Sunday, April 12, 2009

recreate jesus in their own image

Here's the last of my one-year-anniversary re-posts; this one seems appropriate, given that today is a moveable feast, with so many people celebrating the resurrection of a very powerful being.

How did the common American conception of Jesus Christ get so white?

from "Black Jesus," Episode 2 of the first season (1974) of Good Times
YouTube has the entire episode, starting here

In the New York Times, Charles Grimes writes about the artist who produced America's most familiar image of a whitened Jesus:

With the race for best-known artist of the century nearly over, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol are running neck and neck, with Andrew Wyeth a respectable third. But when the official tally is made, all three are likely to be buried in a landslide vote for Warner E. Sallman.

Warner Sallman?

Sallman, who died in 1968, was a religious painter and illustrator whose most popular picture, "Head of Christ," achieved a mass popularity that makes Warhol's soup can seem positively obscure.

"Head of Christ," created in 1940, was reproduced more than 500 million times, appearing on church bulletins, calendars, posters, bookmarks, prayer cards, tracts, buttons, stickers and stationery. Tens of thousands of wallet-size copies were distributed to servicemen during World War II. In the mid-1950's, Sallman's soulful, back-lighted Jesus with flowing, shoulder-length hair gazed out from the Inspira-Clock and the Inspira-Lamp, tie-in products intended for the pious Protestant home.

"Head of Christ" (1940)
Warner Sallman

At CrossLeft, where some bloggers are "balancing the Christian voice [and] organizing the Christian left," Landon writes:

Here's how the cycle goes: From our younger days when our critical thought process is non-existent or not fully formed, we are inundated with images featuring a Jesus that does not look like he actually would have. "This is the Son of God" we are told, "This is God incarnate." So, we guess, God must be white.

It never occurs to us that God is not white when we are growing up, and the dominant image that we get of Jesus is a white guy with flowy hair. As such, if God gets equated with white then "good" also get equated with white. (you see where I'm going?) If white is good, then that means (in the little ego- and ethno-centric mind) that "not white" is "not good."

Regarding what Jesus actually looked like, Mike Fillon writes,

In the absence of evidence, our images of Jesus have been left to the imagination of artists. The influences of the artists' cultures and traditions can be profound, observes Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi, associate professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. "While Western imagery is dominant, in other parts of the world he is often shown as black, Arab or Hispanic."

And so the fundamental question remains: What did Jesus look like?

An answer has emerged from an exciting new field of science: forensic anthropology. Using methods similar to those police have developed to solve crimes, British scientists, assisted by Israeli archeologists, have re-created what they believe is the most accurate image of the most famous face in human history.


  1. It is my understanding that what they have recreated there is not the most accurate image of Jesus in particular, but an accurate average of what a man in the historical Jesus' time and place and of Jesus' ethnicity would have looked like. While it is useful to give us a sense of how wrong Sallman's painting is for the time & place when Jesus supposedly lived, it is not based on any data specific to the individual. An average is helpful, but what makes us feel like we know a person is particularity--what makes them look different from the average. We can't know that about the historical Jesus.

  2. Right, they couldn't have known exactly what the person we've come to know as Jesus looked like.

    "What makes us feel like we know a person is particularity."

    Right, which may be why so few churches and white individuals would be willing to give up their whitened Jesus for something more accurate. He's a particular (and white) type that Americans feel they know. And white Americans made him because they want him to be knowable and familiar, which means, like them. So, what kind of power for whites is there in that? Lots, I think.

    Thanks Macon for the "Good Times" link! I clicked through and watched the whole show, which WAS a good time. So different then, the sitcom mode. Smarter in some ways, and kudos to them for addressing this issue seriously within a goofy context.

  3. I don't know if Sallman was European but, Tim Wise says this in White Like Me: "[T]he whitening [Jesus] had undergone at the hands of European artists, and both Catholic and Protestant churches had always bugged me."

    When he broaches the subject at a "religiously affiliated college" someone responds, "what you're forgetting is that it really doesn't matter what color Jesus was; it only matters what he did."

    So there you have it.

  4. As if we live in a society where skin color doesn't and hasn't mattered... The idea that it doesn't is a convenient (and malicious) fantasy.

    Movies depicting Biblical events (The 10 Commandments) all conveniently paint people White. That's no coincidence. It's also absurd to paint the ancient Egyptians 'white' and anyone saying that "skin color doesn't matter" in this country with its history is simply in a state of denial (or fear).

    There are huge consequences for this... in this society. That Black doll - White doll thing is but a small indication of why it matters.

  5. Damn straight, Nquest, you beat me to it.

    I don't quite know how you read Deb's comment, but FWIW, it seems to me that she's just quoting the guy that Wise wrote about, not making a claim of her own that "we live in a society where skin color doesn't and hasn't mattered." In other words, I see her comment as an answer to the question in the post: "How did the common American conception of Jesus Christ get [and stay] so white?" I too have often heard and read (oblivious) Christian claims of that sort, that depictions of Christ's skin color don't matter. It's always from people who nevertheless go on to cling and pray to the same whitened imagery.

  6. I'm sorry, I just made a comment and it only seems like it was directed to Deb because she quoted the kind attitude I was already prepared to disagree with. I honestly didn't know how to read Deb's "so there you have it" and edited my post several times.

    I started to post a YouTube of Jesse Lee Peterson before Deb even posted. I just viewed it for the first time earlier this week. Anyway, Peterson forwarded the "color don't matter" argument while at the same time calling the idea of Blacks/African-Americans recreating Jesus in their own image "crazy" -- a term he never would apply to historically inaccurate "White" Jesus.

    But I decided against posting it because it was Jesse Lee Peterson, of all people...

  7. When I ended my post I wondered if I had to qualify that last statement. :-)

    Basically, I was trying to point out how to that guy the content of Jesus's character is all that matters; end of story. It's almost as if he's saying: "I don't see color" or "I'm colorblind." To me, such quick and dirty responses tend to imply that people like him would simply rather not talk about race, period.

  8. I've had many conversations about the Whiteness of Jesus as well as (believe it or not) Santa Claus. (I think many would allow the former to be non-White before the latter.)

    If it really "doesn't matter" what color these figures are, then it shouldn't matter if they are now routinely depicted as something else other than White. In fact, we could rotate and let different groups have Him for 100 years each....

  9. What difference does it make, if I created a fictional character I could give him whatever features i like.

  10. Do any of you have any issue with black Jesus?

    Of course not.

    The fact of the matter is, most people do not embrace the notion of multiculturalism and diversity. Walk on any college campus. The black students generally stick with all the black students. The Hispanic students with all the Hispanic students. The Muslim students with all the Muslim students, and so on. The artist of that portrait was not interested in portraying Jesus in a correct historical light, just as the artist that created "black Jesus" was not, either. The motivation of creating a portrait of a historical figure you worship as someone who looks like you and the people in your community is done as a symbol of solidarity.

    One big issue I have with this blog is that is reprimands white people for doing things that every other race, ethnicity, religion, whatever, do as well. You people do not have a problem with racism and racial supremicism, you people only have a problem with racism and supremicism when it is doled out by whites.

  11. And by stuff white people do as it pertains to this tendency, I assume you really mean stuff white men do. Unless it is common for God/Jesus to be depicted as a white woman.

  12. In all honesty, it would make a lot of sense that Jesus was Black in today's world. Jesus was not someone born into any type of privilege or status. He was someone who was discriminated against, oppressed and hated simply for who he was. Historically, people of Black African decent all over the world often face a harsher reality than White people in general. Here in America, a young Black male is six times more likely to be murdered than a White male. Black people are also statistically more likely to be poor, born into broken homes, contract HIV/AIDS and be imprisoned. It is not just an American phenomenon either, most of the Black countries in the world are extremely dangerous third world nations mired in absolute poverty and or bloody civil war (i.e. Haiti, Liberia).

    However, class and race in terms of socioeconomic status was different during Biblical times. Slavery was not limited to race as it was in America back in those times. Entire populations, regardless of race, were enslaved during this era. There were rich and poor people of all different races living in the Middle East. Ultimately, it doesn't matter what Jesus's background was; the Bible teaches timeless truths about humanity.

  13. It is not just an American phenomenon either, most of the Black countries in the world are extremely dangerous third world nations mired in absolute poverty and or bloody civil war (i.e. Haiti, Liberia).

    Way to paint a racist, inaccurate picture - or, rather, to continue to perpetuate racist beliefs about "blacks" and "civilization" being mutually-exclusive concepts. I'm not denying there is violence or poverty in those countries, just as I wouldn't deny that those same things exist in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, England, France, etc. (and not just among the black populations either). I'm well aware of media tendencies to depict, almost exclusively, the worst that black nations have to offer; the subtext is not subtle. As someone who was actually born in an African country to one of its citizens, and lived there, and as someone who has also traveled or worked in several other African nations, my experiences don't match the rampant lawlessness of the fantasy you just painted.

    Reminds me of people who claim the British/French/etc. are the ones who brought Christianity to Africa. Um, Coptic Christianity, anyone? And I wonder what image of Jesus the North + East African Christians had? I'm willing to hazard a guess that He he didn't look like the painting Macon posted. Part of the subtext of the ignorance about African Christianity seems to be based on the fact that many western Christians seem to equate christianity with civilizing/civilized people...which, of course, must be true: just look at Northern Ireland and the long, illustrious, civilized discourse that has taken place between the Protestants and the Catholics. (/sarcasm) The fantastical version of Christianity's civilizing effects couldn't possibly be reconciled with the equally-fantastical, and persistent, black dystopia.

    Anyway, the CrossLeft quote by Landon sums up the issue I've always had with representing Jesus & God as white men. If God made humans in His own image...and He's white...what does that make those who aren't white?

    I'm not saying this from a color-blind stance, or a need to avoid discussing racism, when I say that I don't need God to be a specific color or image to continue developing a spiritual life.

  14. It would seem irrational for anyone to assume that Jesus was a white man. I mean, of course he wasn't.


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