Bruce Lincoln described religion as “that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal,” but I think it needs to be added that for Lincoln discourse, together with its partner force, effects the construction of society and perhaps even subjectivity itself.
As an example of how this works “on the ground,” consider this tweet:
When Jesus saw the people were hungry HE MADE MORE FOOD. He didn't say "be grateful for the little you got"
— Sydette (@Blackamazon) March 19, 2015
Floating out there on a few thousand twitter feeds (twitter user @blackamazon has about 15k followers at the moment), this short text offers a portrayal of Jesus, invoking assumed narratives of his miraculous powers, and relying on a prediction that appeals to his example will have the status of appeals to a figure of “divine” (or eternal and transcendent) value and authority. Such an appeal to Jesus is made with purpose: it serves to sanction a particular critique or construction of normative social practices or expectations. It is argumentative, an interest arguing for your interest. “Feed the poor. Like Jesus would.”
With respect to putatively historical questions, for the student of religion it doesn’t actually matter if any particular idea of Jesus is “accurate” to some accepted academic standard or criterion. From the standpoint of the history of religions, there can be no normative Jesus.
There is an invitation on offer here. A tweet like this offers an invitation to affiliate and identify with a particular “system of mediations” (a system involving ideas of Jesus constructed by plausible appeals to prior traditions and ideas). In response, one could take up and bear this particular construction of Jesus. Mere assent to the idea expressed here—let alone marking it as a favorite with a star, or retweeting it—aggregates forces, forges links of identification, in part by actively criticizing and satirizing those presumed disaffiliated others who for some reason would deny this idea of Jesus. The person who actually does reject the idea of Jesus found here thus actively disaffiliates, presumably through a counter-aggregation or identification. And so discourse organizes and identifies people along lines drawn through concepts of Jesus.
What is interesting to me about any given Tweet Jesus is not whether its vision is true to some hypothetically perfect idea of ‘Jesus,’ but rather how such discourse about Jesus appeals to the leverage or force of divine power in pursuit of social and political ends; the invocation of Jesus’ example in a stream of texts brings into a larger discourse a topic, an ethical dilemma, a positive standard for mimesis, and behind it all, the implied threat of a transcendent rule of judgment applied to individual and collective behaviors. In other words: the transcendent and eternal authority invoked by religious discourse is hoped to be an effective sublimation of force in pursuit of particular and historically contextual human (social) interests. The answer to the question “What would Jesus do?” is always, “what we want other people to do.”
Bruce Lincoln, “Theses on Method.” The University of Alabama Department of Religious Studies keeps a copy of this text online.