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The Image of God, II

By June 18, 2016 No Comments

Last time I raised a question that came up in the seminar I’m attending on how our images of Jesus—particularly of his body—affect the church as the body of Christ. In creating antidotes to the “white Jesus” fashioned in North America in the nineteenth century, I wondered, do we risk duplicating that original error? In projecting a black Jesus or Asian Jesus or whatever, do we now elevate Africans or Asians or whomever to the stature of being the preferred people of God? The question struck a chord with my fellow participants and with some readers, and in a minute I’ll get to the response that I’ve found to be the most satisfactory. But first some musings on tendencies in Jesus representation as I’ve learned them from our reading and discussions.

David Morgan’s The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity (2015) runs on a parallel analysis of Protestant and Catholic portrayals of Jesus. These are based in different sacred cosmologies. Roman Catholics see the space between the divine and human to be full of ladders and connections and intermediaries: saints and the Blessed Virgin, above all. Protestantism, particularly of the Reformed variety, ruthlessly cleaned out this space, leaving the sub-heavens bare and church interiors spare. Their own interiors confront God without buffers and with the prospect of no connection at all. The Catholic course runs the eventual risk of idolatry, the Protestant of agnosticism. This clarified for me the passion of Protestant iconoclasm in the early days of the Reformation. Images in worship space were not just to be ignored but had to be purged as dangers and delusions. In terms of my original question, yes, Protestant iconoclasm might dodge the racialization of Jesus, but might lose sight of him altogether or suffocate him in intellectual formulations.

Another of Morgan’s points reverberated strongly with my rearing in the Reformed tradition. Roman Catholic soteriology, he says, aims at paying God back for debts incurred, guilt accumulated, trespasses committed. (And think, gentle reader, of the different assumptions and implications in those different terms for sin: debt, guilt, trespass….) Protestants, on the other hand, pay it forward. Nothing we do can atone for sin, and per Christ’s intervention, nothing we do is necessary. But we do need to live “from now on” in a godly, disciplined fashion. We all learned this in Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 1, but it’s striking to see it captured in the back/forward comparison.

But Protestants do eventually come to an idolatry trap of their own, Morgan argues. Their worship spaces might be bare, but their homes and schools and reading materials are chock-a-block with illustrations of Bible times and people, of theological narratives (think Pilgrim’s Progress woodcuts), of their own panoply of saints and heroes. In depicting Jesus, Catholics tend to embed him in prescribed ritual sites and roles set by the church. Starting with Rembrandt, however, Protestants wanted to personalize Jesus, to make him a realistic individual per his historical setting. Next they started to transport him to the present as part of the famous Evangelical quest for a “personalrelationshipwithJesusChrist.” Over time, and at the hand of lesser artists than Rembrandt, this devolved into a “Christology of friendship,” says Morgan; “pious viewers” want “a ‘likeable’ looking fellow.” The upshot is that “modern American Protestant visual culture [has] pivoted on a mirroring operation.… The likeness they looked for…was a likeness of Christ to themselves.” (183, 187, 191)

There may be a worse idolatry but I can’t think of any off-hand. The plight is gravely ironic in that it was John Calvin himself who fulminated against our minds as idol-factories. Indeed, Jaroslav Pelikan, another author we read this week, categorizes the Reformation-era concept of Christ as the “mirror of the eternal.” The opposite of the mirror of ourselves.

And yet the original argument for the worshipful use of icons and other visual representations of Jesus is grounded in the Incarnation. If Jesus came in human form as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), then that action of God superseded the prohibition of the second commandment, and we are free—within careful restrictions—to make an image of that image. Furthermore, we are all made in the image of God. Therefore, every person must be able to see something of herself in, a possible connection to, Jesus. A white Jesus reduces that possibility for us Koreans, one of the seminar group said. Most emphatically, he continued, that glimpse of recognition is not the end of the matter; it’s the beginning. It’s beckons us on to what may be, to what we may be.

Jesus himself said the word here: I am the door (John 10:9). Not a mirror, unless it’s the mirror we check in the morning as we go out the door for the day—a glass in which we see what we need to fix. Not a mere confirmation of what we are but a standard of what, from now on, we need to become.

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.

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