Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Color of Jesus

Last Tuesday I found myself overlooking Los Angeles atop a travertine terrace at the Getty Museum, hosted by the wonderful people of Biola University.  Having journeyed throughout the Mediterranean studying Byzantine art, I realized then that Katy Perry is right: You can travel the world, and nothing comes close to the Golden Coast.  In fact, many of the Byzantine icons that I studied had just found their way to California as well. A few hours later we zoomed down the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu to enjoy the opening of the Byzantium show at the Getty Villa. The icons on display there included some old friends.
Gospel book, Ethiopia, about 1504–1505

But little did I know that an iconoclastic controversy of its own was brewing in the area, one not entirely dissimilar to Byzantium's. And for the purposes of that conversation, the Getty image most pertinent was not one of the magnificent icons on loan from Greece, but one of the Ethiopian manuscripts on display, a frank reminder that Christianity (pace the Nation of Islam) remains an indigenous African religion.

The debate I am referring to concerns the ethnicity of a towering depiction of Jesus at Biola, Kent Twitchell's The Word. Theologian Matt Jenson explains the background of the controversy, and introduces the Cultural Encounters issue dedicated it. Let me offer some highlights from this excellent series of articles.  

Biola art professor Barry Krammes writes of being paralyzed when a young African American turned to him in a recent discussion about the Biola Jesus and said, "If you loved me as your brother in Christ you'd be willing to have that mural removed." And yet, Barry brings some necessary background to the debate.  He recalled that in the spring of 1993, students offered similar concerns, and after hearing them, Twitchell himself "offered to pay to have the mural sandblasted off the wall." Faced with such a humble reaction, the students relented.  The art, after all, was modeled after a Russian Jew, and it was also a gift that has come to symbolize Biola, even showing up on ID cards.  
"The Word" by Kent Twitchell at Biola

Of course there are the standard iconoclastic objections as well, to which Jenson responds with characteristic lucidity. His article will be a go-to resource for me to give to Protestants skeptical about icons from this point on. Summarizing John of Damascus, Jenson put it this way: 
It would be presumption to say that we can straightforwardly image God.  But, if God has given us an image of himself in the incarnation of his Son - a Son who could be seen - then we have warrant...  Our imaging of God takes its cures from and is ruled by the incarnation, in which he made himself visible and known.
Jenson adds that John Calvin's iconoclasm "wrongly conflates use and abuse."  And yet, Jenson admits this does not necessarily justify the Biola mural.  "I do not think ours is a case where people value the Jesus mural so highly that they confuse it with Jesus.  No, the danger comes in our very familiarity with the image." 

This in turn leads to a very forceful argument against the mural from Brad Christerson: "For many people of African, Asian, and Native American descent, European portrayals of Jesus are a symbol and a reminder of how Christianity was used to legitimize the conquest and political/economic domination of their people." Christerson makes a strong case for removal, not least of which, "it hurts our current and potential relationships with many individuals and communities of color in our city and around the world."

Agreeing with Christerson's principles, Jonathan Anderson offers a magisterial take on the controversy, explaining that the key issue to be the matter of destruction
It is difficult to see how such an act would not directly contradict the very inclusiveness that we desire: it seems baldly problematic to suggest that Biola’s sensitivity toward and desire for diversity would justify the removal of an image on the grounds that we do not approve of the ethnicity [Russian Jew] of the model that Twitchell chose for the image. 
Scott Haskins and Kent Twitchell conserving
But nor does Anderson merely endorse the image. He adds that "One of the problems that have contributed to this controversy is the singularity of the mural: it is by far the largest, most notable, and most visible artwork in the university’s relatively small art collection..." And this is the insight that appears to have enabled Biola to move ahead.

In the concluding essay, Biola president Barry Corey explains his decision to restore the mural.  It partly resulted from the knowledge that elsewhere in Los Angeles the same artist had painted a brown Jesus that had helped faciliate between rival gangs. And yet, there is not a hint of triumphalism in Corey's essay.  "Today when I pass the Jesus mural and strain my neck to look up, I feel more of the sorrow of my brothers and sisters who have struggled to move on after my decision."  The choice to keep the mural came with the new initiative of the Mosaic Cultural Center to encourage more diversity on campus, and to think more seriously about how art is displayed.

Mystical Body

There is little to add to this illuminating discussion other than to suggest a way to frame the insights that have already arisen within it.  In his difficult book, Corpus Mysticum (Mystical Body), Henri de Lubac recovered the lost medieval understanding of the threefold body of Christ.  These three angles are not segments as much as they are aspects of the one mystical body, the totus Christus (total Christ).  These aspects include...
1.  The historical, raised body
2.  The Eucharistic body
3.  The Ecclesial body
When applied to images of Jesus, de Lubac's distinctions should cause us to ask, "Which of these three aspects is the artist trying to depict?" 

1. If the aim is to depict Jesus in the first sense, then emphasizing his Jewish ethnicity is essential.  The objection against white or black Jesuses on historical grounds would then, and only then, be legitimate.    

2. But in the other two categories, things get more interesting, because the natural body of Jesus does not play by our rules.  The body of Christ also appears in or as (prepositions are very difficult here) bread. Artists have endlessly depicted this Eucharistic body as well (see, for example, the wonderful summary by Wheaton art history major Maddie Johnston of our recent Art Institute conference on this very subject). 

3. But what about when the bread is consumed by all and sundry, and works its way into bodies of every concievable ethnicity?  It is here - in the ecclesial depictions of Jesus - where multiple ethinicities are permissible, and even demanded.  In his article, Matt Jenson did make a move in this direction by quoting Peter Leithart:  "We see His face in the face of His brothers, our brothers... and this justifies, too, the practice of depicting Jesus in culturally specific ways.  Jesus can be depicted as a black man (or an Asian, or a South Sea Islander), because some of His brothers are black."  But should we not add sisters to that as well? 
Gregory Schreck, "Jesus is stripped Naked"

Hesitation in this direction only comes from not being clear about de Lubac's three categories.  Of course Jesus was Jewish, and of course he was male (in the first of de Lubac's three senses).   But if the Jesus being depicted is not the raised Jesus, or the Eucharistic Jesus, but his body as reflected in the church (which obviously includes women) then such images are warranted. 

Take, for example, this photograph in  Gregory Schreck's profound Via Dolorosa series. Schreck does not believe the historical Christ was literally female any more than he believes his wife Karen, who served as a model for the Virgin Mary in the same series, was actually Jesus's mom.  Instead, Schreck's stations operate in de Lubac's third sense.  They "simply" remind us (if only it were so simple!) that the suffering of women, perhaps most especially the suffering of rape so delicately alluded to here, is also the suffering of Christ – a thought that, we can hope, might summon the hesitation of some future assailant. 

Black Jesus, White Christians

At the same time, one disturbing trend with these more flexible images of Jesus in the third sense - black and white, male and female - is where they are displayed.  Edward Blum's The Color of Christ tells the famous story of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  In 1963 a bomb killed four girls of this black congregation, and blew out the image of a white Jesus in the process.  It was replaced with the image to the left, which announces - quite correctly - "You did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). 
16th St. Baptist, Birmingham, AL

The problem, it seems to me, is not with the image, but with the fact that this is not the church where the black Jesus needs to be displayed.  It should also be in white-majority churches who need to be reminded of the crime!  Perhaps it is white Christians who primarily need the black Jesus, and possibly the reverse scenario should be contemplated as well in order to foster enemy love.  We might then defend Warner Sallman's controversial Jesus - so long as it is exhibited outside of primarily white scenarios. And in turn, the black Jesus should not just be for black congregations (pace Father Pfleger), but for more white environments as well. 

Admittedly, worship settings might not be the best place for such experimentation, but Christian colleges possibly are. In fact, something like this did happen at Wheaton during a recent flare up of racial tension.  Art professor Jeremy Botts took Marion Perkins's black Jesus, made a massive print of it, and hung it in the stairwell of our art department, because it is white Christian (the majority at Wheaton) who most need to be reminded of the black aspects of the body of Christ. Come to think of it, we need a native Jesus as well (and there are many).  It is serendipitous that the issue of Cultural Encounters in which the Biola discussion appeared also begins with a memorial to the primary voice for Native Americans among evangelicals in the last decades, Richard Twiss.  As Steve Charleston points out (in a way that nicely converges with de Lubac), “While as a man Jesus was a Jew, as the risen Christ, he is a Navajo. Or a Kiowa. Or a Choctaw. Or any other tribe.”  

Marion Perkins's Man of Sorrows
It light of such possibilities, it is exciting to think how the iconography of such a beautiful Southern California campus as Biola might evolve in decades to come, complementing - not replacing - Twitchell's perfectly justifiable image of Christ. This would break the visual monologue at Biola that Anderson and Christerson lament. The multiplication, not the destruction of images, is what is called for. Caution is certainly called for, but who will take up the charge?  From the quality of the art department at Biola, I would imagine there are more than a few.

Diversity in (not as) Religion

The responsible and civil manner of the discussion at Biola contrasts with the screaming matches about diversity on many secular campuses.  There, diversity is often declared by fiat, until competing groups become satisfied with parallel existence, defending their allotted chunk of ethnic turf.  P.D. James called such an approach its own replacement religion. But because they already have a religion, diversity at places like Biola and Wheaton can be built on a very different, and far sturdier, foundation.

It very well may be that the interest in diversity that has trickled down to Christian colleges is because of secular academic fashion for the subject. This is to our shame, as we should have been setting the pace. Nevertheless, it is also true that diversity is being taken up in a fresh and more lasting way at places like the one where I teach. You can guilt a student into caring about diversity for four years (and even that can be difficult, if not backfire). But intertwine diversity with students' deeply held theological convictions, and they'll care about the matter for life.

And then some.