How should we depict Jesus? Is there one particular way in which we should portray Jesus? What would make a wrong depiction of Jesus, if anything? To get you thinking, here’s a useful page from Rejesus.
As in previous posts, I began a series of designs for ES using the image of a Jesus puppet. Here’s the latest:
- Different; distinctive
- Fun; engaging
- Cute; perhaps childish
- Tacky; cheesy
- Disrespectful; mocking of Jesus
I went on a hunt for some other depictions of Jesus as alternatives.
Firstly, I went back to the early iconic representations of Jesus as Pantocrator (ruler of all) such as the following image:
Here’s one draft I produced using a Pantocrator:
Then I toyed briefly with using a heavily incarnational image, using a photo of an “ordinary” person, such as Bono. I drafted this design featuring a young Joe Strummer (The Clash) just because he looks cool:
I also glanced at the manga Jesus
of the Manga Bible. [Ed: this one isn’t Manga Bible Jesus!]
If the Jesus puppet is an inappropriate depiction of Jesus, what is appropriate? The iconic representations of Jesus are almost invariably stern and forbidding. The incarnational images tend to be too ordinary: they are not recognisably Jesus. The manga Jesus exudes adolescent image-consciousness and wannabe edginess. The vast majority of other modern images of Jesus are either cringe-inducing or kitschy.
I’m reminded here of Piss Christ by Andres Serrano (1987). It’s a photograph of a crucifix suspended in the artist’s own urine. Some Christians are outraged that someone would have the gall to depict Christ in such a denigrating way. I agree that, just as the artist literally pisses on Christ in this work, its message is about the utter denigration of Christ. Is this perhaps simply reflective of society’s derision of Jesus, or religion, or tradition? The denigration of Christ is actually what makes Piss Christ so powerful for me, so evocative of what Christ has done for me as a Christian. I despised God, yet Jesus is the one who was willingly crushed for my sins (Philippians 2:5-11, Isaiah 53:5). It was for my sins that, following his Father’s will, Jesus went to the cross. In a very real way, I have pissed on Christ. In my rebellion I have rejected the living God who made me. Yet, gloriously, Christ willingly bore my sins in death and did away with them forever, bringing me life. For me, that’s the message that Piss Christ presents in such a visceral, gut-wrenching way. Here’s someone else’s reflections on this.
Why do I bring up Piss Christ? When Jesus is depicted in deliberately irreverent ways, perhaps others are just doing some more Piss Christ. It occurs to me that Jesus survived being pissed on at the cross. I think he will survive such trite dribbles too. I think he will probably also survive his grotesque life in kitsch, despite his eager Christian consumers. It is Christians themselves who propagate some of the most bizarre depictions of Jesus (which I find alternatively creepy, amusing or embarrassing).
If Jesus is bigger than art, does that mean we don’t need to worry about how Christians depict Jesus? Artistic depictions of Jesus are always enculturated. Jesus himself was born a Jew in Palestine. In a similar way, we now have black Jesus and manga Jesus and so on: Jesus is perennially re-figured to speak to new groups of people. While it is easy to point out bad depictions of Jesus, it is simply impossible to find a universally ideal depiction of Jesus. (Luckily the original is at God’s right hand, waiting to get back.) Because different people view art differently, one Christian’s Sacred-Heart Jesus is another Christian’s nightmare. In this melting pot we now also have pomo Jesus: images of Jesus that highlight the shortcomings of other Jesus-depictions. In this sense, a friend suggested I use a life-size cut-out Jesus, as seen in Mark Sayers’ The Trouble with Paris. This 2D, portable Jesus is an ironic challenge: it’s ridiculous to try making Jesus who we want him to be.
I assume that an appropriate, biblically faithful depiction of Jesus must be an image that will communicate to rather than alienate most of its viewers in a particular time and place. I think this is where the puppet fits in nicely for the purposes of the ES design. Like the cut-out, the puppet has a built-in ambiguity or question. It is simply a puppet depicting a somewhat stereotypical Jesus. It leads us to wonder who the real Jesus might be. The puppet’s pose is one of speaking and welcoming: will we then respond and “meet Jesus at uni”? The actual Jesus puppet is sold online for communicating the gospel to children. Perhaps this nicely captures the sense in which each of us should prepare to meet Jesus (Lk 10:21, 18:15-17). Rather than being irreverent, I think the puppet shows a Jesus who can be questioned and challenged, and who will make himself known in response. Ironically, I think the puppet suggests a robust Jesus.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.