We who live and breathe pop are well versed in the power of images. We keenly know how Andy Warhol turned a soup can into an icon. We all logged on when Lady Gaga made a fashion statement out of meat. We can appreciate how even a political firebrand like Malcolm X cast himself in photographs that spoke volumes beyond his oratory and writing.
So it should come as no surprise that pop has been a battleground for contesting the visage of no less a figure than Jesus Christ. Throughout American history, audiences have sought visual representations of Christ that conformed to their notions of justice, their ideas about faith, and their sense of self in relation to their standings within the power structure. Visual artists and filmmakers have taken up the challenge, riffing on previous expressions to portray how Christ ought to look in their eras. Instead of remaking themselves in Christ’s image, however, Americans have spent an awful lot of time remaking Christ’s image for themselves.
That’s the central theme of The Color of Christ, a fascinating book that’s largely about race (its subtitle is “The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America”), but also has something to say about the centrality of art, both high and pop, to how Americans have historically interpreted not only religion, but also America itself.
Race in America may have been considered mostly a black-white issue throughout much of its history, but authors Edward Blum and Paul Harvey pursue a story of four separate communities—white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, African-Americans, Native Americans, and Mormons – with disparate belief systems and agendas. Throughout the book, not just artists but theologians, activists, educators and everyday people from each of these groups weigh in on what Christ meant to them, and subsequently how he ought to look.
It’s been such a contentious issue in part because there’s no definitive answer. There are no specific descriptions in the Bible of how Christ looked, the authors state. Moreover, references to visions of Christ in early colonial times were to a spirit of light, not a person of flesh. That changed in the 19th Century, when white Americans hitched their religious and political beliefs to a document written centuries before, and long since derided as a fraud. The “Publius Lentulus letter” purported to describe Christ as:
“… a man of medium size… 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 … 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.”
The letter had already been widely discredited by religious scholars (for starters, there was no such person as its purported author), but in perhaps the ultimate case of printing the legend, white Americans seized upon it as empirical, uncontestable proof. White artists began casting images of Christ along these lines, reinforcing the dominance of whiteness in American life.
Black and native Americans had different ideas about what Christ meant, based in part on their experiences on the wrong end of white hegemony. While they and their supporters had righteous indignation and a passionate, socially-based interpretation of the Bible on their side, what they didn’t have was the means of production. Religious publishers started churning out product featuring images of a white Christ based on the spurious letter, even as debates about the morality of slavery threatened to rend the nation asunder.
Blum and Harvey delineate how interpretations of Christ shifted in the years after the Civil War. Between the defeat of the South and the influx of European immigrants, Christ’s image was gradually recast to be less Middle Eastern (and Jewish) and more Anglo-Saxon (following, as it turned out, what the Mormons were already doing out West). This image was also harder-edged and more masculine than previous ones, all to link Christ with a uniquely American sense of strength and benevolence – and a reinforced belief in Christ as white. That interpretation became codified early in the 20th Century, thanks in large part to Hollywood.
D.W. Griffith followed up his notorious opus Birth of a Nation with Intolerance (1916), in which he cast the actor who played Confederate hero Robert E. Lee as Christ. The film placed Christ’s death at the feet of Jews, cementing a sense of Christ as a purely white paragon of decency by playing off both age-old anti-Semitism and more recent American xenophobia. Griffith’s work, abhorrent as it was then and still is now, helped establish the nascent film industry as a respectable medium by using it to tell morality tales, as opposed to the simple entertainments that church folk disdained. Subsequent Hollywood product like Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1927) sealed the deal for generations.
Meanwhile, blacks continued to combat the image of a Christ that seemed to reflect all-American values instead of strictly Biblical ones. Turn-of-the-century writers, including W.E.B. DuBois, re-asserted Christ’s non-whiteness, while Henry Ossawa Tanner’s paintings of a Christ with dark skin drew international acclaim. Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association took it one step or so further, boldly asserting that Christ had black blood and was killed by whites. Garvey’s movement faltered, but the idea of a racialized Christ with special love for blacks and other oppressed peoples never completely did.
As those battles continued, a new image of a white Christ supplanted all previous models. Warner Sallman created “Head of Christ” in 1941; Blum and Harvey estimate the image had been reproduced half a billion times by the ‘80s. This Christ, created with the inspiration of a professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, was gazing off into the distance, an aura of light gracing him. It also had blonde hair and blue eyes. Through the twin engines of popular acceptance and sheer mass production, it became the de facto model for all renditions to follow.
And follow they did. By the turbulent ‘60s, everybody was claiming a version of Christ that was in tune with their social and political beliefs – and each one of them was a response in one form or another to Sallman’s creation. Black folk had their notions, other non-whites had their notions, and show business had Jesus Christ Superstar, a retelling of Christ’s life for the flower-power generation. The ‘90s era of multiculturalism would give us yet another spin on Christ – “Jesus of the People”, a multiracial, feminine picture created by Janet McKenzie, a white woman.
Blum and Harvey bring the history up to the moment, discussing the post-millennial portrayal of Christ in South Park, The Passion of the Christ and Dogma. To be fair, Color of Christ isn’t a book about pop culture per se (nor is there much theological discussion). Rather, it’s an eye-opening look at how not just the image but also the idea of Christ has shifted within varying communities and schools of thought throughout American history (and much credit to the authors for including native American culture and faith as a central part of their story), with much of that shifting inexorably tied to race. Ultimately, this is less about Christ’s ethnicity than his meaning, as spun and re-spun since the days of the Puritans. But invariably, those ideas have been expressed and disseminated through the mass visual media and culture of the day.
One suspects that Christ himself would be amazed at all the ways we’ve tried to define him.