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Depicting Jesus

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:

There have been a range of responses to the puppet:

  • 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.

Categories: Design Jesus Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

8 replies

  1. That’s a cool dissemination, Arthur.

    For what it’s worth, while I think your justification for the puppet Jesus is interesting and thought-provoking, my first impression of it was that it was a bit “saccharine” and at odds with the rest of the graphic material used in the series of cards, which are all distressed photo-realistic images.

    Personally, I’m of the opinion that any depiction of Jesus can and even should be explored, from the kitsch to the reverent to the blasphemous and sacrilegious.

    Why? Without going into too much detail, I’ve always been of the opinion that art imitates life, and therefore any depiction of Jesus, scandalous or otherwise, is part of the ongoing conversation about Him in the world. To get too precious about images of Jesus is to refuse to enter the most important conversation in our culture for the sake of religious piety, and is often counter-productive (for example, Christians denouncing movies like The Da Vinci Code or The Golden Compass).

    So, I say bring it on and let the artists create – every possible thought and depiction of Jesus is a valuable statement in the great conversation.

  2. I’ve written this largely to explore how the puppet could be an appropriate image, as some have seen it as unacceptable. I think the puppet works at the levels I discussed but I don’t think it’s ideal (I don’t think any image will be). I won’t defend it to the death or anything! I can see how the puppet is sugary — but then again, could that be part of its ironic ambiguity?

    We can get too precious about images at times, hey! (That’s partly why I think Rejesus is so effective: it opens up and taps into discussion.)

    I agree that every depiction of Jesus is potentially a conversation-starter, but I wonder what makes an image of Jesus worth using in Christian marketing in particular (especially Christian marketing TO Christians). On one level, I think it would be great to use a REALLY provocative and confronting image of Jesus to open up conversation — but I reckon that would risk alienating more people, probably Christians in particular. (The brochure is largely pitched at churches and Christian high school churches — I’ll post the text from the back at some point too.)

    I’m interested to hear more about your thoughts on art. I reckon modern art is frequently about what people think and what’s “gone wrong” rather than what’s “meant to be”. Sometimes that’s intentional on the part of the artist — who is perhaps trying to reflect broken realities — but often I suspect it’s not. That’s the sense in which I think art imitates life…

  3. Good discussion, I’m always constantly trying to understand the relationship between God and art and in particular what the heck Christian art is, or even if it should exist as separate. The fact is it does exist as a separate entity, it’s a market and an industry too.

    I think Tommy has opened up a good point, should any and every depiction of Jesus be explored?

    I’m no expert in the history of Christian art, but I’m guessing that 99% of it falls in the category of iconography. Do you ever watch the Pilot Guide travel shows on ABC? Whenever they go to the Middle East or Latin America or any place Christianity (namely Catholicism) is ingrained in the culture, they always have these wacky and sometimes massive religious gift shops. Glow-in-the-dark Virgin Mary’s and everything Virgin Mary. She’s not just a brand but she is a religion. The religious icon itself has become the religion. Iconography is the religion. Now we bible-believing Christians haven’t progressed to this stage, but are we far away?

    When we try to put down an image of Jesus we’re stuck in preconceived ideas of what Jesus does (and doesn’t) look like. Even if we have Jesus in our lives actively and spiritually, we cannot place Him in human form that is anymore Jesus than Sacred Heart Jesus or Puppet Jesus. As far as I can tell, Jesus was human form for roughly 33 years… now, is he still human now? We believe he existed from creation to the end of time in the Godhead. Isn’t this exactly the Jesus we’re trying to market… the one who is alive in everyone who calls him Lord? Then we have John’s depictions of Jesus in Revelation. Amazing, precise imagery of Jesus but he consists of all these symbols. Not only a far cry from puppet Jesus but also a far cry from what we presume him to be like in the gospels, physically.

    Because of this I think there is absolutely no way you could ever give an image of Jesus perfectly. Even if you had a vision or a dream and remembered vividly and drew it down, even if you knew Jesus personally from Palestine in the first century. Does that make sense? I guess what I’m trying to say is there is more to Jesus than trying to represent his own flesh, however that is the very reason people follow Jesus, there is nothing more you need to know about Jesus than his very own flesh and blood. Therefore, is the best image representation of Jesus simply communion? Although it’s important, it’s still simulation. Unless you actually believe the wine is actually the blood of Christ. I go to a baptist church so the grape juice just cancels any chance of that out.

    The thing is, the puppet is 100% Jesus and 0% Jesus at the same time. It’s 100% because the brochure indicates it is, there are also a number of signifiers that indicate it is Jesus, albeit a puppet. But also 0% because it’s not Jesus because it’s not Jesus. It’s 100% simulation and 0% reality. What left of our faith isn’t simulation? If I thought absolutely nothing then I would give up on being a Christian, I follow a living God. However our culture is thick full of simulation that a church is going to be swimming in it too.

    I think the reason some people didn’t like the puppet is because they don’t affiliate Jesus and irony. There is irony in every depiction of Jesus (the irony often is that it’s a simulation of reality) so the idea of the puppet isn’t far fetched. What is the reality of meeting Jesus at uni? Well we probably know that ES is known for lots of bible teaching, however the bible is useless without people to speak it. So logically the next step in thinking is to have a picture of people with the bible. Problem solved. Apart from the fact it only briefly depicts one process of meeting Jesus, it creates so many boundaries. Overall it’s pretty soft, broad and not going to draw people in, even if there is more implied reality.

    Earlier I asked if we were far away from iconography being the religion itself. I say this because the message has become the medium, i.e. the religion has become the icon. As for us, the soft and unexplored ideas of image have become the message for the soft, close-minded modern church.

    There’s lots more to be said on many topics, I’ll leave it there though.

  4. Thanks Marty. Strangely, the eternal Son of God is now forever Jesus the man — Jesus didn’t “leave” his incarnation after his ascension. But like you said, Jesus the Son has “morphed” a couple of times! First his incarnation, then his glorified resurrection body — still (eventually) recognisable to the disciples… And now he lives in our hearts by his Spirit. I wonder what this means for our depictions of the Jesus as a baby, or as crucified? Of course Jesus was both of those things, and they’re both aspects for which we praise God. But now Jesus is the risen, reigning Lord who will return to judge — should our depictions focus on this? I always wonder if a strong artistic emphasis on the crucified Jesus, for example in South American Christianity, or perhaps Jesus the teacher, means that Christians lose sight of the risen Jesus.

    This is where I think the faith, not sight thing might be confusing — our hope is all in things waiting to be revealed that we can’t yet see (Rom 8:23-25), so how do we depict them at all? You’ve brought up our “Plan C”, the image of the students meeting together. And I agree: it’s not a particularly striking image, and how do we indicate that there is more to it than meets the eye?

  5. Arthur, I think your justifications for the Puppet image are great – I think the only real problem is a graphical one – I definitely “get” the irony and think it works well.

    Marty, as far as Christian art goes, there’s a great book on the subject called Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts by Steve Turner. It’s a great look at the movements and challenges of Christian arts and artists past and present.

  6. I liked the puppet, because I considered it may engage not-yet-christians much more than other images. Any ‘Christian’ should know that the depiction of Jesus can never be done accurately and is a trivial issue. Any critics should be ashamed for wasting their breath.
    I liked that scene from “The Trouble with Paris” – the whole thing is worth watching/reading!!

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