jesus as a free-floating signifier of "spirituality," a figure without any discernible religious or theological weight. It is the only part of his book that lets the reader down.

But it doesn't take nostalgia for the world we have lost to see that all this comes at a cost. In vast stretches of the nation, Jesus supervises an ecclesiastical project which, as surely as the developers' bulldozers have ravaged the countryside, has flattened the spiritual landscape and paved it over with vapid nostrums, religious intolerance, and political reaction. The churches have been ransacked of liturgy and history, stripped of Luther, Calvin, and Bach. Elisabeth Sifton's elegiac memories of provincial church-going in the North in the post-war years in her remarkable memoir The Serenity Prayer will remind anyone who grew up in the non-evangelical Protestant denominations -- as I did -- that even in poky out-of-the way places the forms of worship once glowed with the patina of church history, and the temper of discourse was imbued with fundamental tolerance.

The language of the Bible (the King James lingered, giving way eventually to the still-decent Revised Standard), the architecture (often the elegant, modest ecclesiastical vernacular), and the thrilling music made these institutions sanctuaries also of high culture -- among the few places away from cities where the imaginative powers of literature and art were evident. The sermons were genteel, and the congregations middle-class and small-minded; but the music was stunning, as magnificent in its sedate way as the wildly spinning gospel music of the small working-class churches, black and white, tucked away across town. Many states of mind and heart were touched on, if not in the sermons then in the hymns: penitence, forgiveness, triumphant celebration. "Turn back O Man, forswear thy foolish ways," and "The God of Abraham praise." When Jesus turned up he was the Son whose mission was to redeem sinful mankind. "Come thou Long-Expected Jesus/Born to set thy people free." First-name acquaintance with the living Jesus, cleaned up from the bloody agony, was mostly limited to Sunday school, where a few lachrymose revival tunes -- pre-eminently "Jesus Loves Me" -- had crept in.

Yes, those churches were class-bound, narrow, and smug. Impervious to the astonishing currents of faith and spiritual ecstasy that emanated from poor congregations nearby, they were uninterested in any prediction that the bottom rail shall be top or the last might be first. In the North they were strongholds of Babbitry, where liberal voices at both local and national levels were suppressed. In the 1950s, they avoided taking a stand on civil rights, and in the 1960s they supported the Vietnam War. But that is not the whole story.

Even in the depths of the 1950s, the separation of church and state was a given. No one in these churches spoke of Satan, or of the Jews who killed Our Lord. No one opposed the teaching of evolution, or vilified secular humanist domination of the government and schools, or urged congregants to get out the vote for self-appointed Christian candidates. The Book of Revelation remained safely at the far reaches of the New Testament. Doomsday was not on the calendar. One need not romanticize these institutions to see that they opened channels through which the great changes of the day eventually percolated. Since they gave many people access to old and beautiful things, they gave a few people the means to spring themselves loose from the moment, to think past the present, to find in religion (as African Americans long had) an inspiration to change the world as well as to suffer through it. People took their Presbyterianism, or their Methodism, or their Congregationalism, or even their Episcopalianism seriously, too seriously, and crossed lines. Slowly ministers did come round to preach the justice of civil rights, and ordained women, and acknowledged the church's duty to help the world's victims in ways more direct and beneficial than the dollars from the collection plate.

But all that is almost gone, replaced by canned music and rap sessions at church; and outside church, by Christian video stores and teen prayer meetings at the school flagpole. In the little town where I grew up, a youth group from my old church took to evangelizing in the grocery store parking lot. You could come back to your car to find a roll of toilet paper planted on the hood, a gift in Jesus's name. What would Jesus do? You might conjure up a figure who laughs, like Prothero's Jesus, or who smiles indulgently, as would the Jesus Fox evokes. But you could also wonder whether, if Jesus is going to take it so lightly, you might be the one who weeps.

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