Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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Joanne Pepper, PhD, Trinity Western University’s professor of anthropology and religious studies has spent years collecting and interpreting artwork by individuals from non-western cultures. From culture to culture, visually interpreting Jesus’ portrait has remained a celebrated artistic endeavour. In the following article, Pepper gives us a glimpse into her sabbatical research and shares some of her collections of Jesus from all over the world.

Langley, B.C.—Many western Christians—perhaps third- and fourth-generation believers—have a tendency to assume that a homogeneous identity of Christ is already well-known and accepted throughout the world. But that simply is not so. In the body of Christ, ethnic and cultural diversity is the biblical norm. As Sri Lankan theologian D. T. Niles has observed, images of Christ created and valued in the West are seldom appropriate models for liturgies and theologies elsewhere.

This leads to a delicate question: How ought one to depict the human form of Christ in works of art? True, Christ was not a white man, but neither was he a black African or a native North American. He was, in the providence of God, a mixture of all humanity—a cross between West and East, a coffee-with-cream complexioned man who lived in a multicultural society situated on the periphery of many of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations.

Although modern portrayals of Jesus as seen in particular cultures may not be precise representations of a New Testament Jewish worldview, they still provide an exceptional insight into the meaning of Jesus’ life, suffering and death. It is a genuine challenge for North American or European-backgrounded Christians to see how Africans, Asians or Latin Americans may picture Jesus’ interpersonal relationships, his non-attachment to possessions or to personal power and his utterly practical type of ministry.

For example, Latin American images of Christ can often startle, offend or delight—depending on one’s viewpoint. This Christ is often dark, earthy and intensely engaged with townsfolk in the daily tasks of life. His cross is rough-hewn and heavy, not a gilded jewel-encrusted spiritual ‘throne’. Sometimes Christ’s guise is as a poor labouring peasant. Other times he is an itinerant homeless evangelist, and on other occasions he appears as a revolutionary warrior. But always, he is a man of the people, a populist leader intimately concerned for the welfare of and connected to the socio-political realities of the masses. Latin American images of Christ can be seemingly grotesque, often depicting real physical marks of torture.

Though African representations of Christ can vary greatly from region to region, certain constants remain. For example, Christ is typically depicted as a sovereign ruler. He is frequently imaged as a chief receiving homage from his ‘tribespeople’ (e.g. the magi; the disciples; the mourners at the cross; the post-resurrection encounters with Mary and Thomas). In scenes of chaos or frenzy, Christ is the still point of control and calm. He is the source of safety, well-being, healing, provision and knowledge for the clans of his extended kinsmen. Is the African Christ black? Yes. For him to be owned by this people group, how can he be otherwise?

In Asian views of Christ, Jesus is often seen as the fulfillment of a cultural ideal. He is the “perfect gentleman” of Confucian social ideology. As an obedient son, Jesus wholly honours his father’s will. As a kindly older brother, he gently leads his disciples to follow his exemplary lifestyle. As a dutiful citizen, he is an active contributor to the good of his society. As a benevolent ruler, he showers those under his care with material and physical blessings. Jesus is perfect in the harmony of his passions (raging as a lion at injustice, but compliant as a lamb in sacrificing his life) and perfect in the harmony of his person (both God and man). In himself, Christ is like the completed circle of the yin and yang. He is the cosmic totality of all.

Eastern-orthodox influenced depictions of Christ frequently reveal Jesus to be a wise and learned teacher. Holding the biblical text, he is the mediator of God’s word to mankind. In iconography, Christ is always depicted in full frontal view. Hence, he is approachable and real. Though the icon image may be stylized and not a portrait per se, still, the icon is regarded as a kind of ‘photograph’ of Christ. That is, the icon is an image of a loved one with which one may freely interact. Hence, worshipers may touch, kiss or lovingly stroke an icon of Christ. His immanence is to be cherished and celebrated.

Like African images, Native North-American depictions of Christ vary depending on the tribal and regional influences of the artist. However, many of the images center on themes of suffering, or upon the quest of the warrior-chief, Christ, who defends his people and defeats enemy attacks. This Christ is bronzed, brawny and brave. He often is depicted in moments of spiritual distress or spiritual ecstasy.

A thoughtful look at different physical representations of Jesus can help stimulate a careful re-thinking of ideas about Christ and his mission—ideas which formerly may have been accepted uncritically from friends or authority figures within one’s own culture. By embracing many visual representations of Christ, we acknowledge that it is not just one era, one culture, or certain socio-economic classes or educational ranks that have meaningful connections with the divine. Rather, globally-dispersed rank and file Christians—the illiterate or the learned, the traditional or the avant-garde, the youthful or the elderly, the powerful or the powerless—can equally exhibit and express deep spiritual insight and profound theological truth.

Last Updated: 2015-07-20
Author: Keela Keeping