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On our image of Jesus

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

 

Images of Christ, reflecting the very physicality of his incarnation, have the power to inform not only how we understand God, but also how we treat one another.

Arora, Arun. Stick with Love (p. 9). SPCK. Kindle Edition.

 

Arun Arora brings up the interesting problem of our way of imagining Jesus Christ in his advent book, Stick with Love.  In my wish to keep book reviews fairly short, I cut this issue out of the previous blog, to present it here.  The idea with this little essay is to give your own vision of Jesus some thought.


Here below we see some Wiki Commons images of Jesus of Nazareth (unsurprisingly, there exists no ‘African Jesus’ or ‘Pakistani Jesus’ on this site).  As you look at them, ask yourself, “Which one of these looks most like the master of the universe to me, or the most like Jesus should have looked, and why?”



   

You can see the problem Arun Arora is speaking about -- at least from a psychological perspective -- when you look closely at these images of Jesus.  Yes, it looks like we have a North African, perhaps a Scotsman, a Jew and a white American guy.  But more than that, to me at least, these physical bodies carry in them the trace of personality.  That’s what makes them good portraits. The first guy is a bit frightening to me, certainly very intense:  it’s an artist’s rendering of the shroud of Turin.  I would prefer this one not be the master of the universe, thank you very much.  The second is closer to my personal impression of Jesus and says, “I see you: don’t think I don’t know what’s going on.” The third says "I do see you and I do forgive you."  (I do wish I were more like that.) And the fourth is somewhat vacuous and not a whit mystical. To me (but maybe not to you), it does shout “You can never be as pure as I am!”


Now here is another set of images.  Which one do you like most, and why?  Which one corresponds to your personal image of God?




 

Now ask yourself:  If God, the creator of the universe, begat a son who could be ‘God on earth’, what would be the implications for your own faith if that God/Man were:

1.      Frightening and intense

2.      Intellectual and wary

3.      Knowing and forgiving

4.      Dreamy, pure and other-worldly 

5.      Impassive, mature, stable and direct 

6.      Cool, dominant and graceful 

7.      Sad, heartbroken even

8.      Surprised, joyful, watchful 

9.      Pure intellect, an architect of geometrical and mathematical principles


How you imagine Jesus physically and emotionally does have a powerful effect on your beliefs about God, don’t you think?


Aside from the ‘metaphysical’ issues that a few of these visions of Jesus present (for example, how can pure intellect have an effect on the material world, or why would God send a Jesus to earth who wished to entirely ignore human experience?), I think you can see, there is a difference between believing your God is mostly full of surprise and joy, and that he is mostly dark, jealous and angry.


This is how I personally was able to make sense of Arora’s remark.  And yet, this is not what Arun Arora is talking about.  He is concerned with the relationship between the imagined race of God and social justice. Clearly, if 90% of the major heroic figures in the Bible look like this:



and you look like this:



your image of yourself as a child of God will be different from what it is today.  But how different?


Arora’s analysis is related not to psychology, but to social justice. Would a different image of God have led to a more just world, he asks? Would slavery have existed if God had been an African in our imaginations, he wonders? Why do we see God as a white guy? Christianity, he reminds us, is not a white religion, even if we human beings tend to imagine the most powerful being in the universe, the one with whom we carry on the most intimate psychological relationship, the one whom we see as Thou, as very much like us, Arun says.  He is right to ask these questions.

 

You can find arguments on YouTube that suggest Jesus was black. (I kind of like the scenario that goes "What if Jesus was a heavy African-American guy who lives in California, enjoys hip-hop, has run-ins with the LA police and turns mineral water into brandy...") I don’t think any of them are very good arguments, but I frankly wouldn’t care if such an idea were true.

 

Still, in my case, I see Jesus as a very tall Jewish guy, not as a portly blond old-girl. Some of my more progressive friends want to ask, “Why a guy?”  Well, clearly, God and Jesus are men in the Bible. But it occurs to me also that God’s maleness underlies his otherness from me.  And other he is. 

 

As for the argument, “Would man have enslaved his brothers and sisters had God been African in our imagination?” I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!”.  Think of Nazi Germany’s use of slave labour from surrounding countries. 

 

Let me not, in these remarks, under-estimate the grinding, humiliating, stressful experience of people of colour who have to deal with racism every day, every minute of their lives.  Let me not forget that the suggestion – said or unsaid, -- that they are not made of the same stuff as the ecru-coloured Lords and Ladies and housewives and policemen and bourgeoises and other masters and mistresses of the human universe.  Let me not forget that this erodes one’s self-esteem, and were I the one dealing with it, it would make me feel different in an angry way every second of life. 

 

At the same time, feeling oneself to be different from God is a good thing. God’s difference from me is underlined in the Bible. The facts of Jesus’ life are recounted there, albeit in broad strokes.  Jesus is a Jewish guy.  He’s in his thirties for most of the story.  How I wish I were that young!   He does manual labour:  he is a carpenter.  He comes from an unusual home with half-brothers and sisters. Everyone knows him as a wise and zealous believer.  People think he’s crazy. He is unafraid, generous and truthful.  He is average looking. To the degree that these concrete facts about Jesus are known, we can know how different we are from him, even as human beings.  That’s a good thing.  It helps us to hold a relatively precise impression of him (as a man anyway) in our minds when we pray.

 

As God, there is no way to have a precise impression of Him. God is totaliter aliter, if you will excuse my bad Latin.  He exists in an entirely different way from us. We are not of the same stuff as our creator, who is neither male nor female and who does not have skin of any colour at all, but whose justice we will all have to face one day.  Let us pray He sticks with love when we stand before him.

 

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