It hangs above my altar
Like they hung him from a cross
I keep one in my wallet
For the times I feel lost
In a wooden frame with splinters
Where my family kneels to pray
And if you listen close
You’ll hear the words he used to say
I’ve got a picture of Jesus
In his arms so many prayers rest
We’ve got a picture of Jesus
And with him we shall be forever blessed
Ben Harper’s song “Pictures of Jesus” brings some memories fresh to my mind whenever I listen to this song. I can’t help but remember the pictures and images of Jesus which I would find placed throughout my Catholic grandmother’s house, (some of which I often threatened to knock over with my constant playing). There is something we like about pictures of Jesus, something familiar, something so sweet that it brings memories to the mind, and hope to the heart. But perhaps we ought to pay close attention to the familiarity and comfort which these pictures bring us. Observe the next verse of Harper’s song:
Now it has been spoken
He would come again
But would we recognize
This king among men
There was a man in our time
His words shine bright like the sun
He tried to lift the masses
And was crucified by gun
Clearly, Harper is pointing to Martin Luther King Jr. with this verse. While MLK certainly did promote and preach a message which frequently intersected with the “gospel of the kingdom” which pervaded Jesus’ ministry, the modern reformer’s message was not the full message of Christ as presented in the Gospels. My point is not to bring into question the importance and respect due to the work of Martin Luther King Jr., but to simply say that he was not Jesus. This is the problem creatures so prone to idolatry run into with the casting of images. The danger is not in the subject of the pictures, but in the interpretation.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI appropriately (and skillfully) blasts the liberal scholarship of the Jesus Seminar. He contends that most often the picture of Jesus rendered by a given artist or author mostly resembles the given artist or author. He writes:
At the same time, though, the reconstructions of this Jesus (who could only be discovered by going behind the traditions and sources used by the Evangelists) became more and more incompatible with one another: at one end of the spectrum, Jesus was the anti-Roman revolutionary working – though finally failing – to overthrow the ruling powers; at the other end, he was the meek moral teacher who approves everything and unaccountability comes to grief. If you read a number of these reconstructions one after the other, you see at once that far from uncovering an icon that has become obscured over time, they are much more like photographs of their authors and the ideals they hold. (pg. xii)
Interesting point! This exact same thing can be seen in the smug Brad Jersak’s Jesus as Jersak speaks “on his behalf” to those who hold to the penal substitution model of the atonement (See Stricken By God? pp. 26-7). Jersak’s Jesus sounds less like Jesus and more like Jersak. Listen to how glaringly obvious this is:
I appreciate your efforts to understand my death, to explain its meaning and significance. I really do. Quite clever, too. But since I’m the one who came, who suffered and died – since it was my mission that led to the Cross – might I offer my views on what happened? Would my perspective be welcome at the table of atonement talk?
Anne Rice demonstrates in her personal comments at the end of the novel Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt that such approaches to recasting Jesus are all too easy. She writes:
Anybody could write about a liberal Jesus, a married Jesus, a gay Jesus, a Jesus who was a rebel. The “Quest for the Historical Jesus” had become a joke because of all the many definitions it had ascribed to Jesus. The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels …and try to get inside him and imagine what he felt. (pp. 319-20)
Now you might say to yourself, “Of course the liberal has it wrong! Their Jesus looks nothing like the Jesus I have always pictured.” Stop right there! Do you see the danger you are in?!?!
As I said earlier, I grew up seeing pictures of Jesus frequently. In all of these pictures he was… well… white. This was of course gospel truth to me until I came across a picture of black Jesus. Shortly thereafter I saw a picture of Indian Jesus, Joseph, and Mary! Then in recounting my struggles to a friend, I was told of a picture she had encountered of a Korean Jesus! What the heck?
Then I realized something, the white Jesus whom the slave owners of the Old South sang about probably approved of slave ownership. The black Jesus I saw at the shelter probably gave little thought to abortion and had no desire for any welfare reform. The Korean Jesus was probably exclusively Korean in some form or fashion and most likely was somewhat approving of the sins which the Korean culture is prone toward. The Indian Jesus probably enjoyed peyote. Donald Miller’s Jesus was liberal as all get out and probably went around everywhere confessing the sins of his disciples. Asa Hart’s Jesus was a white guy who thought that Asa was a pretty good guy, and that all glory and honor should go to Asa, after all when Asa’s Jesus was on the cross Asa was on his mind. The Jesus I knew a few short years back was a rebel like me, who confronted the ultra-religious Pharisees because he was authentic… like me.
The difficulty in painting Jesus, in describing who He is, is the difficulty of abandoning one’s bias and preconceived ideas – it is impossible to be done in such a manner which would merit the credibility of the inspired Gospel accounts. This is precisely why we were given the Gospels. The revelation of Christ in Scriptures is the only source to be trusted. The Jesus presented in the Gospels convicts us and reveals our sin to us. The character of this Man (indeed the True Man), which believers are being conformed to, was the purest to ever grace the earth. He was sinless and He confronted sin. He was righteous and yet He received the repentant sinner. He was indeed revolutionary, but by no means was He rebellious against God-anointed authority. He was God and yet became man. He was perfect and commanded us to be so as well. He forgave His enemies. He paid His taxes. He touched the leper. He rebuked His friends. He welcomed the children. He taught with authority. We don’t know whether He laughed a little or a lot, that is not for us to say. We don’t know whether He was pensive or carefree. We do know that by His name the demons shriek, by His words the storm is stilled, by His death the Church is saved, according to His character the believer is molded, with Him the believer will be raised, and by the breath of His mouth the Evil One will be destroyed!
Keep yourself from the idols which stray from such a picture.
– Asa Hart