The Perkins Perspective | Reviews | Autumn 2012
The Color of Christ: An Academic's View
By Christophe D. Ringer
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.
Edward Blum’s and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America opens up exciting new territory in understanding the complexities of race and religion in American history. The book skillfully weaves a historical account arguing that the physical representations of Jesus are inseparable from the tangled, troubled, and often tragic history of race in America. However, it is the multiple, malleable, and conflicting representations of Jesus that are at the center of this important text.
Color of Christ begins with the powerful image of the face of Jesus Christ blown out in the stain-glassed window of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. On Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, the church was bombed by white supremacists, taking the lives of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. As it relates to the both the holiness and whiteness of Jesus’ image, the authors write, “The holy face had become a hole in the wall; four girls were dead; and throughout the United States and the world people had to make sense of what seemed so senseless. What did it all mean, and where was Jesus?”
In many ways, this opening story sets the stage for the questions that Color of Christ sets out to answer as well as the prevailing perceptions it seeks to dispel. The book eschews framing this event as a familiar gap between the ideals of Jesus and the failures of religion. Rather this account recognizes that “… Christ’s body mattered too. His image, what it signified, where it was placed, what happened to it, and how it would be replaced shaped the dialogue in fundamental ways. His form provided an entrée for Americans to evaluate and debate their most deeply held ideas about race, religion, the nation, the sacred and the workings of power.”
Blum and Harvey provide an account in which the face and body of Jesus is tethered to the material production of society. Moreover, this production discloses the way in which the sacred is bound by race and changing conceptions of race are imbued with eternal significance.
The Color of Christ in many ways reflects our contemporary suspicions regarding “grand narratives” that obscure the messiness of history. One major culprit is the idea that racial and ethnic groups always make God in their own image. Instead of accepting this premise as a universal fact, the authors attend to the way in which Christianity’s understanding of God as revealed in bodily form occasions the body of Jesus as revealing the power of race in the struggle for American identity. Of particular interest are the various ways in which American Christianity acknowledges the historical point that Jesus was nonwhite ― while simultaneously imaging Jesus as white. What could not be said with words would be said in images.
The Meaning of Whiteness
The image of Jesus emerges as primary site of encoding the meaning of whiteness. A key strength of this work is its ability to disclose historical, cultural, and material moments of difference, conflict and contestation within whiteness. A primary example is the movement from a brown-haired brown-eyed Jesus in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to Henry Stanley Todd’s blonde-hair blue-eyed non-Jewish rendering of Jesus in the painting "The Nazarene." In the end, Color of Christ also seeks to tell a particularly American story, highlighting histories that often go unnoticed under the broad banner of all which is labeled “Eurocentric.”
The blown out face of Jesus in stain glass at 16th Street Baptist Church stands in stark contrast to early Puritans who possessed a deep aversion to imaging the divine. Blum and Harvey argue persuasively that iconoclasm was such serious business that children learned the stories of Christ without pictures for nearly 200 years. That America would then be the nation to produce Warner Sallman’s "Head of Christ," the ubiquitous image that adorns Sunday morning church fans and living rooms, printed over 500 million times, is indeed a peculiar saga. Thus, the Sallman’s "Head of Christ" is intertwined and inseparable from America’s ascendency as a global power internationally and whiteness as the basis for political exclusion domestically.
Blum and Harvey also deftly trace the production and reproduction of Jesus to give a richer account of the history of resistance by people of color. The accounts of early missionaries with Native American’s and modes of resistance and compromise are illuminating for understanding issues of cultural conquest, contact, and exchange. In addition, there is a broader story present regarding the varieties of liberation theology. The work of James Cone, a pioneer in the academic expression of black liberation theology reached a much broader audience during President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. The uproar over comments by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright Jr. led to a broader cultural narrative that the idea of a black Jesus began in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Imaging Jesus Beyond Whiteness
Color of Christ reconstructs the importance of the Harlem Renaissance in its effort to redeem blackness through a black Jesus. Exemplary is W.E.B DuBois’ short story “The Son of God” in which a black Christ born in America confronts the nation with its injustices. This black Christ, known as Joshua, was beaten and lynched. Thus, iconography of Jesus as a victim of lynching would begin to see widespread production among African-American artists. It is this historical, cultural, and material backdrop that allows the reader to glimpse the rich variety of efforts to image Jesus beyond whiteness.
A real strength of this work is that it gives both a richer account of American religious and cultural history as well as breathing fresh air on our current political scene. As the 2012 presidential election draws near, the race and religion of President Obama continues to serve as an effective tool for questioning his legitimacy as an American. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that 17 percent of registered voters continue to believe that Obama is a Muslim.
Moreover, in a bruising primary season, American witnessed evangelical leaders attempt to close ranks to support Rich Santorum, a Catholic, to undercut presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Color of Christ will help the reader appreciated just how unthinkable this current election season would have been just a short time ago in our history. Images of Jesus may not be the subject of upcoming presidential debates, but they certainly will be present, exerting unspoken power and influence over cherished ideas of the sacred, rights, morality, and the identity of America.
If there is a critical note it would be the recognition of how difficult it is to avoid a “grand narrative,” which is precisely what a saga or epic is. Unexamined in the text are the conflicts over the use of cultural products of enslaved blacks. Similar arguments of both the usefulness and use of spirituals, tales, and songs famously played within the Harlem Renaissance as well as in the theological academy.
This however will not detract from Color of Christ having a major impact among scholars in a wide range of fields. Academic theologians working in areas such as Christology or public theology will find valuable resources in these pages. In addition, philosophers investigating the dynamics of religious and cultural imaginations will find much to think about. More importantly, Color of Christ deserves a wide reading among all citizens who care about the future of democracy as well as the faithful struggling with perennial questions about imaging the divine.
Christophe D. Ringer is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Department of Religion of Vanderbilt University (Ethics and Society). His research interests include religions ethics, public theology, religion and social sciences, African-American religion and politics, cultural studies, and critical prison studies. His dissertation examines mass incarceration through a political-theological critique.
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