Several years ago while I was a grad student at Wheaton College, the Billy Graham Center held an unusual exhibit. It was centered around that image of Jesus with which many of us grew up. You know the one many a Southerner has found for sale at the gas station or any kitschy purveyor. The image shows a blond-haired, blue-eyed, attractive Jesus. I had always jokingly referred to it as Scandinavian Jesus. The image in question had been designed and painted by a Midwestern American during the 1950s, and the exhibit discussed and revealed its use throughout American culture in the past half decade.
For many that was the least radical part of the exhibit, the show talked about how this was just one example among many before going on to show pieces with an African Jesus or an Asian Jesus or so on. I remember looking upon each image and experiencing that jarring disconnect as I tried to view Jesus through so many different images. To say the exhibit challenged me and my proprietal relationship with our savior would be an understatement.
In a sense the exhibit was following in some well-worn tracks. Throughout the 19th century there was a rush to unearth the true historical Jesus, unpacking who He was in an attempt to relate him to who we are (or were). One critic of this movement remarked that each new Jesus beared more than a little passing resemblance to its author. Not surprisingly the early Communist Party founder Eugene Debs researched him and found Jesus to be… a communist. David Friedrich Strauss searched the Gospels and found Jesus to be… a liberal. And so on ad infinitum. The quest has continued to our age and go to any bookstore and you can find yourself overwhelmed by books promising Jesus to be a Democrat, a Republican, or whatever you want him to be.
It seems that Albert Schweitzer was right about this at least: it’s really hard to separate the Jesus of the Gospels from our enculturated stabs at faith.
To be honest I am of mixed feelings about this whole process. On the one hand, I believe that our faith like our Savior is enfleshed. the faith we hold like our Savior must become incarnated to be worth anything. Only the real real presence of a flesh and blood savior can offer up the needed propitiation for our sins. Only the real real presence of our Savior in his muscle and bone can provide the needed victory over sin and evil. To paraphrase the early church father Irenaeus: ‘only that which Jesus has assumed to his flesh can be saved.’ To paraphrase Paul: ‘this is joyful message of great joy that we have a savior who has experienced and overcome every obstacle that stands in our way.’ And so we must in way come to see Jesus as like us. To paraphrase and expand upon Paul: to the Jews Jesus must be a Jew, to the Asians an Asian, to the Africans an African, and to the Caucasians a Caucasian. There is a sense that the story of Jesus must enter into us and become our story. To accomplish this work, points of reference must collapse in on each other and become enmeshed in such a way that it only becomes logical to see us in Jesus.
Yet there is a danger if that is where we stop. The point is not to remake Jesus like is. The point is that we shall be remade like Jesus. Sure at the beginning and throughout the journey we need to see that Jesus is like us; but if the journey is to be a success we need to see more and more that Jesus is not like us, not at all. This is not all bad. To paraphrase and expand on the prophet Isaiah: God’s ways are not our ways and praise God that our salvation and the salvation of the world is not dependent on a God who is does things the way we do things. There would be no salvation if God acted like us. In fact salvation is the process by which God reforms us in His image according to His likeness. That means that where he are petty, God is magnanimous. Where we are quick to take revenge, God is longsuffering. Where we demand an eye for an eye; God gives his only son as a sacrifice for the salvation of His enemies. Where we demand blood and violence, God brokers peace. Praise be to God, He is not us.
And so if seeing pictures of a black Jesus or Asian Jesus or Scandinavian Jesus is something each of us may need to come to the realization that Jesus is like us; this can be a good starting point. Yet it must only be a starting point. We must move from our mind’s eye to God’s eye. And there are only so many ways to do so. For this we need the Scriptures and we need the Sacraments. We need to come in contact with each of these in order to be reminded weekly if not daily, that though we have a great high priest who has experience all that there is to being us; He is not and never has entirely been us.
We are created to exhibit His likeness and not the other way round. We are called to be like Him and not the other way round. We are called to reflect Christ even as we never quite lose the sense of being us. I am called to be Matt and while never losing my Mattness, I am called to become and be like Christ. Just as Jesus was God and Man indivisible at the same time. I am called to be Matt and Christ indivisible at the same time. I am Matt; but I am above all Christ. Praise be to the God whose name is not Matt, never has been, and never will be. And this is the only truly good news of great joy that have ever existed.