"Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean," wrote Algernon Charles Swinburne. "The world has grown grey with thy breath." Where, I wonder, did the Victorian poet get this picture of a Christ who draws the color out of life? Then it occurs to me: from Christians. He drew the image from observing people like me.

Those who follow Jesus have done a good deal to propagate an image of Christ as the cosmic killjoy, the divine naysayer, who never met a delight he could not dull or a dream he could not puncture. Puritanism, the 20th-century writer H. L. Mencken famously quipped, is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Puritans or not, Christians have done their part to vindicate his statement.

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue of Nazareth, the Gospel of Luke says, he was handed the scroll of the Book of Isaiah. Unrolling it, he found the place where Isaiah looked to the Messiah, whose coming would herald a joyful deliverance:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (4:18–19).

Believers, though, sometimes behave as though Jesus made an altogether different announcement, one chiefly in praise of getting up early and working hard: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to see that everyone lives by the rules. He has sent me to make sure people settle down and lead respectable lives, to work more and play less, to grow up."

I stand as guilty of this as any Christian I know. I put faith in getting up for work, paying the ...

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