The History Channel’s hit miniseries “The Bible” offers us yet another on-screen depiction of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The honor this time goes to Diogo Morgado, whom the New York Post calls “a kind of surfer Jesus.” The Portuguese actor’s Jesus is not exactly Anglo (although his on-screen accent is); but basically, this Jesus is white. And therein lies a problem.
My thoughts on what Jesus looks like were spurred by a fascinating lecture at Baylor by the University of Colorado’s Paul Harvey, author with Edward Blum of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. In spite of the Ten Commandment’s ban on “graven images” (and the worship of them), many Christians have become so used to visual representations of Christ that we often don’t give them a second thought, nor consider what they say about our mental picture of the Son of God.
The medieval church also produced artistic representations of Christ, but many Protestants assailed these icons, tapestries, and paintings as violations of the second commandment, smashing and burning many of them as they had opportunity. The Puritans and some other early settlers of America tried not to employ visual representations of God, although they surely must have had some mental image of God or Jesus as they spoke to him in prayer.
During the nineteenth century, visual images of Jesus became more common among American Protestants, and they were almost always ‘white’ – or at least not distinctly Semitic/Middle Eastern/North African, which one would think would be the preferred choice if ethnic accuracy were a priority. These images became more common – and insistent – in the years following the Civil War. Perhaps the most disturbing use of the white Jesus was in D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), in which Jesus blessed the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.
Most depictions of a white Jesus were more innocuous in intent than Birth of a Nation, and the most common one in American homes was Warner Sallman’s 1941 The Head of Christ. The commonplace depiction of Jesus as white led to indignant reactions, with some African Americans and other Christians claiming a “black Jesus” or some other Christ of their own ethnicity.
I don’t mean to go all ‘Puritan’ here, but should churches promote any visual depictions of Christ? Do the images of a white Jesus risk making God in our own image? Would a more Semitic Christ solve the problem? Or should we return to the full Reformed skepticism about using any images of God at all?
Whatever our answers, the fact remains that Christians do normally imagine Christ’s appearance as we read the Bible and pray (reported visions of Jesus have often seemed Anglo, too). Scripture, however, gives us precious little guidance about his appearance. If not the Jesus of Warner Sallman or The History Channel, then what should he look like?
Thomas Kidd is contributing scholar to The Kuyperian Commentary. His newest book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, published in 2011 with Basic Books.
This article was originally published at Patheos.