Oftentimes when I meet new people, I hear one of two things:
Either: “You look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo!”
(To which I, of course, reply with my best impression:
“I’m scared, Scoob!”
(Imagine me doing my best prepubescent squeal as I say it. ) )
Or, more commonly these days (especially after people learn of my profession): “You look like Jesus!”
I’ve never known exactly how to respond to that statement, but it’s typical for these encounters that I find myself overwhelmed with the same, somewhat-snarky thought:
“But Jesus wasn’t a white Scandinavian.”
And sometimes, despite myself, I say this out loud. Which, predictably, usually yields an awkward grimace and a change of subject, which I gladly welcome–thankful to be out of that awkward exchange.
For starters, I could do about 25 blog posts just talking about all the ways in which my life has not looked like Jesus’ at ALL in the past week! But that’s not the subject of this post (Thank God).
But I think it’s a real problem that we naturally make assumptions about how Jesus looks based most depictions of him in the Western European tradition… when most of us are at least aware that Jesus was a Palestinian Middle-Eastern.
[It’s amazing to me that I have often been called “Jesus” just for being a white guy with a beard and long hair. I mean, I have red hair, people! I’ve never seen a depiction of a red-headed Jesus. (After all, we prefer our Jesus white, not sunburned.) Meanwhile, I wonder what the same people would say if they met a Middle-Eastern man with a beard…would they make the same association? ]
Naturally, I mostly blame the depictions themselves–which leads my thinking about the question of images of Christ in the first place, which I woke up Monday morning thinking about.
In addition to being pasty white, American Jesus also typically has a great stylist and makeup artist.
In general, I’m not an iconoclast in general (an iconoclast is someone who destroys or condemns the use of art or “icons” for worship because they see them as idolatrous). I am actually an advocate for the use of art and images in worship, despite their obviously-imperfect depictions of the ineffable God or of a historically-inaccessible Jesus. Art can guide our minds towards worship of God, just like interpreted, translated words on the pages of our Scriptures can guide us towards God. We in the Protestant church have underutilized the engagement-possibilities of our other senses and learning styles, and reclaiming them in part, as some churches have done, is a helpful corrective[although there is admittedly great beauty in the Anabaptist/Mennonite/Quaker tradition as well of near-sensory-deprivation in worship].
But when I see all these depictions of a white Jesus with a white robe, often (though not always) painted as such out of a white European tradition regarding what Christ looked like, I typically process it with one of the following two inner-monologues:
1) “Josh, chill out with the righteous indignation. After all, every culture has always depicted Jesus “in their own image,” with the skin color of their own people [not always true, in the post-colonial world, but point conceded…]… People are merely saying that Jesus is ‘for them.’ They’re reminded of the truth of the incarnation— that Jesus came to be among us, to be like us. Sure, it may be inaccurate, but it’s ultimately no worse than all the other ways that we see our faith through our own personal lenses. It’s natural, merely people following historical patterns, and not inherently sinful. At any rate, as the Western church has always used them, people have come to naturally connect these images with Jesus and thus find them meaningful for worship…so it’s really not much about the images themselves in the first place, anyway.”
2) “Josh, I know you’re not an iconoclast and that you really think using art and icons in worship is a good thing, but maybe, if the only image of Christ in the West that we’ll accept or “naturally connect” with Jesus in worship, then maybe we’re better off without them. There’s something to be said, after all, about making God into our own image!!! We have made Jesus in the image of the race that is typically identified as the wealthiest and most powerful in the world on average; yet Jesus on earth identified with the poor and despised, those without power. For whites, that means we’re psychologically-conditioned to believe that Jesus, as a fellow white, condones our affluent lifestyle. For people of color who inherit this Jesus from former colonizers or oppressors, they are left with an image of God, made in the image of their oppressors. In a multi-cultural world, we would do well to depict Jesus as he was—or to just not depict him at all.
I go back and forth with these two lines of rationale… but as I write today, I’m very much in favor of the latter… although I still think we should use art in worship. I just think we should depict Jesus closer to as he was: a Palestinian.
The elephant in this virtual-room, of course…. is that in white America, we don’t want our Lord to look like (what we perceive to be) a terrorist. Because we assume everyone who’s from the Middle East is Muslim [not true], and all Muslims are radical Muslims [also not true], and the cognitive dissonance that would be created if we commonly saw images of our Lord Jesus looking more like “those people” we see on the news throwing rocks at tanks would be too much for us to handle.
Maybe, we really don’t believe in the radical nature of the incarnation.
Such a change in depiction, I think, would drastically change us, if we let it. Images, after all, have a way of lodging in our brains and influencing our subconscious assumptions and judgments, more so than we even realize, I think. I think a Middle-Eastern Christ would force many to confront their own discomfort and disregard for Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.” It would force the racism in our hearts out into the light of day, exposing it to the fires of worship. And, we (as white Americans) perhaps, would stop implicitly assuming that Jesus is our Jesus (which, perhaps unwittingly, carries with it the implication that he is not your Jesus).
What do you think?
An Aramaic depiction of Jesus… what is your gut-response when you see this?
Does our depiction of Jesus as white in art and dramas affect how we view ourselves, and others?
Would changing our art change our perceptions, or would we simply be better off without icons/art of Jesus altogether? (Keep in mind that even the most iconoclastic among us still have manger scenes in our home during Christmas.)
If we DO depict him, should we have a variety of “Jesuses” depicted with various ethnicities, or should we be “historically accurate”?
At least we can all agree that Jesus looked NOTHING like this growing up.