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The Image of God

By June 13, 2016 3 Comments

I’m serving as the campus host of a seminar on the “Bodies of Christ.” For the next two weeks a group of us historians, artists, and theologians will consider the interlinked questions of (1) how we visualize and portray Jesus, that is, the body of Christ, and (2) what the consequences of that are for the body of Christ that is the church. Leading the seminar is Ed Blum, taking off from his definitive volume, co-authored with Paul Harvey, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2014). The book explores in intricate detail when, in American history, Christ became “white” (early nineteenth century) and how peoples considered non-white pushed back with their own conceptualizations.

In a way this occasion brings things full-circle for me. Nearly fifty years ago, as a college freshman, I read with deep interest and lasting effect H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. Certainly the volume has come in for some deserved critique in the years since, but our really important books qualify as such not (only) for the answers they provide but for the questions they ask. For me, Niebuhr’s typology of how Christians have participated in their life and times turned out to define a lasting agenda for teaching, writing, and reflection. At the same time, the moment when I read the book (January 1968: think Tet Offensive) coincides in memory with a full-scale assault on the cultural captivity of the American church. Captivity to militaristic nationalism; to the Manicheanism of the Cold War; to personal, casual, and structural racism; to heedless consumerism, and much more. African-American Christians had been saying this forever; mainline Protestants more recently. At this moment I first picked up the strain from the voices of an Evangelical Left, reminding us that not all who said Lord, Lord in proper orthodox or born-again or strait-laced fashion were of the kingdom of heaven.

Looming behind these voices, at least on the white side, was the prophetic indictment of European churches’ captivity to their culture mounted by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and company. It began with Barth’s scathing rebuke of his professors’ blessing of Germany’s participation in World War I. It culminated in Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom near the end of World War II. And it amounted to a warning that the worst fate that can befall a church is to surrender the gospel’s critical edge to an endorsement of its society and dominant way of life. To exchange the transcendent Lord for the idols of the tribe. To mistake one’s group for the full and exclusive people of God. Just that had happened, it seemed clear enough, to Evangelical Protestants in Cold War suburban America—and to their Christian Reformed cousins as well.

In our seminar these weeks we’ll be tracing how this syndrome developed on the frontiers of race over the course of American history, and how we might encourage churches today to think and imagine and act differently. I’ll certainly be interested in ferreting out that history more fully than I already know. But I’ll also be wondering about its rebound effect. To what extent do reactions against this syndrome reinforce it? Substitute an oppressed group as the chosen people? Substitute another color for white as the marker of election? These are not rhetorical questions, nor are they (not so subtly articulated) assertions of fact. For one, it has been well argued that the oppressed in a significant sense are the chosen people of God, the ones upon whom divine favor rests. So long as they are oppressed. Further, to elevate the marker of what has been disdained (dark skin) is a good and necessary tactic. But how far does this run, and when does it run out? When fugitive Huguenots arrive at the Cape of Good Hope and start exploiting the native people? When the despised Irish become the street troops of anti-Chinese violence in late nineteenth-century California? When Israelis invoking the Holocaust rob, kill, and demean Palestinians? When do markers of group identity become idols of the tribe? And, to give the winch one more turn, how do we keep from invoking this critique to justify what the powerful—what we—have done? To say everybody does it so let’s all get over it and move on?

In these discussions I’m going to try to keep in mind a reverse process. St. Paul says that what God has in mind is for us “to be conformed to the image of God’s Son in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Rom 8:29) We’ve heard plenty of instruction on how that might happen for individuals. But how about for groups and tribes and nations and peoples? I’ll benefit from my colleagues’ insights. If you have thoughts or reading suggestions, send them along, won’t you?

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Ron calsbeek says:

    Jim, are you telling me that the portrait of Jesus that hung on the wall next to your mother’s desk in the office of Fuller Ave. CRC was not an accurate portrayal? Your project is fascinating and long overdue. Will we have access to the product?

  • I wonder how much we are not the body of Christ until or unless the body is “Jew AND Gentile, male AND female, slave AND free.” In other words, until various tribes listen to and learn from one another we are not the body of Christ but a shadow or, worse, a fraud. And, we do not truly love one another until we have sat down at table with the “other” who used to reside on the other side of the “wall of hostility.” Until then we are only loving ourselves in one another (which is really self-love) and calling it Jesus’ body. I’m learning about intersectionality from bell hooks and the like. I think the theory could have something to say about defining Jesus’ body as well.

  • Oh, and I also wonder how far to take the idea that the “image of God” is Jesus and since we are members of his body, we cannot individually reflect that divine image unless we are in community with others. At best, each of us can “already” be a member of the image of God, but “not yet” be a full reflection on our own. Again, I would suggest that diversity is mandatory and that the “fullness of God is pleased to dwell” in Jesus’ body when it lives into that way of life. I’m not sure if God would be less pleased to dwell in a homogeneous body or not pleased at all. Or maybe just as pleased.

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