Sunday, October 20, 2013

Real Jesuses Don't Sparkle

My friend the ambivalent Obama supporter linked to an amusing article on Rick Warren, the right-wing antigay Christian minister whom Obama invited to give the invocation at his first inauguration.  Warren offended a lot of Asian-American Christians by posting
a photo of a Red Guard, the young Communist cadres that policed their communities during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. The poster showed a smiling, rosy-cheeked young woman in the drab gray uniform the Red Guard typically wore.

His post (since taken down) said "The typical attitude of Saddleback Staff as they start work each day."
Many Asian-American evangelicals "were not amused," and after first berating them on his Facebook page ("It's a joke people! If you take this seriously, you really shouldn't be following me!"), Warren issued a patently insincere, pro forma apology -- you know the drill:
"If you were hurt, upset, offended or distressed by my insensitivity I am truly sorry," he wrote. "May God richly bless you."
I commented that if Warren wants to be funny, he should have a poster showing Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary (maybe a screengrab from Mel Gibson's torture-porn movie) with the same kind of caption -- "One of our volunteers after a typical day." I wonder how well that would go over with his constituency.

But maybe it would go over well: Christians are supposed to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Besides, Warren's style of Christianity is the kind that comes up with slogans like "Jesus loves you so much it hurts" or "This Blood's for you."  My friend, who's a serious Christian, admitted that I'd made him laugh.

Then today I decided to see what Rod Dreher has been up to at The American Conservative, and lo, he had just posted "Jesus Means Business," based on another Christian blogger's post about popular contemporary images of Jesus. who called the painting of Jesus in robes shaking hands with an American businessman in a suit "the most awkward Jesus painting I've ever seen."  Dreher was embarrassed by it too, though I can't see how it's more disturbing than many other more respectable images of his Lord.

Some commenters at both sites lamented the depiction of Jesus as a "white" northern European, a complaint which has become a cliche by now.  I'm not sure we really know what first-century Galilean Jews looked like; it's a mistake to assume that they look like modern Palestinians.  Since no one has any idea what the historical Jesus looked like, it's not surprising that people projected their own assumptions about him into the images they created.  So the earliest known image of Jesus, from Syria around 235, shows Jesus as a beardless Roman youth.  This was a convention in the catacombs too.  But there are pictures almost as old that give Jesus a beard.  There evidently wasn't a standard image then, and there was considerable opposition in the church leadership to any images of Jesus at all.  Worrying about how Jesus should be depicted begins to resemble the "Real Vampires Don't Sparkle" hissyfits that some have indulged since the success of the Twilight series.

Are these images any more wrong than, say, Black Jesus?  For example, do hipster-wannabe youth ministers write snarky blog posts about depictions of Jesus as a sub-Saharan African?  I'm not particularly interested in the popular question of whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth, but the Jesus of Christianity is a largely imaginary character, barely defined even by the gospel accounts, even among "traditionalist" Christians.  It's not the Jesus of first-century Galilee whom Christians worship, it's the risen and exalted Christ, who sits in the heavens at his Father's right hand, but (behold) is with his faithful followers always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  So, how do people think he should be depicted?

Someone like Rod Dreher, or even the presumably somewhat less "traditionalist" Zach of The American Jesus, can hardly object to contemporary Christians believing that Jesus Lives and is with those who believe in him, no matter where they are, no matter what they're doing.  They're embarrassed by the painting that shows the conventional (white, long-haired, bearded, robed) Jesus sitting in the Garden of Eden with a naked, nipple-less Adam and Eve, and sure, it takes a heart of stone not to giggle at that one.  But as one of Zach's commenters patiently explained, the picture is based on the orthodox, Biblical teaching that Jesus, the Word of God, always existed, and participated in the Creation (John 1:1-4).  Maybe it is seeing that sublime theological doctrine naively literalized that embarrasses them; but how are these pictures any worse than, say, conventional depictions of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, which literalize another tangled metaphor from the gospel of John?  Jesus may or may not have been a carpenter (the Greek word usually translated that way, I gather, is not so specific), but he doesn't seem ever to have been a shepherd.  I suppose it's one thing to see Jesus anachronized as a Renaissance European, and another to see that same Jesus in a twenty-first century corporate office or hospital room, let alone preparing for a ménage à trois in Eden.

Maybe their embarrassment arises also from the shock of seeing themselves as others might see them: the difference between a more sophisticated (so he likes to think) Christian and the more naive believers who are willing to shell out $1500 for a painting of Jesus in the executive suite is a difference of degree rather than of kind.  It's easy to laugh at these pictures, but what if you begin to suspect that some of your settled beliefs are just as laughable to someone else?  One remedy, I suppose, would be a thoroughgoing iconoclasm, refusing to tolerate any images of God or Jesus at all, but it's a bit late for that.  Another might be to fall back on the New Testament teaching that of course the worldly will laugh at Christians' simple, humble, scandalous beliefs; the believer should brush their laughter aside, knowing that their repayment awaits them in Hell.  But that would imply that Dreher and Zach and others who laugh at these pictures are worldly too, siding with the heathen, and their own salvation might be in doubt.

I wonder how literally the people who like (and buy) these pictures really take them.  Probably they do believe literally that Jesus is with them, some of the time anyway, even if they can't feel his presence.  And how else are you going to show that belief visually, if not by taking the conventional image of Jesus and plopping him down in the present, robes and beard and long hair and all?  Once again, it seems to me, it's the antiliteralists, the people who'd insist on a non-literal approach to the Bible, who are taking these pictures more literally than they were intended.