Who's Your Jesus?

Hamlet 2 has a "sexy Jesus" but, as Joel Bleifuss shows, every time and culture has their own Jesus to worship.

Jonathan Falwell got his undies in a bunch after seeing "Rock Me Sexy Jesus," a musical sequence from the comedy Hamlet 2."I watched a video of the song and found it to be shocking," he writes on WorldNetDaily. "And why wouldn't I? This is, after all, my Savior and Lord who is being smeared and slandered. But then, I'm a Christian – and my feelings don't matter to the 'mainstream.'" He goes on to bemoan the blasphemy of ESPN "promoting the song between innings of baseball broadcasts."

"Sexy Jesus" – the newest Jesus in the hood – is the creation of Andrew Fleming, the gay writer and director of Hamlet 2. No, this is not the Jesus of Jonathan Falwell, scion of Moral Majority founder Jerry. But then, no one owns the copyright on Jesus – a mythic man who has the singular ability to be all things to all people.

Who Jesus is depends on your vantage.

To those holding to the Christian faith he was not only human, but divine, the son of God. To more secular admirers, he was, if not heaven sent, wise and good, indeed, one of the ten most influential people of the last two millenniums.

The documentary record being what it was, back in the day, who Jesus was and what he looked like is open to interpretation.

The earliest known depiction of Jesus is a work of graffiti found on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome. It was drawn by a soldier, a pagan, to mock another soldier, Alexamenos, who was a Christian. The drawing depicts Christ on the cross, with the head of an ass, and a man standing by giving a Roman salute. The scrawled caption reads, "Alexamenos worships God."

Portraits of Jesus during the Roman Empire show him with a bearded visage, like a younger brother of Zeus, the reigning deity at the time. These early depictions also gave him the flowing locks of the Roman gods, and by doing so set him apart from Jews, who wore their hair short, just like Jesus no doubt did.

Jesus, the deity, melded easily with other religious traditions, as the images below show.

Those early depictions of Jesus were not only portraits but, graven images that challenged the integrity of the 2nd Commandment – the one that says don't be heathen – like and create material idols.

In the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries, the church was riven by debate over whether it was appropriate picture Jesus on religious icons. In the end, the imagists won out. John of Damascus, an 8th Century Greek theologian instructed believers:

"Because the one ... who has his being in the form of God, has now ... contracted himself into a quantity and size and has acquired a physical identity, do not hesitate any longer to draw pictures and to set forth, for all to see, him who has chosen to let himself be seen."

From then on Jesus was everywhere.

As the church evolved into a power unto itself, it worked hand in hand with it more worldly counter to present two faces of Jesus.

One was the Jesus, who brought solace to the dispossessed, suffered on the cross for the sins of man, and gave hope to the downtrodden – in other words a Jesus common folk could identify with. The other was the Jesus who allied himself with earthly powers.

Often this Jesus of the ruling class was shown wearing a crown made not of thorns but of gold. This signified that as the King of Kings, Jesus was the supreme leader of dominant political hierarchies. The Church, under it doctrine of "the divine right of kings," thus granted legitimacy to earthly rulers, who were thus able to do many un-Jesus-like things.

In her book Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today, Cynthia S. W. Crysdale writes that these dual images of Jesus reinforced each other: "Two images of Christ dominated the conquest of Latin America: a dead Jesus and Jesus as a ruling monarch. The Spanish brought the image of Jesus dying on a cross, arising from their own experience of exploitation suffering and conquest at the hands of Arabs and Muslims. But they combined it with images of Jesus looking very much like a Spanish or Portuguese king-seated on a throne, extravagantly dressed, ornamented with a golden crown."

The Christian Church and its political allies had no trouble reconciling the Jesus of the Beautitudes ("Blessed are the poor ... blah, blah, blah") with the Jesus who was King of Kings.

Jesus' Semitic origins were more problematic. For anti-Semitic Christians, and there have been many, the words "Jesus" and "Jew," though they share two letters in common, are hard to reconcile.

Members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a group of artists founded in 1849, grappled with Christ's Jewishness in their art.

PRB artist William Holman Hunt was celebrated for Finding of the Savior in the Temple, a picture in which Mary and Joseph find their young son Jesus in a temple arguing with rabbis.

Art critic Frederick George Stephens, one of two members of the PRB who were not artists, describes the painting this way:


Other Pre-Raphaelite painters did not fair well at the hands of the critics. John Everett Millais, for example.

In 1850, Millais' Christ in the House of his Parents was shown at a Royal Academy exhibition where it created a public scandal. Critics condemned the painting for its "studious vulgarity of portraying the youthful Saviour as a red-headed Jew boy."

D.W. Griffith put his version of the life of Jesus on film in his 1916 film Intolerance, his public rejoinder to critics of Birth of a Nation. Intolerance interweaves the story of Jesus, specifically the Christ of good Protestants who is done in by Jewish Pharisees who are in thrall Judaic Law, with that of others who have been done in by intolerance: the peace-loving Babylonian king betrayed by the treacherous priest, the young Huguenot (read Protestant) couple persecuted by Catholic aristocrats, and the simple American worker plagued by an unholy alliance of progressive reformers and a factory owner.

Attitudes such as these, helped pave the way for the rise of a 20th Century artist, Adolph Hitler, who was a prominent proponent of what came to be known as Aryan Jesus.

In the late 19th and early 20th century some German Christians began to argue that Jesus was not Jewish but Celtic.

In the BBC radio program In the Footsteps of Jesus, Edward Stourton reports: "It was of course a complete fantasy, and with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see that it was driven by prejudice rather than an objective desire for historical truth, but that did not make it any less dangerous. In the 1920s, some pastors from what became known as the German Christian Movement were actively involved in the establishment of the Nazi party, and the idea of an Aryan Jesus was a theme on which Hitler himself used to hold forth to his dinner guests."

Hitler, speaking to his dining companions, described the family origins of "the Galilean" this way: "Galilee was a colony where the Romans had probably installed Gallic legionaries, and it's certain that Jesus was not a Jew. The Jews, by the way, regarded Him as the son of a whore-of a whore and a Roman soldier." (Hitler's Table Talk, 1953)

Had Hitler seen Chagall's Yellow Crucifixion, he would no doubt have deemed it degenerate art.

In the painting, Jesus wears the phylacteries that Orthodox Jews put on for their morning prayers while in the foreground the horrors of the Holocaust are depicted.

On the other hand Hitler would probably have heartily approved of what is billed as the world's most famous image of Jesus ("500 million reproductions!!!"), painted by the American artist Warner Sallman.

David Morgan, an art historian at Valparaiso University, enthuses: "The darkened definition of eyes, nose and lips, which also stand out by virtue of their pigmentation (pink colored skin and blue eyes) combined with blurred contours and soft lighting, recall the retouched studio photographs that replaced portrait painting in the late 19th Century. ...Beyond this, the mood of silence, solemnity and submissiveness to the Father's will bespeaks an ethos of filial piety and patriarchy. Sallman's image of the personal savior appeals to those who long for the communal experience of face-to-face relationships. Sallman's image is intimate, like the portrait of a family member or a loved one."

Not everyone is so adoring. One New Testament scholar put it this way: "We have a pretty picture of a woman with a curling beard who has just come from the beauty parlor with a Halo shampoo, but we do not have the Lord who died and rose again!"

Of course Sallman's Head of Christ bears no relation to what Jesus actually looked like.

Mel Gibson sought to get a little closer to reality by fitting Jim Caviezel, a good Catholic boy, with a prosthetic schnoz in The Passion of the Christ. We don't know why Gibson didn't deck him out in a Jewfro. Perhaps because the crown of thorns would have been lost in it?

The most accurate portrait of Jesus to date was published in 2002 in the Popular Mechanics cover story "The Real Face of Jesus."

The team of British forensic scientists and the Israelis archaelogists – a veritable CSI Jerusalem – that came up with The Real Face of Jesus, describe the man nailed to the cross as a Semite, who was 5 ft. 1 in., weighed 130 pounds, with brown eyes, short dark curly hair and a beard.

In other words, according to the evidence, Jesus was Jon Stewart, at 30 with a beard. Popular Mechanics' Mike Fillon observes that this is not the Jesus that is etched into the minds of Christian children in Sunday school classrooms across America.

Charles D. Hackett, who teaches at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, told Fillon, "The fact that [Jesus] probably looked a great deal more like a darker-skinned Semite than Westerners are used to seeing him pictured is a reminder of his universality, and a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values."

On the other hand, Christians from outside the dominant culture have freely adapted this very universality of Jesus to their own needs. They do so both to affirm their cultural identity and to "own" Jesus as one of their people. Hence we have a Chinese Jesus, a Japanese Jesus, a Native American Jesus, and so on.

In Latin America, in the middle of the 20th Century, Liberation Theology appropriated Jesus not out of a desire for inclusion but as a symbol of rebellion. The idea was to reform Latin America's political culture through a radical interpretation of the Bible that emphasized the social gospel. Threatened, the Catholic Church cracked down on its practitioners.

Similarly, in the United States, the black power movement of the '60s challenged white society by questioning the racial background of Jesus.

Theologian James Cone, author of A Black Theology of Liberation, writes "The 'raceless' American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes – wonder of wonders – blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society."

He goes on to exhort Black people to claim Jesus as their own. "That's important to the psychic and to the spiritual consciousness of black people who live in a ghetto and in a white society in which their lord and savior looks just like people who victimize the," he writes. "God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know they're not nobodies, they're somebodies."

As if heeding the call, we have Vincent Barzoni portraying a black, buff, dreadlocked Christ who is oh so kitsch.

In 2004, New Nation, Britain's leading black newspaper, named Jesus the greatest black icon of all time. "Despite the common depictions in Western cultures of Jesus as a blond, blue-eyed hippy looking man, all reasonable evidence points to the fact that Jesus could not have been of Scandinavian extraction and certainly was a brotha of colour," said the paper, which went on to explain that Jesus was obviously black because "called everybody 'brother,' liked Gospel, and couldn't get a fair trial." New Nation also points to images from Ethiopia, in which Jesus is portrayed as black as proof of his African ancestry. Indeed, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which dates from the 3rd Century and is the largest of what are known as Oriental Orthodox Churches, regularly depicts biblical figures as black.

In January 2006, Rolling Stone, a publication with few known ties to Ethopian orthodoxy, put Kanye West on its cover, wearing a crown of thorns. In the accompanying story, the "Passion of Kanye West," he discussed his "passion" – for pornography.

West is also the author of the popular rap song "Jesus Walks," the lyrics of which read in part:

To the hustlas, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers (Jesus walks with them) To the victims of Welfare for we living in hell here hell yeah (Jesus walks with tthheemm) ... God show me the way because the devil trying to break me down (Jesus Walks with me)

Despite West's expressed interest in Jesus, Bill Donohue, the president of Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was not amused: "If it is true that West is a morally confused black young man, it is also true that Rolling Stone is staffed by morally challenged white veterans: they are to West what white boxing agents in the 20th century were to black boxers-rip-off artists. It is not for nothing that West poses as a Christ-like figure on a magazine geared to whites. ...Is Rolling Stone as racist as it is anti-Catholic? Hard to say, but one thing's for sure: it will only be offended by the former charge."

Rosa Clemente does not agree. Writing in NB The New Black Magazine, she played the revisionist card, defending her Jesus... and Kanye. She retorted: "He is an African revolutionary who walked with the dispossessed. ...I am not naïve, it is not about seeing Jesus in a contemporary light, renderings of what people believe to be Jesus Christ have been around forever, the problem for the Catholic League and many white Christians who came out of the woodwork to condemn Kanye and begin to attack Hip Hop is that Kanye West was a Black man, who does not represent their revisionist image Jesus Christ."

There are other types of Catholics. In 1999, the National Catholic Reporter held a competition to find an image of Jesus that represented the spirit the new millennium. The winner: Jesus of the People by Janet McKenzie. Sister Wendy Beckett, who judged the competition, describes the painting this way: "This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus – dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him."

But is the painting of a "him" or a "her"?

Some viewers see Jesus of the People as thoroughly, and appropriately, androgynous. Others have no doubt that He is She. And in fact, the model for the painting was a woman. Speaking of the controversy the painting engendered, Sister Kim Mis, a Felician nun, who heads the United Stand Family Counseling Center in Chicago, said, "Too often we project God to be only who we are in our small corner of the world. We are beginning to embrace God in the many unique versions he or she takes in this world."

No such ambiguity graces Renee Cox's photographic riff on Leonardo DaVinci. In Yo Mama's Last Supper, she stands in – full frontal and nude – for Jesus. The work was featured in a 2001 Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers."

Like with West, Bill Donohue, the protector of Christ's image at the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, was not amused. He wrote to Barbara Millstein, the curator of the Brooklyn exhibit:

"To vulgarize Christ in this manner is unconscionable. That it was chosen for inclusion in this exhibit is morally indefensible. After the furor over the 'Sensation' exhibition [that featured The Holy Virgin Mary a painting of a black Madonna decorated with elephant dung by Chris Ofili], the officials at the Brooklyn Museum of Art must have known that Yo Mama's Last Supper would offend the sensibilities of many New Yorkers. ...I would love to know whether there is any portrayal of any aspect of history that you might personally find so offensive as to be excluded from an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. For starters, would you include a photograph of Jewish slave masters sodomizing their obsequious black slaves?"

Cox is not the only artist to portray Christ as female.

PassionofaGoddess.com showcases many photographic images of a female Christ on the cross. As the site owner, the photographer, explains: "The idea that God can only be a man is an idea created in a society with male dominance. The owner of this site would like to develop the idea that giving God a sex is not honest. These believers of the idea that God can only be represented as a man, disregard the female half of the worlds population." However, it is unclear if the photographer, a male, is interested in representing Christ as a different sex or in just sex.

Not all representations of female Jesus are social commentary. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland hired the Helsinski ad company TBWA to come up with an ad campaign that would a new generation to the church. The campaign featured a female Jesus, shown here.

TBWA also came up with a black Jesus, a hippie Jesus, and a somewhat cryptic t-shirt that shows two men in bed and, in English, asks the question "What Would Jesus Do?"

Gay Jesus? Why not?

These singular images of Jesus follow the tradition of centuries of Christian art in which the Savior is interpreted as befits his time and place.

With the advent of film, in the early 20th century we were treated to the full story of Gospel-as interpreted by the director.

Secular interpretations of Jesus, like the Sexy Jesus of Hamlet 2, have been around since the late '60s.

Of course not everyone thinks that is a good thing. In his essay, "How Do We Picture Jesus?," Keith Merrill writes on a Mormon Web site that "it was the later films that would remove the miracle of divinity and infuse the Jesus story with the secular dimensions, distortions and right-out fiction. Films like the playful musicals of the seventies or Scorsese's irreverent – even blasphemous – treatment of Jesus in 1988 [in The Last Temptation of Christ] required a significant shift in the morals and mores of American society before departures from the synoptic gospels-some of them troubling-would be allowed, let alone tolerated."

Indeed, in the '70s, the man from Galilee took a worldly turn, as his life was set to music and, later, film with, most famously, Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1970 double-album rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. "The idea of the whole opera is to have Christ seen through the eyes of Judas, and Christ as a man, not as a God," explained lyricist Tim Rice, at the time. "And the fact that Christ himself is just as mixed up and unaware of exactly what he is, as Judas is."

Like Andrew Fleming's "Sexy Jesus," not everyone took kindly to Webber and Rice's portrayal of Jesus, which was informed by '60s counterculture.

When the movie version came out in 1973, E.L. Bynum, then the pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Lubbock, Texas, wrote: "Dear reader, please think upon these words quoted by Mary Magdalene, 'He's a man, he's just a man, And I've had so many men before, In very many ways, He's just one more.' Do you not see the awful way they are dragging the character of our Savior in the gutter? ...Every born again Christian should readily recognize the evil of Jesus Christ Superstar, and should shun it like the plague."

And the outrage continues. In 2007, Raimundo blogged, "If you do not wish to fill your mind with Satan's evil misrepresentation of the Son of God, you should avoid Jesus Christ Superstar."

In 1971, Jonathan Schwartz, presented a more lighthearted Jesus, in the whimsical Godspell, which, like Jesus Christ Superstar, was not well received by devout Christians.

But no film riled the faithful more than The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), in which Martin Scorsese brings us a Jesus who experiences temptations, who helps the Romans build their crosses, who dreams about marrying – and making love to – Mary Magdelene, who kisses other men on the lips and who stands naked. In Paris, when the film opened Christian fundamentalists threw Molotov cocktails in the St. Michel movie theater, injuring 13 including four who were severely burned. In 1995, when it was broadcast on Channel 4 in Britain, The Last Temptation became the most complained about program in the last 12 years – and 90 percent of those malcontents had not even seen it.

British theologian William Telford, in his book Images of Christ in the Cinema, described The Last Temptation as was "one of the finest, most religious and yet most controversial Christ films ever made. ...From a New Testament, or even from a theological point of view, there is nothing in The Last Temptation of Christ that justifies the depth of opposition that there has been to it. It is sad, therefore, that the film has not had the audience it deserves."

In the tradition of Godspell, many others have had fun with Jesus, mixing him up with modern art, politics and popular culture.

Where will it end? We don't know.

Jonathan Falwell has his eyes peeled. "Sexy Jesus" is not the only blasphemy making the rounds. Jerry Springer: The Opera in Concert, words by Stewart Lee and music by Richard Thomas, was staged in Cincinnati this summer. Falwell reports that the musical features an effeminate Jesus, wearing a diaper, who says, "Actually, I am a bit gay."

The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (American TFP) has launched a counteroffensive. Above TFP members, cloaked in the TFP ceremonial habit stood as an honor guard in front of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in Cincinnati as they protest Jerry Springer: The Opera in Concert, which in the Carnegie Hall production earlier this year starred Harvey Keitel as Jerry Springer.