Saturday, December 15, 2007

Racial Iconography

There is an increasingly prevalent opinion among Christians that images of Jesus Christ ought to look Jewish. After all, he is a Jew. That is what he looks like. Seems reasonable.

He certainly doesn't have blonde hair and blue eyes. It is historically inaccurate to portray him with such features. Some even regard such images of him as racist.

A fewer number, it seems to me, regard as racist images of him with African features (I am more fond of these images myself), but he is not African either.

He is a Middle Eastern Jew of the first century. But is it racist, or otherwise inappropriate, to depict him as though he were a member of another race?

Icons are not images of what people look like. They are not and are not meant to be realistic images - at least not in the sense we tend to think of realism. They portray spiritual and theological realities over physical and historical realities.

an Ethiopian icon of the Baptism of Jesus
This is why, perhaps, iconographers of the Church scarcely hesitated to make images of Jesus, his mother, his apostles, and others appear just as they did. Ethiopian iconographers portrayed him as an Ethiopian. Greek iconographers portrayed him as a Greek. Russian iconographers portrayed him as a Russian. They were communicating a spiritual and theological reality. They were the Body of Christ.

If I am an early Christian Ethiopian and I know that Jesus is my brother and Mary is my mother and I am a member of the Body of Christ, it is meaningful, then, for Jesus and Mary to look like I do. Why should he look like an alien if he and I are one?

One reason we might put forward is that he is an alien to all but Middle Eastern Jews. There is a spiritual and theological reality to be communicated by this fact too: "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22) - a too often neglected reality among Christians.

I believe there is something to be learned from every trait of Christ. He is human. He is male. He is Jewish. He lived in the Middle East in the first century. It all matters. Everything about him matters. Each particularity is significant, for he is the Logos, the incarnate Word; his is the flesh of God.

The contemporary situation of the Church is somewhat changed, at least where I live. Members of other races no longer appear alien. We go to elementary school with people of every race and are surrounded by a plurality of races all our lives.

In this situation, when we make an image of Christ for our churches, what racial characteristics ought he be given? Members of any race are liable to behold it, pray before it, contemplate his holy face. It seems to me that, in this situation, it is most sensible to portray him as a Jew.

That being said, there are contexts and subcultures to consider and there can be great meaning in an image of Christ bearing the features of any race. He bore our offenses, after all; surely he can bear our features.


christian said...

yeah there is such a clinging to historical accuracy these days. whether a story's details jive with what we know of it's setting's time and place is just as important as the truth trying to be conveyed. also, if the story's details are NOT in alignment with what we know to be historically accurate, then this somehow leads us to the conclusion that the entire story is not worth our time. it's as if truth and historical accuracy have become inextricably linked in our minds. this is ridiculous, and it's not how it's always been.

truth, lessons, parables and the like have been portrayed for as long as man has walked the earth. for most of this time, what's been most important has been the lesson. what's the moral of the story? that's what matters. truth is what matters. if 5 people witness a car accident, you get 5 different stories. is anyone lying? no. the reason you get 5 different stories is because there are 5 different vantage points and 5 different experiences. still one truth, maybe myriad truths. but the details all differ.

the same phenomenon lands on this subject. who is jesus and what should he look like? there is no racist picture of jesus. are you kidding me? the day we stop demanding historically accurate details will perhaps be the day when we can tune our minds and hearts into what matters infinitely more, our personal relationship with God.

John R.P. Russell said...

For argument's sake, Christian, would you deny that having a personal relationship with someone includes knowing what they look like?

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