Today we can still find in America many different artist’s versions of Jesus. I was struck by this when I absentmindedly walked into a bookstore in St. George, Utah, on a trip to visit western national parks. St. George, Utah, was not named for St. George of the Dragon fame who is the patron saint of England, Malta, Portugal, and elsewhere. Instead, the town is named for George A. Smith, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This city was founded by Mormons and is dominated by Mormons today.
I had forgotten this when I went into the bookstore. It was mid-afternoon, a time when I often take an old-man’s nap, and I was drowsy. Not far from my hotel room, I saw a big, modern bookstore. I like bookstores, and because it bore a resemblance to the Barnes and Nobles in malls, I thought that I might find a coffee bar. I, of course, was not thinking about where I was. This was a Mormon bookstore with a clothing distribution center attached. I am curious about those Mormon clothes, but I chickened out and did not enter. Of course, the store did not have coffee, but I found it interesting to wander around for a bit. (I eventually got my coffee at a Burger King. Not the best I ever had.) It listed the books that were its top sellers. I didn’t recognize any of them. As I wandered the store’s aisles, I recognized few of the authors and realized that there was a book culture completely different from the one I knew. One display was devoted to picture after picture of Jesus, fifty or more, mostly just of the face, but some full-length portrayals, or a few of Jesus preaching. The man depicted was different in all of them, but still almost all the same. And I realized that was true for almost all the pictures I have seen of Him in America. He may be Jesus, the Son of God, but in these portrayals, he is one of us.
He always seems to be of above average height, but not so tall as to be disconcerting. His skin, while not a sickly pale, is a version of white. He is not blond, but his hair is not too dark—a pleasant brown, often with highlights. And, of course, it looks as if it has been recently shampooed followed by a good conditioner. His hair flows to his shoulder. His face looks like one whose forebears have immigrated to the U.S. of A. from some Northern European locale. His eyes might even be blue. Except for his clothing and that his hair is a bit long, he would not be out of place in many American living rooms or corporate offices. Not surprisingly, he always looks as if he would make a good motivational speaker. If He is not American, he certainly looks like He would be welcomed by any true-blue American. (Other parts of the world have depicted Jesus as someone who looks, not surprisingly, as someone who could fit into their local cultures. The Ethiopian or Russian Christian has a Jesus who looks different from the American one, but one that seems more than a little Ethiopian or Russian. A Renaissance Jesus tends to look, how shall we say, “renaissancey,” and even a Korean or Chinese Jesus tends to reflect a Chinese or Korean culture. God created the internet so you, too, can look up such pictures.)
We don’t really know much about the historical Jesus. We do know that he was a Jew and that he lived in the Middle East. Recently forensic anthropologists have tried to figure out what Jesus really looked like. If you look at these depictions, you see something much different from the American Jesus. These scientists concluded that in all likelihood Jesus was not very tall, had dark eyes, almost black hair, and a swarthy skin. A Jew in his setting was much more likely to have short hair rather than flowing, shoulder-length locks of His American portraits. And, of course, he likely had what might be described as a Jewish nose. The looks of the real Jesus were unlikely to be of the kind that would fit easily into a modern Kiwanis meeting or in a shampoo commercial. More to the point, He probably would have made most Sunday church-goers stare uncomfortably at Him if He entered the 11 o’clock service. He didn’t look so much like our imagined portraits; He looked like a Mideast terrorist.
So my thought experiment: Imagine that every existing picture of Jesus in America were replaced with a more historically correct one. We hang up pictures that look like, shall we say, Yasser Arafat’s nephew. How would this change American Christianity? Might this even change Americans’ views of the world or America’s foreign policy? Would our faith in Christianity be changed? How?