Why Jesus Imagery is a Bad "Look"
Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University. He is the author of a number of tremendous books on African American religions, theology, and notions of embodiment, including most recently: What is African American Religion?
My early years were spent within the context of the Black Church, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal Church. And like other black denominations, many of its local congregations found homes in buildings once used white congregations. As part of the migration to suburban locations, they left behind these buildings – complete with aesthetically rich stained glass windows. If memory serves, in my home church these windows were my first visual encounter with the image of Jesus the Christ. I sat there many Sundays looking at this pale, blond hair, blue-eye Jesus – with the pain of the world etched on his face. It’s obvious this image of a white Jesus meant cultural dissonance – celebration of a God-figure that in no physical way resembled me. And what I saw, was re-enforced by the lyrics of more than one popular hymn, through which negative color symbolism partnered with visual images to create a spiritual world in which blackness was absent as a possible existential and ontological marker of being.
As I grew I learned to substitute this image in my imagination with soft perceptions of a Jesus the Christ who was not fully understood through those images but was blackened through personal relationship – i.e., salvation. This blackening of Jesus has been a popular way by which to reconstruct this important Christian trope; and, for many this move has been sufficient. Yet, as a part of my embrace of non-theistic humanism, I have come to believe such a symbolic shift does little to alter the more harmful ramifications of the image of Christ. These ramifications involve the ethical prompt offered by even a blackened Christ – a prompt that finds merit in the subjugation of embodied bodies. For Jesus this involved the cross, and for those finding life meaning in the transfiguration of Christ from image to life example, it involves suffering as life hermeneutic. Change stained glassed windows. Give Jesus an afro-hair style and other markers of physical and/or cultural blackness – but demise of the body for the sake of the soul remains intact.
|Henry O. Tanner, "The Banjo Lesson" (1893)|
We are better off with images – signs and symbols – that promote the integrity of our embodied existence than those that require our pain in exchange for promised redemption. Perhaps its time to follow Langston Hughes’ lead and say goodbye to Christ – image and all – but this time meaning.
Here’s an idea: rather than Jesus the Christ as meta-symbol of life meaning, how about the destruction of even this “idol of the tribe” and its replacement with a much more sustained and healthy look at ourselves. And in so doing, we might begin to understand the vitality of our being not as tied ontologically to some type of trans-historical concern, but rather in the simple beauty of its biological reality? For example, we might replace Christ imagery with Henry O. Tanner’s “The Banjo Lesson” as a more organic and appropriate symbol of relationship and connection, or Faith Ringgold’s story quilts as an iconic representation of our “sacred” word connected to embodied bodies. I understand this suggestion brings into question the basic infrastructure of African American Christianity (to the extent it is built on a radical Christology) – but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.