Faces and Places of Christ: An Introduction

Looks Matter: Reflections on the Faces and Places of Christ

Edward J. Blum
Martin at 14
Looks can kill, and looks can sell. Just ask two young men from Florida: Trayvon Martin and Tim Tebow. The media frenzies surrounding them put on display the power of looks and looking. When Barack Obama weighed in on the Martin case, he drew attention to physical appearance. “If Trayvon was my son,” the president intoned, “he’d look like Trayvon.” Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum spat in response. Obama was playing “the race card” and he wouldn’t have spoken out if Travyon looked “white.”

As some reporters went south, others moved from west to east following the Tebow mania train. As the newest New York Jet, Tebow left his mile high domain for the bright lights and big city. The New York Post immediately joined Tebow’s looks to Tebow’s lord. The Post not only referred to Tebow as “the heavenly hunk,” but also ran a photograph of him from GQ where he posed like Jesus on the cross, shirtless, “sweaty and steamy.”

Looks matter. They can mean the difference between life and death, freedom and incarceration. They can make millions, and they can ruin fortunes.

These were exactly the kinds of issues that drove Paul and I as we wrote about The Color of Christ: how people looked at Jesus, how they imagined him looking at them, and what role appearances of the sacred played in America’s long saga with race. At the end of our writing, we were in search of a cover image. How would one evoke the passions, problems, and perils of living with material depictions of the immaterial? We pored over hundreds of paintings, drawings, lithographs, cartoons, photographs, and movie stills to find that image, and we did. It was deep within the Duke University digital archives.
African-American boy sitting on a float dressed as a king below picture of Jesus.
William Gedney, "African-American boy
sitting on a float dressed as a king below Jesus"

The year was 1967; the place was Brooklyn; the photographer was William Gedney; and the photograph was irresistible. It’s of a Sunday School parade and seated before us was the “king” of the class (he looks a little like Trayvon Martin at 14, but has a much fuller face). Above this king was the "King of Kings" in the form of Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ.” It is the most often reproduced image in world history. The young man looked into the camera; Jesus looked away. This was our story in still frame: everyday people using images of Christ to express themselves; everyday people living their lives in extraordinary moments, times, and places. And Jesus – as a material object, as a sometimes venerated, sometimes despised person, and as an embodied figure in new and distinct places – was there through it all.

As we searched for a cover, as we giggle at Tebow mania, and as we tear up and then grit our teeth at reports from Florida, we kept being reminded of how so many scholars and artists had influenced our approach to looks and looking. We had and have those kinds of intellectual and personal debts that acknowledgment sections can never offer justice. So with Easter season upon us and the importance of “looks” all around us, I decided to contact some of the scholars and artists who influenced the making of our book. These are people who have grappled with the image of Christ in their own lives and works, and who taught Paul and me so much. The guiding questions to them were: “how do visual images of Jesus and where they are placed address religious, social, political, and theological questions? What is your first memory of encountering Jesus in visual form and how do you make meaning of that event now? What does the process of Jesus image making mean in the contemporary world and how does it continue to impact people?”

Each day from tomorrow to Easter, we will feature a different scholar or artist. David Morgan will reflect on his long relationship with the art of Warner Sallman, while Anthony Pinn will call for us to stop looking at Christ and start looking at ourselves. Janet McKenzie will discuss why she painted her now-famous Jesus of the People (1999), while Chad Hawkins will relate how his drawings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints temples tries to reflect the timelessness of Christ that calls out to him for humility. We will sit with Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh as she visits her great-grandmother’s home and sees her Jesús, and we’ll fly back in time to Gary Vikan’s days as a boy scout from Minnesota and the variety of Jesus figures he encountered.

Through it all, I’ll keep thinking about the power of looks and what the American obsessions with physical appearance continually intersects with American passions about the body and blood of Christ.


Christopher said…
This is fantastic and I look forward to it. Thanks, Ed!
Rachel Lindsey said…
I'm very excited about both the upcoming blogs and the book! What a fantastic contribution!
esclark said…
Great start to a fantastic sounding blog series!
John G. Turner said…
Splendid start. Very good choice of cover photos.

What is the book's release date? I'm trying to figure out when I can use it in a class.
rjc said…
I'm looking forward to this. It looks like a really great series of posts.
Paul Harvey said…
John: Officially it's Oct. 1, but copies may be available before then, and PDFs definitely will be.

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