A Different Jesus to Believe In?

Miami, USA - To whom do you compare Jesus Christ? Or at least someone who says he is Jesus Christ, and claims thousands of adherents who agree?

After all, Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, 61, who preached before several hundred followers and a clutch of more conventional Christian protesters at an Orlando-area amphitheater last weekend, would seem to be a true original. By his own account a former heroin addict and thief, he still imbibes hard liquor ("Jesus drank wine because he didn't have Dewar's," he told ABC's Primetime in March), surrounds himself with beautiful women despite being married, wears a $11,000 Rolex and drives a BMW, and says that for members of his Miami-based Creciendo en Gracia (Growing in Grace) movement, there is no such thing as sin. Over the years, his religious persona has continually evolved: having once claimed to be a kind of John the Baptist figure, then "Jesus Christ, hombre" ("Jesus Christ, the man"), he most recently added the title "antichrist," (although apparently without any Satanic intention) and his apostles have taken to tattooing "666" on their hands. Along the way, he has developed adherents — he claimed "millions" of followers to ABC in what his website says are 30 countries, although no expert feels competent to pin a number on them — while making his fair share of enemies; he is reportedly banned in several nations, in one case because his movement disrupted services by Roman Catholic churches.

Thus far, perhaps because he preaches in Spanish yet fits into neither of the two current major hispanic religious niches — Roman Catholic or evangelical Protestant — De Jesus has escaped a full-dress scholarly analysis. But experts are beginning to close in on him, even if they cannot accurately say how popular his idiosyncratic movement really is or predict any more than anyone else whether it will continue to grow.

De Jesus, says Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, religion professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and co-author with his wife of the book Recognizing the Latino Resurgence, is in some ways a familiar export from Puerto Rico, where he was born and lived until age 20. Stevens-Arroyo and some other scholars believe that the island's original colonial inheritance of Spanish Catholicism, combined with subsequent exposure to American Protestantism and its constitutionally mandated religious open market, created a a culture of religious seekers and corresponding "enthusiasms for overnight sensations." "This guy" says Stevens-Arroyo, "is one among Heinz's 57 varieties" on the island, some of whom inevitably reach the Latino community on the mainland. He describes one Miami predecessor from the 1930s known as "La Diosa," who claimed to be an incarnation of the Holy Spirit. Her followers founded spiritual cooperatives: small businesses like laundromats dedicated to her, he says, are still in operation in the city.

Whereas La Diosa was something of an ascetic, however, scholars say that De Jesus's message is more typical of the branch of Pentecostal Christianity called Prosperity Gospel, which enjoys modest success here but is vastly popular in the developing world. De Jesus' literature is studded with recurrent use of the phrases "prosperidad," (prosperity), "felicidad" (happiness), and his movement's name, which means "Growing in Grace" in English. Such catchwords are reminiscent of Prosperity's assertion that God wants to showers gifts upon his followers — provided that they tithe liberally to their church. So is De Jesus' unabashed enjoyment of material trappings, which prosperity preachers attribute to God's desire that his believers be rich and that his representatives on earth be good examples.

Still, his claim that his followers are incapable of sin because of a verse in Paul's biblical letter to the Roman church would stretch even Prosperity's sometimes liberal scriptural readings to the breaking point. And any prosperity church, indeed any Christian church, would regard de Jesus's claim to be THE Jesus as heretical. Almost as suspicious, says Miguel De La Torre, a professor at Denver's Iliff school of Theology and co-author of the introduction to the primer Latino Theology, is the way Creciendo's leader has run through self-descriptions over the decades: from "the Apostle" in 1998 to "The Other," a kind of Christ-precursor figure in 1999, to Jesus Christ in 2004 to this year's "antichrist." Concludes De La Torre, "I think he's a con man" whose theology has "no rhyme or reason" beyond marketing. "I'm writing an encyclopedia of Latino religion and culture," he continues. "And I can tell you right now, this individual will not be part of it."

Others are not so quick to dismiss. Says John Green, Senior Fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public LIfe, "There isn't a well-developed theology, a set of propositions. He appears to have traveled a lot in Latin America, but my colleagues say he doesn't have much of an international following. But really, we have no way of knowing whether or not it may ultimately spread beyond this." Thomas Tweed, Chair of the religion department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and an expert in Miami's religious history, doubts, as do several other scholars, that de Jesus' renown will extend much beyond the Latino community unless he preaches more regularly in English or finds someone to do it for him. But then again, these days a phenomenon does not need to break out of the Latino world to be a force in the U.S. "The question people ask about new religions," he says, is 'is this just a silly group or is this a group we should be scared of?'"

He refuses to regard De Jesus as silly: Tweed is impressed with its use of Spanish language media and even YouTube. But at the same time, he thinks it is nothing to be afraid of. Technically, Tweed notes, Crecienda en Gracia is a cult, a small group in some tension with the world at large and organized around a single magnetic leader. But it is not a cult as understood in the popular sense: Jim Jones or the Branch Davidians, who in deep self-imposed isolation, honed a violent apocalyptic element that eventually led to murder or suicide. Those at last weekend's rally and throughout De Jesus' following, he says, do appear to believe we may be approaching the Millennium (or else why indulge in a Second Coming?), but they lack a fire-and-brimstone End Times scenario and their leader shows no appetite for isolation — or self-sacrifice, for that matter.

"If he says he's taking his group to the Andes to establish the kingdom of God on earth," says Tweed, "that's when I'd start to worry." Until then, those not too put off by de Jesus' exalted self-image can do no more than marvel at him and wonder what his next transformation will bring.