Friday, January 01, 2010

How did we get a white Jesus?

 Before I note the possible consequences of a white Jesus, I thought this comment from Curtiss DeYoung's book, about a 4th century forged letter that seems to have given some of the details of our typical picture of Jesus.  The letter is supposed to have come from a Publius Lentulus,  a friend of Pontius Pilate.

His hair is the colour of wine [probably meaning yellow' and golden at the root -- straight and without lustre -- but from the level of the ears curling and glossy, and divided down the centre after the fashion of the Nazarenes [Nazarites] . . . His beard is full, of the same colour as his hair, and forked in form:  His eyes blue extremely brilliant. (Coming Together in the 21st Century, p. 55)
DeYoung writes that the European portrayal of Jesus was culturally appropriate.  The problem is, over time this depiction became dominant, and as such became useful in European colonial actions.

He writes: 

A white Jesus served the purpose of being God's stamp of approval on the actions of white people.  Such an image was also useful for demonstrating that white people were superior to people of color by virtue of of the whiteness of Jesus.  The propagation of white images of Jesus continues even into our own time through media portrayals in movies and television, as well as in the pictures of nearly every Bible produced for use around the world. (p. 55).
Yes, there are some representations emerging, especially from the Global South, that are challenging this picture.  But it still has a strong influence in how the Christian faith is perceived and understood.  I invite your thoughts, and will add further posts over the next few days.


Anonymous said...

"You mean I am not WHITE?? Does dad know? We are going to have to cancel the swimming lessons!!
- Richard Pryor - Here No Evil, See No Evil

Sorry, your post reminded me of that quote and I always laugh. Yes, Jesus gets made in our "own image" in many many different ways. We try to make him related to ourselves, whether is mental picture, political views, tone of voice, etc. You can't stop at white Jesus, remember the recent push for the black Jesus.
I do agree though.. we need to be VERY careful to cast off traditonal stereotypes of what he looked like vs the actual.


roy said...

My favorite Christmas Carol is the Alfred Burt carol - "Some Children See Him"

Some children see Him lily white,
the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
this Savior whom we kneel beside.
some children see Him almond-eyed,
with skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
and, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
will see the baby Jesus' face
like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
and filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering,
come worship now the infant King.
'Tis love that's born tonight!

See if you can find Stacy Sullivan's version off her CD "Cold Enough to Snow" She does a wonderful job with it.

John said...

What we do with our visualization of Jesus (and God), is a metaphor for what we also do with our theological interpretations of Jesus (and God) - we remake them into something which is palatable and consistent with our own notions of truth, justice and beauty. It is human nature to interpret the ineffable through the filter of the known ad knowable, and the desirable and the desired.

The message of the Incarnation is that we must set aside our ethno-centric and cultural-centric filters and attempt to see and hear the truths which God has set before us to see and to hear - truths which transcend the often tragic and sometimes idyllic realities which define our lives and our times.

Perhaps stepping outside our northern European visualizations can be a first step in our journey to apprehend the truths of Jesus of Nazareth.


Anonymous said...

May I inquire by your use of this phrase "after the fashion of the Nazarenes [Nazarites]" in your post that you are agreeing that Nazarenes and Nazarites are the same? Because, if not, that is how it sounds. As I'm sure you must be well aware, since you are a pastor and a church historian that a Nazarene and a Nazarite are not the same, being a Nazarene is one who is from Nazareth and a Nazarite is one who took the vow in Numbers chapter 6. Just thought it important to point that out for some who might visit here and come away with a mistaken perception that Jesus was a Nazarite when He was not.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

To my anonymous commentator -- note that the quote comes from a 4th century source. Yes, I know the difference.

Anonymous said...

Because some white people are ridiculously racist, and half or more of the bible thumpers in the mid-West would jump ship if Jesus wasn't depicted as white.

There are sites like stormfront where the racist whites gather together and actually have enough to form communities. I've also seen arguments about this everywhere else I've gone, where someone will post that Jesus was white and so was just about everyone else in major history and in the Bible. It's absurd but people really think this and get angry about anyone that thinks otherwise.