The Perkins Perspective | Reviews | Autumn 2012
The Color of Christ: A Layperson's View
By Elissa Cook
The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey
The University of North Carolina Press (2012) 352 pp.
“Jesus was a short, black man!” exclaimed my high school religion teacher. I sat up, startled and skeptical. Though the teacher claimed to be summing up the physical characteristics of the Israelites in Jesus’ day, he himself looked a lot more like my image of Jesus — white skin, long brown hair, brown eyes — than a dark-skinned man. While I knew, logically, that Jesus could not have been white, I had a white image of him stuck in my head.
The Color of Christ by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey attempts to get to the root of this conundrum. How did the idea of Christ as white come about, and how did it come to have such power in the United States? How has it been challenged, manipulated, and transformed throughout America’s history? And why, despite all forensic evidence to the contrary, is the image of a white Jesus still so prominent? By tracing the evolution of Christ-images in America from the arrival of Columbus to the election of a dark-skinned president, Blum and Harvey unravel the complexities of how power and historical events have continuously manipulated depictions of Jesus’ body.
In sifting through the mass of sources available, Blum and Harvey battle the notion that people groups of necessity create their gods in their own image, and that, in a nation with a multitude of races, multiple Christ images will naturally abound. The Color of Christ argues that the rise of white Jesus imagery was not from a desire to have a savior who looked like white Americans, nor wholly to enforce white supremacy. In fact, many white, black, and Native Americans throughout history used the white Christ to undermine white superiority.
Blum and Harvey do a fairly good job of avoiding generalizations, though in a book that covers so much time, and so many people, obviously some must be made. The authors are careful to name particular tribes or regions when discussing Native Americans, a refreshing reminder of the diversity that existed before the colonists arrived. They even examine obscure Christian sects such as the Moravians, who had a surprisingly large influence on early Jesus imagery. In addition, they examine white and black viewpoints from multiple perspectives. Occasionally the number of sources they cite can be slightly overwhelming, making it feel like they’re just skimming the surface of the issue. However, they do provide a detailed analysis of a specific occurrence as an introduction to each chapter.
What stands out more and more as the book goes on, though, is the lack of images. In a work about the physical renderings of Jesus’ body, pictures of the works discussed would add greatly to the text. Yet the entire book contains only 19 illustrations. To get the full effect of the analysis, it’s necessary to look up the images described on the computer. Perhaps copyright issues or finances are an issue, but this is certainly the book’s greatest weakness.
Christians wary of an attack on their faith in The Color of Christ have nothing to fear. The authors assiduously avoid evaluating Christian claims of who Jesus is, focusing instead on how Americans — some well-meaning, some not — have portrayed Christ in ways that reflect the nation’s racial history and struggle. Those committed to certain images that are analyzed may feel defensive. Yet it is only the image that is called into question, not the actual man. The authors also avoid demonizing or exalting any particular racial group, doing their best to portray the complex forces that continue to shape individuals in the United States. Even Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of Christ has flaws that are gently pointed out.
What really comes out of the book is the need for Americans to think deeply about the images of Jesus that they see. Why does a certain image inspire one person and disgust another? What are children learning (consciously or unconsciously) by looking at a particular depiction of Christ? And do the images we prefer line up with our rhetoric?
This last question is perhaps the most important, as a subtle shift occurred in after the Civil War that separated rhetoric from imagery. Henry Ward Beecher (whose sister wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin) wrote the first American biography of Jesus, in which he accurately stated that nowhere does the Bible give a physical description of Christ. Yet following this claim, he placed an illustrated page with five heads of Christ. Every single one had white skin and long, flowing, brown hair.
Rhetorically, Beecher claimed that Jesus was a universal savior. Yet visually, he colored him white — without having to prove a thing. This strategy, so difficult to argue with, still affects Christians today. As I did in high school, they may intellectually accept and verbally agree that Jesus was not white. Yet many continue to produce, consume, and adore images of a white Christ, never realizing the tension between their words and deeds.
There will never be a universally accepted portrait of the Jewish man who died on a cross 2,000 years ago. But it’s just as certain that artists, visionaries, merchants, and ordinary believers will never stop creating and seeking images of Jesus. The Color of Christ reveals the history from which today’s creations arise and the complex interactions that continue to shape American representations of Christ.
Elissa Cook graduated in 2011 from Seattle Pacific University with a major in Spanish and a minor in English literature, after which she returned to her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. She is now a kindergarten literacy tutor with Minnesota Reading Corps, an AmeriCorps program.
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