Sunday, December 5, 2010

Jesus in Any Colour

Post 25

What did Jesus look like? What was his colour? Since there are no photographs of Him or paintings by artists who have actually seen Him, His appearance, including His colour, has long been subject of discussion. In the Western world, the traditional homeland of the majority of His followers, people have long depicted Him as white skinned, often even with Teutonic or Nordic blue eyes like my own. Western artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico and Michelangelo all depicted Jesus as white.

In our day of multiculturalism, such depictions are increasingly challenged, berated and even rejected as provincial, racist and wrong. People criticize the depiction of Jesus as a Caucasian as akin to the “sin” of creating Him in our own—I am Caucasian—image. A friend forwarded to me the following comments from a writer he did not, unfortunately, further identify:

"It has always bothered me that Jesus in the Sunday school pictures is white. Did they miss the part where it says he was born a Hebrew? Somehow I doubt he had blue eyes. There is a 10 000 Villages store not far from here that sells all manner of nativiy sceens -- African Jesus, Indian Jesus, Latin Jesus, even a curiously moving faceless Jesus. They're fantastic. Today I came across a site presenting "The Life of Jesus Christ: An African Interpretation by the Mafa People in Cameroun" and once again I'm taken by the beauty of a completely different view of a very old story. Who's to say that a black Jesus tending the sheep on the serengeti is any less valid than a white, blue eyed Jesus with little white children gathered at his feet?"

Well, I am the proprietor of the website where the writer found the artful Mafa depictions of all the Gospel stories in terms of West African, specifically Cameroonian, culture --< >. In this context, Jesus, His disciples and all the other people in the stories are depicted as Black and the surrounding culture as unashamedly West African. If you love West African culture, you will adore these paintings. We have had them all over our house for years and frequently use the various formats in which they appear for gifts and as greeting cards. Hospital patients and people in mourning especially appreciate the upbeat and inspiring messages embedded in these surprising and lovely Gospel depictions. My wife and I are proud to be associated with them. I urge you to check out my website for further info about this series and the various uses to which you can put them.

If some Whites are offended by depictions of a white Jesus, so are some Africans offended by black depictions of Him and the Gospel stories. When I first introduced the series to my friends in Nigeria, some of the more educated among them rejected them instinctively as presenting a false Jesus. He was not Black, they argued. So, what am I trying to pull off by foisting a Black Jesus on them? Their mistake was that they thought of these depictions as photographic instead of artistic interpretations. More traditional Nigerians did not have that problem and tended to enjoy looking at them. One recent convert from Islam was offended at one picture because he thought to recognize a large beer container. Beer in a picture with Jesus? Blasphemous!

If the Mafa materials are legitimate as a way of interpreting Christ in a specific culture, then so are all those expressions of the white Christ. Those are equally legitimate interpretations of Christ for white cultures. Too many people react negatively to a basically valid attempt to interpret Christ if He is portrayed as white. This is an unhealthy reaction, probably mostly driven by a guilty conscience for white racism. White racism cannot be denied, but attempts to interpret Christ for white cultures are legitimate. One could equally condemn the Mafa art because Blacks are equally racist.

As to whether we are creating a Christ in our image, whether black or white, that is not the issue. The issue is to make Him legible to different cultures. These are art works, not photographic representations. They represent meaning expressed in the various cultures. Do check them out.

No comments:

Post a Comment