Our friend Paul Harvey, the proprietor of Religion in American History and a Professor of History at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, has had a banner month in September. First, his new book with Edward J. Blum, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012) has just been published. Then the authors got a nice bit of publicity from the Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago when it published a brief explanation of their argument, along with some thoughtful comments about Mormonism, Mitt Romney, and representations of Barack Obama as a Christlike figure.
The book ranges over the entire course of American religious history, from puritan prohibitions on representing Christ at all, to Mormon imaginings of a blue-eyed, phenotypically northern European-looking Jesus, to the emergence of a black Jesus in the Civil Rights era. As the publisher’s website suggests, “[t]he color of Christ still symbolizes America’s most combustible divisions, revealing the power and malleability of race and religion from colonial times to the presidency of Barack Obama.”
But that’s not all! Last week, I got an e-mail from Fraguy while he was at Denver International Airport, reporting that Harvey and Blum had published an opinion piece in the New York Times about “Fighting over God’s Image.” They point out that Americans bloviating over “Muslim rage” about recent profane American representations of the prophet Muhammad overlook the fact that “Americans have had their own history of conflict, some of it deadly, over displays of the sacred.”
Recovering Sunday-school students like me will recall the aesthetic of all of those representations of Jesus on the walls of our classrooms even in the 1970s and 1980s, most of which seemed to date from the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is no accident, as the authors explain:
Only in the late 19th century did images of God and Jesus become commonplace in churches, Sunday school books, Bibles and homes. There were many forces at work: steam printing presses; new canals and railroads; and, not least, the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Catholics who brought with them an array of crucifixes, Madonnas and busts of saints. Protestants began producing their own images — often, to appeal to children — and gradually became more comfortable with holy images. In the 20th century, the United States began exporting such images, most notably Warner Sallman’s 1941 “Head of Christ,” which is one of the most reproduced images in world history.
But there was also resistance. When Hollywood first started portraying Jesus in films, one fundamentalist Christian fumed, “The picturing of the life and sufferings of our Savior by these institutions falls nothing short of blasphemy.” Vernon E. Jordan Jr., an African-American who was later president of the National Urban League and an adviser to President Bill Clinton, recalled that white audience members gasped when he played Jesus as an undergraduate at DePauw University in Indiana in the 1950s.
In fact, race has been a constant source of conflict over American depictions of Jesus. In Philadelphia in the 1930s, the black street preacher F. S. Cherry stormed into African-American churches and pointed at paintings or prints of white Christs, shouting, as one observer recounted, “Who in the hell is this? Nobody knows! They say it is Jesus. That’s a damned lie!”
During the civil rights era, black-power advocates and liberation theologians excoriated white images of the sacred. A 1967 “Declaration of Black Churchmen” demanded “the removal of all images which suggest that God is white.” As racial violence enveloped Detroit that year, African-American residents painted the white faces of Catholic icons black.
But that’s not all! Listening to This American Life this weekend, I heard a fascinating memoir of integration and then white flight from an immigrant Catholic neighborhood in Chicago by NPR reporter Sonari Glinton, a Chicago native and former Catholic schoolboy. In “Soul Sister,” Glinton recalls the formidable principal of his school, her determination to make an important change in the Crucifixes that adorn each classroom, and the significance of that decision for the rest of his school years and for his lived experience of his faith as an adult.
Clearly: someone is sending me the clear message that we need to buy and read this book. And congratulations to the authors! I just received my annual autumn royalty check from my publisher, and I thought I was hot stuff for selling 500 books last year. It looks like I need to make a pilgrimage down to Colorado Springs to learn from a local master of book publicity! (Click that last link to see their book tour schedule, and an interview by Ask Mormon Girl’s Joanna Brooks, Blum’s colleague at San Diego State University.)
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