David Morgan on Seeing Jesus as Cardboard Icon or Socratic Thief

David Morgan is professor of religion and director of graduate studies at Duke University in the Department of Religion. He is the author of a host of path-breaking books on the history of religious and print culture in America. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (2012).

Warner Sallman, "Head of Christ"
Jesus showed up one day on the wall of my bedroom. I don’t remember how he got there. By the time I noticed him, he was a weathered surface, faded, brownish, half lost in dim shadows. And he said nothing, just looked quietly into the distance. When I strain to remember him, I hear the voice of my mother, and my grandmother, and my father talking about my grandmother. He had a picture of Jesus too, with a long inscription including Bible verses written on the back of the image in the wiry script of his aunt. I still have it.

St. Paul once wrote: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” That is just how the image of Jesus happens: suddenly, he’s there. I don’t know just where he came from or the precise moment when he arrived. But I do know that the picture is wrapped in a dense network of family relations, borne by the talk and memories of my parents and kin. All of that talk and the quiet way the image appeared on the wall conceal the origin of the image behind something more important: the world it bore. Who gave me the picture and where it hung, what people said about it, and the occasions on which I gazed at it—these were the substance of the identity of Jesus during my youth.

Nowadays, I like to think of Jesus as a thief in the night. I like to see him as a trickster, a roaming, dusty, Palestinian Socrates, a mercurial, bumptious character who slips into the quiet house of my mind with difficult things to say. When I think about him in more traditional terms, the enrobed and solemn master of mawkish piety, he fades from view and all I see is that cardboard icon on my bedroom wall. Jesus lost his divinity for me a long time ago. As a consequence, I have no idea what he looked like. He was a teacher who had the misfortune of getting embroiled with the Roman state, and paid the consequences. That’s all I really know.

To see Jesus, I think one must have faith. If he was just another teacher or historical figure, then his image is no more than a conjectural portrait. So for me, he’s invisible. I really don’t care what he looked like. But for the people whom I study, the look of Jesus matters very much. I find their need to see him extremely interesting. What are they looking for? Do they want to see an illustration to an encyclopedia entry? No, they want to see the face of God. They want to see God looking back at them, returning their gaze and delivering in that act a relationship that is the anchor of their world. So I watch them and I understand something about them by remembering the talk about that picture on my wall.