For the week of September 30th, the radio program This American Life put out a show whose theme was “Send a Message.” One of the featured stories came from Sonari Glinton, who describes a turning point in his religious life that came through elementary school. If you have eight minutes, it is so worthwhile to listen to the clip. But in case you don’t, here’s a summary: Glinton tells of how his principal, a white Irish Catholic nun named Sister Rosemary Brennan, came into his (predominantly black) fourth-grade Catholic school classroom one day, and took the crucifix off the wall. The crucifix featured a white Jesus suspended on a blonde cross. Sr. Rosemary replaced it with a crucifix featuring a black Jesus, while the class watched in stunned silence.
Finally, as she was leaving, one brave soul asked what she was doing. Without missing a beat, she turned to the fourth-graders and said, “Boys and girls, we don’t know what Jesus looked like. But chances are that he looked more like you than like me.” And then she walked out of the classroom.
Glinton acknowledges that, theologically speaking, what Jesus looks like matters far less than what he did. But despite that, he can’t under-emphasize the importance of what this switch meant to him: “When you’re a fourth grader, everything is bigger than you. Everyone is smarter than you, older. But when one day you realize that Jesus is just like you–Jesus is black–then everything short of Jesus seems possible.”
To me, this story does a brilliant job of illustrating the importance of expansive imagery for God. For centuries, the Western world has perpetuated an iconography of a Jesus that looks like this:
Or like this:
Or even like this:
Just to inject some perspective here, forensic anthropologists recently took a look at actual 1st century Palestinian skeletons, and based on reconstructions, suspect that Jesus actually looked more like this:
Excuse me? How did Jesus get to looking like a typical Middle Eastern man to having blonde hair, blue eyes, a bone structure like Fabio, and a perfectly groomed beard (please note the carefully forked styling)?!
As church history marches on, iconography tends to favor images of Jesus that look less and less like Jesus probably did, and more and more like those who are in charge of the church. Making the divine Son of God look like a white male with lighter features is a nice way to validate the favored place of white European males within church hierarchy.
And when that image of Jesus becomes the only way to image the Son of God, the message it sends to those who don’t look like that is implicit: “We’re closer to God than you are.” And that’s the message received by women, by blacks, indeed by minorities in all Western nations, by the disabled, by anyone who doesn’t fit this incredibly narrow image of what God should look like.
Women have been crying out for years the models they see every day in all kinds of media don’t actually look anything like the majority of women. They regularly protest the pressure this applies to them to conform to an impossible standard of beauty. Increasingly, there is a similarly indignant cry rising of the church, pointing out that the image of Jesus has been used to exclude, not to include. And there’s pushback, in the form of wondrously diverse images of Jesus appearing in media:
Such images can and do make people deeply uncomfortable, and some (many?) will flatly reject any Jesus aside from the one they’re familiar with. Which in itself could lead to some pretty interesting conversations: Where’s that discomfort rooted? Why is changing Jesus’ image so threatening? Is playing with Jesus’ image this way a sign that we’ve taken the song “Your Own Personal Jesus” a little too much to heart?
For me, Jesus’ image hasn’t belonged to Jesus since the ascension: it has belonged to the church. And the way the church chooses to make Jesus look speaks volumes about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to the ecclesia. If we were talking about “Jesus’ image” instead of “our image of Jesus,” then I think that image would be as beautifully varied, as diversely imaged, as humanly (and divinely!) possible.
And indeed, when we start talking about where we see Jesus, I hear the gospel turning us toward seeing Jesus not only in the long-boned, light-skinned figure on the crucifix, but in the face of the child, the stranger, the one who was naked, cold, or hungry. Jesus is imaged in the face of my neighbor. So I give thanks for the images that remind me of that, and give thanks for the people like Sr. Rosemary, who are able to show Jesus as Jesus needs to be seen.
I’d love it if you’d comment to tell me how Jesus looks to you…and maybe, how your eyes need to see Jesus. (And if that image comes out looking suspiciously like John Lennon without the glasses, please know that that’s ok.)