image-driven culture, iconography is enjoying a resurgence. Images
of Jesus seem to pop up everywhere I look these days. Eastern
Orthodox-inspired pictures of Christ adorn many a church website,
while Boy George shows off his collection of Byzantine images of
Jesus on MTV’s “Cribs.” The image of Jesus is even the subject
of the New Times website “Jesus
of the Week”, which shows off the kitschiest images of Jesus
from popular culture.
painting of Christ from the 12th century
trend is nothing new. Throughout the ages, the faithful -- and the
unfaithful -- have tried to capture the image of Jesus. There are
joyful images, sorrowful images, wrathful images, peaceful images --
each one reflecting some aspect of Jesus’ life and character, but
never, it seems, the complete picture.
science is bringing us closer to a truer view of God the Son as he
may have looked when he put on human flesh. On Easter Sunday, the
Discovery Channel aired a special about Jesus’ life, called “Jesus:
The Complete Story.” The final segments of that program - and a
huge chunk of the promotional effort for the special -- focused on
Jesus’ appearance. Armed with the latest in forensics and computer
modeling, scientists with the program reconstructed the image of a
first-century man from Palestine who lived a life similar to Jesus
and was around the age of Jesus when he died.
picture to come forth from this research may shock many churchgoers.
The reconstructed image of the first-century peasant from Palestine
looks like nothing like the idealized visions so prominent in our
art galleries. Neither Eastern Orthodox icons nor the Western
European depictions bear any resemblance to this new image.
of the People,"
a contemporary picture of Christ by Janet McKenzie
this new scientific evidence will free Jesus from the Westernized,
domesticated visions we have of him. Perhaps it will help us to see
him more as he truly was, and less as the beatific image of
Rembrandt’s or Bosch’s imaginations.
Other artists have tried to
introduce us to a different view of Christ in recent years. One
notable effort was Janet McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People,”
which won the National Catholic Reporter’s “Jesus 2000”
international art competition. The model for McKenzie’s image was
a young African-American woman.
“Jesus of the Week” site notwithstanding, this resurgence in “seeing”
Christ is probably a good thing for the church at this pivotal time
in our history. After all, the visual image is the primary unit of
cultural currency today (Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami, page
200). And for too long, we in the church have been a “people of
the book,” and out of touch with the visually-driven culture that
so, I can’t help but be bothered just a bit by this focus on the
image of Jesus. Didn’t the resurrected Jesus take his disciple
Thomas to task for having to see in order to believe? “Because you
have seen me, you have believed,” Jesus told Thomas. “Blessed
are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)
didn’t one of Jesus’ most ardent followers, Paul, instruct us to
live “by faith, not by sight”? (2 Corinthians 5:7)
find it interesting that none of the artwork of the early church
included depictions of Jesus. The earliest representations are
symbols, like the Chi Rho monogram or the ichthus symbol. In fact,
no images of Jesus appear in artwork until some 200 years after his
death. Furthermore, the gospels contain no reference to Jesus’
appearance. Perhaps that’s because they considered themselves not
purveyors of a new religion but as Jews, and they held to the
ancient Jewish teachings against graven images.
mural of Christ in Los Angeles
perhaps the ancient followers of Jesus understood the faith better
than we do today. Perhaps they understood that to follow Christ is
to accept him on his own terms, not our own -- to live by faith, not
Careaga is the author of the books eMinistry:
Connecting with the Net Generation (Kregel, 2001) and E-vangelism:
Sharing the Gospel in Cyberspace (Vital Issues Press,
1999). He also is a volunteer youth minister at Salem
Faith Assembly Church in Salem, Missouri.