Jul  2016 05
The Color of Your Christ

On a drive to St. Louis last week, I listened to a very good, engaging book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, by Edward Blum and Paul Harvey (2012). I was reminded again how art powerfully advances and challenges agendas. The book’s story is how the visual arts have been used in America to shape racial perceptions of Jesus, Christianity, and the social order.

The Puritans did not think it was proper to display Jesus visually—too “papist” and too likely to fix the imagination on an idol.

Interestingly for me: my in-law grandparents from a previous life were Wisconsin Synod Lutheran (if you don’t know anything about the Wisconsin Synod, you may know the Missouri Synod; the Missouri Synod looks liberal in comparison to the Wisconsin branch of the Lutheran tree). My in-laws held the same viewpoint as the Puritans—no visual representations of Jesus.

Blum and Harvey tell how my early 19th century forbears in Methodism, along with Baptists and (later) Mormons, had no such scruples.

Coupling an evangelistic agenda with a national distribution system and, as the 19th century progressed, with a (sometimes very explicit) racial agenda, images of Jesus multiplied. Jesus went from shrouded in white to being very white, Caucasian, Northern European.

The authors of The Color of Christ make extensive reference to a fraudulent letter to which many white Protestant leaders of the time (and some even today!) made reference, the letter of Publius Lentulus.

The letter was alleged to be from a Roman official at the time of Jesus who described Jesus this way:

His hair is of the colour of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and very cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the colour of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin. His aspect is simple and mature, his eyes are changeable and bright.

The fact that Lentulus never existed and that the letter was long suspected to be (indeed, is) a medieval or early Renaissance forgery did not dissuade many race-conscious white Protestants from using the description to promote white supremacy, as arguments over slavery heated up and then as white supremacy was reimagined after the Civil War by the KKK and others who breathed the air of Jim Crow.

Imagining Christ in the trajectory set by those who promoted the authenticity of Publius Lentulus set a context for the positive reception of this painting, so well-known throughout the world.

When you imagine Jesus, or for those of us who are Christian and pray, if Jesus is addressed in your devotional life, has Walter Sallman’s 1940 “Head of Christ” shaped your imagination? Until I read Frederick Buechner and Lee Boltin’s 1974 book Faces of Jesus, with representations of Jesus from all over the world, Sallman’s Head of Christ dominated my imagination.

Years ago, I read the account of a church where the pastor sent the Christian flag out for cleaning and no one said, "Boo." Then when he sent the American flag to be cleaned, there was a firestorm of outrage because the flag was gone.

I’d bet that removing a copy of Sallman’s painting from a church wall would provoke outrage similar to a missing U.S. flag.

That dominant image of Christ still needs to be dislodged as “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Does Sallman’s painting have a hold on your imagination? Here is a little test: in 1999, Janet McKenzie painted “Jesus of the People.” She imagined Jesus this way.

Now, again for those of you who are Christian and your prayer life includes imagining Jesus: use McKenzie’s Jesus representation in your prayer for at least a week. Or better yet, put the two images—Sallman’s and McKenzie’s—side by side in your mind.

I’ll bet you’ll surface all kinds of assumptions about who you think Jesus is, who God is, and also some assumptions about race and gender that you might now have known you had.

Sometimes I think artists should keep multiplying images of Jesus, so that no one image can reign supreme. But when I consider the power of one received image to dominate and therefore to distort, I think our Puritan cousins and my ex-in-laws were onto something important.


If you’re interested in the topic above, there is a very good interview with the authors online.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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