Image is Everything

One thing that always saddens me when I'm looking at religious art online is comments that say something like: "Oh, sure. Great painting of Christ except for one thing - you got the wrong skin color!" In the most militant cases there will usually follow some scripture (often entirely out of context) quoted to prove beyond a doubt - for all you dummies who've clearly never picked up a bible - that the Savior was white, black, blue, orange, or some other hue.

Then there are the criticisms about hair color, beard length, eye shape or shade, and other physical characteristics. Some will try to present the scientific or historical view that Jesus probably looked like XYZ because of his lineage and this is what other Jews probably looked like at the time and there's no evidence he looked uncommon since he was accepted as a Jew and so on and so forth.

But what it comes down to - barring any divine revelations - is that none of us really knows what Jesus looked like during his earthly ministry, nor do we know what he looks like now.

You might think some things could be inferred, and you may be right. But what about the Browns? The Browns are a family in my ward who have two biological children and two adopted, and if you were to try to guess which was which I'd bet 95% of you would guess wrong. The parents are both as pale pink Caucasian as it gets, but two of their kids are dark enough to be African. Those two are the biological ones. The adopted kids resemble the parents not only in skin color, but also in facial features and nearly all other ways related to appearance. Sister Brown says that's how they know these kids were meant to be with their family - because they look just like they were born into it.

But no one who knows the family thinks twice about Timmy's or Daniel's (the dark ones) skin color. In writing a book of their deeds, I doubt most people would think to include how different they look from everyone else in their home. They're just accepted for who they are.

Similarly, in Jesus' time the Roman Empire was culturally diverse, and although Jesus himself was accepted as the child of Mary and Joseph, this is no grounds for assumption that his appearance was in all ways strictly Jewish. His true heritage was, after all, divine, and who knows how that influences physical characteristics?

But here's the other thing: none of that matters.

One of the most telling scriptures about the value of appearances is this: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Gen. 1:27). We might be able to make a guess at what a meridian of time Jewish Jesus looked like, but what about Adam and Eve? Any guesses on skin color, eye or hair shade for them? What about nose shape? Was Adam bearded or clean shaven? Was Eve short or tall? Thin or plump? What do you think?

Furthermore: male and female? That means one of two things - either God is asexual or there are female Gods. Or maybe it's just meant to help us see past the physical characteristics. Maybe the image in question transcends differences in appearance. If people of all colors come from the same Heavenly Father, maybe we don't know as much about God as we think

What's the matter? Haven't you ever picked up a bible?

Perhaps the more important verse to remember when judging others' representations of deity is this: "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (1 Cor. 9:22). Whatever Christ is to us, he may be something quite different to someone else. I'm not talking about things like older brother, savior, master, judge. I mean things like Christ the educator, Christ the moral activist, Christ the nuclear physicist, Christ the parent, Christ the child, Christ the pilot, hero, security guard, artist, paraplegic, cultural preserver, confidant, mentor, addict, banker, construction worker, farmer, curator, cancer survivor, vocalist, best friend.

Just as important as knowing in whose image we are made is recreating the divine in our own image. This is how we relate to God. He becomes to us what we need - often by our imagining him that way -  in order for us to come to know him. For example, you will rarely (perhaps never) see a portrait of a white Jesus in a black church. Why? Not because everyone earnestly believes that Jesus really was black, but because depicting him that way reminds the congregation that Jesus knows black people of all stripes, their struggles and histories. He knows how to succor them, and is as much theirs as anyone else's. By painting Christ as a black person, the black people realize that he is on their side. He is their champion against whatever injustices or evils they face. He also becomes more approachable, because, after all, he is just like them.

The same would go for a Chinese church, or a Mexican one. Or a white church, be it British, German, French, American, or Italian. Christ belongs to the Polynesians and the Hebrews. He belongs to the Palestinians and the Russians. Every culture can have its own Christ. More, every person can have his or her own personal Christ. He is, after all, our personal Savior.

The roofer striving to follow the Lord can imagine Jesus working alongside him on the roof, sweating in the sun and helping him not to swear when a stray staple pierces his hand. The writer can visualize a savior who overcomes sin, death, and writer's block. One who gives inspiration for deeds of the pen as well as of the body. The survivor of a terrorist attack can see Christ missing the same arm she is, and learning how to walk again alongside her. The grieving parent knows how Christ also suffers at the loss of his children, but has prepared a way for their return.

It is not arrogance to imagine that Christ looks like us, nor is it necessarily ignorance. Instead, it can be worship of the most pure and personal kind - the sort of worship that perfects us. By imagining that the Savior is like us we are reminding ourselves of the critical fact that we can be like him. By creating him in our image, we remember that we are created in his.


Th. said…

Three brief thoughts:

1. Why hasn't he done a roofer?

2. This is the danger of graven images. And the benefit of art. All in one.

3. I love that yuppie Jesus.

Bonus. I agree with your thesis and conclusions.1101

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