Each evening for the last couple of weeks, I've been slowly making my way through Ed Blum's and Paul Harvey's forthcoming The Color of Christ. I'll have a fuller review in an online journal forthcoming at a future date, but wanted to take a minute to add my voice to the well-deserved chorus of praise sung by Publisher's Weekly and Matt Sutton. The Color of Christ is a tour de force of the history of both religion and race in U.S. history, brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, at times humorous and at other times moving. More than anything else, though, reading the book has caused me to reflect on the ubiquitous presence of Jesus imagery all around me, from my childhood home and memories to the artistic portrayals of Christ hanging in the hallways of my local chapel to the lyrics of music---both sacred and secular---I listen to day in and day out.
It is perhaps not surprising then, that as I read about the expansive "transatlantic exchange of Jesus imagery" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries last night, I was reminded of this gem from Ben Harper's 2004 collaborative album with The Blind Boys of Alabama.
"Picture of Jesus" touches on so many of the themes Blum and Harvey highlight in their book. There is no explicit mention of race in the song's lyrics, but in it Harper and co. sing about well-worn pictures of Christ's crucifixion kept in one's wallet and of Jesus appearing as "a man in our time" whose "words shone like the sun" but who "tried to lift the masses / and was crucified by gun" (Martin Luther King, Jr?). And what of the musicians' race and religiosity? Harper is the son of an African American father and a Jewish mother, and he often speaks of his rather eclectic spirituality that incorporates not only traditional Christianity but also Rasta and nature religion. Is his "picture of Jesus," I wonder, the same as that of his collaborators, the (literally) Blind Boys of Alabama, a Christian gospel group whose career has spanned 73 years, survived Jim Crow, and witnessed the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic shifts in America's racial and religious composition?