THEME FOR THE 2013 AML CONFERENCE (dates TBA): “How We Depict the Savior in Art, Film, and Literature: Does it Matter?”
My review of The Color of Christ follows to ignite some ideas and discussion. Consider Levi Petersen’s controversial “Cowboy Jesus,” or Jack Harrell’s Jesus who attends a Megadeath concert with a teen (from Harrell’s collection A Sense of Order). The possibilities are vast.
Though I was eight years old when four little girls were killed in the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, I didn’t learn about it until I was well into my teens. My family moved to Utah, and the Civil Rights Movement was a world away. In Utah, the movement was largely interpreted as a Communist plot. My co-author in the Standing on the Promises trilogy, Darius Gray, joined the LDS Church a year after the bombing. He was informed on the eve of his baptism that he would not be eligible for the priesthood, which every other man (given the lay clergy of Mormonism) could participate in. Why? Because he was black. After something akin to Jacob’s wrestling an angel, Darius chose to be baptized despite this. He came to Brigham Young University in 1964 and was invited to a movie called Civil Rights—shown in the main BYU theatre. The person who invited him had gotten the title slightly wrong, however. It was actually Civil Riots, and depicted the Movement as a Communist plot. Darius felt more conspicuous than ever as the film ended—which is saying something, given that he comprised half of the blacks at BYU that year. The only other black student, a woman, left after a group of students in a truck threw apple cores at her and shouted racial epithets.
For whatever reason, we Utah children were not told much about the Civil Rights Movement. The anti-Communist urgency of the 1960s filled the schools in Provo, Utah—including Brigham Young University—with fear. The Freeman Institute, just down the street from the BYU campus, made presentations not only at the university, but at my high school. In fact, W. Cleon Skousen, a hero of Glenn Beck, talked to my high school history class about his fear-mongering book The Naked Capitalist. Because the LDS Church supported its priesthood restriction with astonishing speculations by lay members and formal leaders, it was easy to believe that Martin Luther King Jr. was a tool of the Communists; it was easy to believe that blacks were marked with the Curse of Cain, making them ineligible for the LDS priesthood; it was easy to believe that they were born into black bodies because they had been neutrals in the pre-mortal war in Heaven. It was easy to believe these things because we never heard anything else.
Nonetheless, I didn’t believe it. When my seminary teacher started referring to blacks as “niggers,” I found myself resisting. When he asked for our evaluations of his teaching, I wrote, “I think you say things which could incite racial prejudice.” He chose to confront me during the next class, and read my words. Glaring at me, he said, “You kids in Provo, you have no idea. I’ve worked with niggers, and I tell you that they are inferior. Niggers are cursed for a reason.”
Each repetition of the “N” word felt like a slap. I dropped out of seminary. Perhaps that teacher set my path on the road I would take in 1998—to focus my writing and research on the history of blacks in Mormonism.
I remain an active and believing Latter-day Saint, one who has made a study of black Latter-day Saints and the priesthood restriction, its beginnings, and its consequences. It has become a hobby of mine to check out the religious art in whatever church, temple, or sanctuary I’m in. “I have found that depictions of Jesus in the Calvary Baptist Church, and those in a Pentecostal Church called “Mama’s” in Salt Lake City, have Jesus as dark-skinned. My respected friend, Pastor Cecil Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, produced a film titled *The Color of the Cross*, depicting of Jesus as a black man. I have seen it several times. Sadly, it was a box office failure.
And so I came to The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race
in America* by Edward Blum and Paul Harvey with unusual interest. I found errors in their depictions of Mormon history regarding race (I have never read a fully accurate account of Mormonism by a non-Mormon), but found the journey through art and literature where Christ is depicted in various ways and shades to be compelling and revelatory. I was particularly struck by the image of Christ on the book’s cover, which is the very one I grew up with, and almost certainly the one those four little girls in the Sixteenth Street Birmingham church saw the day they died. It was painted by Warner Sallman in 1941, and shows “smooth white skin, long flowing brown hair, a full beard, and blue eyes” (Blum and Harvey 208). People of all religions pictured Christ as Sallman portrayed him, because Sallman’s image was what people saw.
The book keeps its focus on America for good reason. Obviously, the narrow
focus allows the authors to develop their chapters without detouring to various European cities. More importantly, we see the evolution of Christian art because the Puritans were iconoclasts and refused to have depictions of Christ, thinking that the scriptural word itself was adequate. Therefore, we can see the arc of two centuries in which the face of Christ takes on more personality. Because we in the 21st Century are so accustomed to seeing Christian art in Christian homes, it is a bit surprising to learn that the majority of homes in the 18th Century had not a picture of Christ, but of George Washington (74).
According to Blum and Harvey, Native Americans depicted Christ as red with blood; slaves became Christians and identified with Christ as one who, like they, was despised,rejected, whipped, killed. But when mass production of Christian art became possible, Christ was white.
As an American religion, Mormonism provides some fascinating touchstones
for the racial attitudes of the time, with the priesthood restriction (1852) particularly significant. Around the same time that the restriction was articulated (though it was never canonized), Mark Twain was having a clever conversation with his daughter. As Harvey and Blum report, Twain’s daughter decided it was “sacrilegious” to call the Mother of Christ colored. Twain answered, “In her day the population of the globe was not more than a thousand milllions. Only one tenth of them were white…[W]hite was not a favorite complexion with God” (160).
The authors go on to discuss the John Scott painting “Jesus Christ Visits the Americas.” “It was an instant hit,” they say, and describe the artistic rendering: “[Christ] shows his wounded hands to Anglo-looking Native Americans, who bow, weep, and marvel at his power. The women wear skirts and dresses that come straight from the 1960s, while the men display their muscular physiques. This presentation of the white Jesus and his relationship to white Native Americans became so popular that Mormon leadership had it featured in The Book of Mormon they put in hotel room dresser drawers.” (254) They note that Jesus has blond hair and fair skin. They don’t note what I initially saw: that the location is clearly Chichen Itza, Mexico, suggesting a particular view of Book of Mormon geography.
Scott’s depiction Christ is not as Nordic as Arnold Friberg’s painting portraying Mormon and Moroni, however. Moroni wears a distinctive Viking helmet.
Obviously, the influx of Scandinavian Mormon converts influenced our perception of what Book of Mormon characters—including Jesus—looked like. These images reflect our culture as much or more than they reflect the actual events of the Book of Mormon. Can the same be said of images depicting Biblical scenes, regardless of which artists painted them?
Blum and Harvey have done far-reaching research, and have chosen a topic
whose time has come. I personally wish that Pastor Murray’s *The Color
of the Cross* had reached a wide audience. There is a prejudice in many Christians which forbids showing Christ as a black man. Pastor Murray describes his own perception of Christ in his recent book Twice Tested by Fire.
“[In the 1960s], the discussions in barber shops and beauty salons and night
clubs often centered around black authors who were Afrocentric, including black theologians who pointed out how the enemies of Jesus vilified him as the despised Samaritan (the Samaritans being black); that Jesus’ lineage was through Solomon and black Bathsheba; that the relatives of the baby Jesus took him to Egypt to hide him (chocolate being more easily hidden in chocolate than in the ethnic vanilla of, say
Europe); that in Revelation the one to come is described as having brass feet and woolen hair. There were many depictions of Jesus as black, especially in the iconography of the Black Madonna, until the 15th Century, when Pope Pious [sic] instructed Michelangelo to paint Jesus as white so that he reflected the majority culture” (Murray 56).
In Mormon churches and temples, all depictions of Christ are white, and
generally reflect the majority culture. But what of temples in Africa or Guatemala? As of now, they have the same art as what we see in Utah’s temples. Will there be accommodations there? Will new artists be hired? Shouldn’t every person be able to see something of himself/herself in the image of Christ?
I recommend that all Latter-day Saints read The Color of Christ and ponder their perceptions of the Savior. If a black man were to come to one of our church meetings, would we only reluctantly extend a hand of fellowship, and disbelieve the marks in his hands? If a black man were to ask us to thrust our hand into his side that we might know He was the Savior, would we insist that He couldn’t be, for every portrayal of Christ we’ve seen has been a white man?
Blum and Harvey quote an unnamed Mormon artist as explaining, “Art causes us to feel that Christ was a man, that He lived a physical existence, that He was mortal, sympathized with sinners, moved among beggars, helped the infirm, ate with publicans and counseled with human beings for their immediate as well as their future spiritual welfare. It is to art that we turn for help in seeing the reality of the facts of the religious teachings of this divine human” (148).