Jesus, Race, and Art

My hunch is that a vast majority of Christians who read this article are going to disagree with its premise. My personal position on this issue is admittedly a little stronger than it probably should be, which means there is a fairly good chance I am in error here. I’m pretty sure even my blessed wife things I am in left field. How’s that for a strong, confident beginning to a blog post? Nevertheless, here it goes:  I believe artwork depicting the image of Jesus is dangerous.

Here’s why.

Human beings instinctively fuse our own limited, culturally-laced ideas into any narrative we read, especially the bible. Try as we might, there is no such thing as reading without presuppositions. Although the concept of coming to a text with a “blank slate” seems to be a sensible way to ensure a non-biased reading, the fact of the matter is that presuppositions can be helpful and essential to our reading. However, from a Christian worldview, these presuppositions need to be deeply rooted in what the Scriptures have specifically taught, not what we want them to teach.

This is the inherit problem with artistic depictions of Jesus. Not only is a physical description of Jesus lacking in the Bible, but warnings of the limitations of making physical images are not. We should keep silent where the Bible is silent on this issue to avoid a conceptual limitation on Jesus, one that will inevitably work well beyond simply a misrepresentation of skin color. When we, whether intentionally or unintentionally, begin to point to a particular understanding of the physicality of Jesus, we necessarily begin to limit Jesus to a certain brand. The full implications of what seems to be an innocuous concept may prove to be not so innocent after all. By defaulting to a perceived image of Jesus’ physical appearance, we could very well be flirting with an idolatrous view of who we want Jesus to be rather than who he really is. Believe it or not, Jesus wasn’t the same skin color as white, central Kentuckians. His color would have probably been much darker, typical of a first-century Middle Eastern Jew. The immediate culture that comes to mind when we think of, or “see”, Jesus in this way would be a culture quite removed and perhaps even uncomfortable for us. It brings us back to the fundamental and inescapable call for the Church – go to the nations and make disciples.

Yes, the Bible’s silence on Jesus’ appearance could very well be a Great Commission induced silence. Crazy, I know.

The white Jesus with blue eyes and rosy cheeks might make us comfortable. After all, the Jesus who looks just like us probably thinks and acts like us, in ways we can understand. But the bible doesn’t describe that kind of Jesus. It does describe the King of the world who made himself nothing. It describes a Jewish man who loved a Samaritan woman. It describes cross-bearer who endured pain for joy. It describes a man who died for a people who hated him. It describes a lover of souls who reached out to the least of these. It describes the very things we might be prone to miss with a Jesus who looks and thinks like we do.

For my house, artwork depicting Jesus is something we stay away from, even though it might be comforting to us or beautiful to view. The potential for misuse is too great for my fallible mind. This might not be true for everyone. There might very well be Christians who can enjoy artwork of Jesus without falling victim to the concerns I have outlined. I am not calling for a blanket removal of images depicting Jesus. This is especially difficult for children’s bibles, storybooks, etc (although there are good ones out there that avoid depicting Christ). But I am calling for us to at least think about them. We may find ourselves surprised as to why we enjoy looking at them so much.

3 Replies to “Jesus, Race, and Art”

  1. It is human nature to visualize that which we read or hear about. When a book I have read is made into a movie, the actors often don’t fit the mental image I assigned to that character. Conversely, when I see a movie and then read the book, I immediately associate the characters in the movie with the ones in the book. When I read “The Hobbit” and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, my mental image of Bilbo, Frodo, and the other characters was much different than what I saw in the movies.

    I try to avoid the entire racial appearance of Jesus debate. I’m not exactly sure what a Jerusalem Jew would look like. I think that it is interesting to note that the image depicting Jesus, even if inaccurate, has stayed reasonably consistent for quite some time among North American Christians. I guess that the idea of man being made in the image of God could make believers perceive Jesus as appearing similar to that believers race.

    When a previously unreached people hear the Good News for the first time, I wonder what image they form in their minds for the physical appearance of Jesus. Unless they are shown pictures, the mental image they form for the appearance of Jesus is likely to resemble themselves.

    In the long run I wonder if it really matters. If we focus on who He is, what He has done and continues to do, then He could look like Barney Fife and it wouldn’t matter.

  2. I gave a picture of the white Jesus to an Aunt while she was coming to a death rattle but somewhat alert? She said No that doesn’t look like Jesus. Her daughter give me the picture back when she died. I love this picture and keep it on display. It gives me comfort until I find one that I like better.

    That’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it.

    Love you like a brother! Bonita

  3. Phil, a very good article. I guess I do disagree but not entirely. You raise very valid points. What I especially appreciate is the pastoral concern that you demonstrate. Christians have debated this for a long time. The Eastern church had major controversies in the 8th and 9th centuries about icons.

    I would say that artistic representations of Jesus are risky and potentially dangerous. But I would stop short of a ban. The reason this is a difficult subject is because there is “good” art and “bad” art. I don’t believe that art is neutral or that beauty is ONLY in the eye of the beholder. I wouldn’t approve of a Veggie Jesus, for instance. But I can’t imagine Christmas without a creche. As a Lutheran, crucifixes are an important part (not essential) of my piety.

    In general, I think attempts to depict Jesus in photo-realistic manner are often bad. So I incline to the less literal Eastern icons. But Michaelangelo’s Pieta brings me to tears.

    While I would keep this under that category of Christan freedom, I would still argue, as you do, that some artistic depictions are bad and should be avoided.

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