Since director Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, particularly The Dark Knight, superhero films tend to have a dark and gritty take on these characters, preferring to ground them more in reality than fantasy. In the comic book world itself this revolution happened decades ago in the 80’s through writers like Frank Miller (Batman Year One) and Alan Moore (Watchmen.)
Whatever your take on the comic book film genre it does say people have a hunger for the truth. They want metaphorical commentary on the real world around them. Our worldviews are embedded in narratives so how we tell stories is very important. Artistic impression is an essential part of the human experience because that is how we relate to the world around us. Despite this general trend in the world, at least in the media, for realism it seems the Church’s popular perception of Jesus is still stuck in fantasy.
What I mean by this is white Jesus, the Jesus we mostly see in art. Even though certain features of the medieval representation have been updated, the characteristic artistic tropes still remain. He usually has long perfectly conditioned hair, a tall physical specimen who sometimes has blue eyes. I appreciate there is the freedom of artistic impression but we must consider a few things. If a biopic about Kofi Annan was announced today and the lead actor was Sir Ian Mckellen instead of Morgan Freeman there would be such a great uproar and outrage. They are both great actors but it would still be wrong to portray a historical figure falsely. In today’s world where racial/ethnic identity is such a sensitive issue, why is the Church seemingly unconcerned with the ethnicity of Jesus a real person of history?
European Christian art has greatly influenced modern global art. Their paintings, music, literature was often inspired by their theology. The Western world has exported the current dominant vision of Jesus to the world which is sometimes more of a reflection of itself than the scriptures. This has not gone on uncontested. There has been some push back. Many cultures tend to portray Jesus to look like one of their own. Particularly in the black community, a lot of people reject White Jesus, symbolic of the white man’s religion, and they sometimes go on to adopt Black Jesus. The danger with this and other cultural re-imaginations is that we end up moulding Christ in our own image instead of letting him transform us into his.
The misinterpretation of Jesus as black in the African diaspora is due to a misunderstanding of him being dark skinned. Jesus was probably swarthy but that does not make him and African neither does it make him a European. Jesus was a first century Palestinian Jew. From the New Testament we can safely gather Jesus did not have an exceptional appearance. There were no distinguishing physical traits that he had that was worth reporting. He looked like the people of his time. Below is an image of what an average Jew in the first century might have looked like.
(It particularly baffles me when artists insists on Jesus having long hair especially when Paul states it was taboo in their culture (1 Corinthians 11:14.))
This is not just about the mere anthropometrics of people of the ancient Near East. Having a Jewish Jesus in artistic representations is important because it faithfully depicts the Gospel message. Salvation is of the Jews. His Jewishness cannot be overlooked because it is integral to his identity. Jesus’ humanity is not a vague international every-man figure. His humanity comes into sharp focus through his ethnicity. He belonged to a certain group of people, who lived in certain part of the world, during a certain time.
Biblical scholarship has realised he was a faithful Jew. Without appreciating his Jewishness it is impossible to understand him and his mission. The Gospel is about God fulfilling his promises to Israel through a faithful servant among his people. Since God had made an irrevocable covenant with Israel that through them he will bless the world, the Saviour had to be Jewish.
Perhaps the reason why Jewish Jesus is so unpopular is that he does not fit the majority expectations. As the scripture declares, the stone that was rejected has become the cornerstone. The Gospel is inherently subversive even to its original audience. It challenges the worldly structures of power whether it is racial, sexual, religious or economic. It is even challenges the Church as the word of God critically pierces our hearts. We need Christian artists who can convey this powerful message faithfully to the world. Let’s simply let Jesus be Jesus.
P.S. Here are some links to articles about the appearance of Jesus:
1. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965; 2. http://www.visiontv.ca/shows/biblical-forensics-real-faces-of-the-bible/; 3. http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2015/12/what-did-jesus-really-look.