At our Men’s Group Breakfast on Saturday, we watched a documentary called “Easter in Art,” in which we saw some of the more famous paintings and sculptures depicting Jesus’ last week on earth. One of the main pieces under discussion was Leonardo DaVinci’s iconic work “The Last Supper.”
Inevitably, conversation among the men turned to the issue of the depiction of the disciple John in the painting. Fueled by Dan Brown’s fictional conspiracies in “The DaVinci Code,” our group wondered about the accuracy of DaVinci’s work in rendering the scene. If you look closely enough, you could conclude that the character thought to be John the Baptist is actually a female. And once you start down that slippery slope, every painting or sculpture is open to reinterpretation and speculation.
The works of art in the documentary showed a number of different images of Jesus, from a soft, cherubic baby to a muscular, lean adult. Jesus is depicted as an effeminate, light-skinned rabbi and a dark-skinned, furrow-browed prophet. And that’s not including painting of Jesus on the cross, which are filled with blood and anguish. Which one of those is the most accurate? Or is the answer “none of the above”?
The documentary highlighted for me a truth I have always known, but which has become even starker for me in recent months: we simply don’t know Jesus. Even with four gospels, a bunch of Paul’s letters and approximately a zillion sermons, we still don’t truly know Jesus.
But that doesn’t stop us from drawing conclusions, does it? In his book American Jesus, historian Stephen Prothero traces the shifting identity of Jesus in our country, from the Enlightened Sage of Thomas Jefferson’s era to the Superstar of the 1960s and 70s. In each era, believers tended to cast Jesus in an image that spoke most to them, whether it was as a Sweet Savior or Manly Redeemer.
That tendency is not unique any certain group of believers. In the absence of a digital photograph or YouTube video of Jesus, our human nature is to draw our own pictures. In “Christ, the Universal Savior“, Hsu San Ch’un shows Jesus as an Asian. African-American artist Fred Carter paints Jesus as a black man in “Jesus Praying in the Garden“. And in probably the most famous painting of Jesus, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ“, Jesus is a light-haired, blue-eyed man surrounded by a soft glow of angelic light. So who’s right? Will the real Jesus please stand up?
This issue moves from a curiosity to problematic when we see Jesus being portrayed in ways that allow the portrayers to draw dividing lines between “us” and “them.” As we move deeper in this political season, in which we know religion will play a pivotal role, it will be interesting to see how the major players will maneuver to show that Jesus is on their side or, more powerfully, that Jesus is NOT on the other side.
When we move into Lent, we’ll be taking a closer look at what the Bible tells us about Jesus. I suspect we’ll end up with a much different picture of Jesus than we expect. Until then, pay attention to all the ways Jesus is portrayed in your life: through scripture, through personal conversations, and in our culture. Then be ready to see Jesus in a new light. Who is Jesus for YOU?