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I Just Don’t Think Jesus Looked Like That

Summary: Tim Ghali, Grace Chapel's Pastor of Community Life, shares some of his thoughts on what it's like to wrestle with the ways we portray Jesus in art and film.

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I have an ongoing dissatisfaction with pictures of Jesus. To the best of my knowledge, it has not hindered my love for Jesus. But upon seeing an image of my Lord, I often think, “I just don’t think he looked like that.”

There may not be a single picture of Jesus that I am satisfied with. Just about every one disappoints upon closer examination. Perhaps this has something to do with my life-long feeling of living between cultures. Being an Egyptian-American born in the US, I never quite felt Middle-Eastern enough but nor did I feel Anglo-Majority Culture enough. One of my Hispanic-American friends calls this “living in the hyphen.” I appreciate the hyphen, and there seem to be many of them.

In any case, when I see a picture or an image of Jesus, my inner monologue goes something like this:

“Jesus was a pretty-boy?” 

“Ouch, I know the prophecy describes him as meek and mild but this is an bad picture of Jesus.” 

“I don’t think he had thin blonde hair and blue eyes like that.”

“Makes you wonder if this artist has never seen a Jewish person.”

“It’s ok I guess. He looks Jewish and Middle-Eastern enough, yeah, he’s not too handsome, not too ugly, not too skinny, not too muscular, and all that but I just don’t think he looked like that.”

When I watch movies with Jesus depicted I often think, “I don’t think he acted that boring, that condescending. He’s supposed to be the God of life and he acts so life-less, turn the channel!”

Just about every picture and image disappoints me. Maybe you can relate. Over the years, regardless of ethnicity and culture, friends have expressed similar sentiments on pictures of Jesus. I have dear friends who have expressed great hurt over how Jesus has been depicted. While this post is focused on my personal perspective, their hurt rings in my heart as well. 

This dissatisfaction over how Jesus is depicted affects many faithful followers of Jesus and this personal dissatisfaction is certainly not ideal when you’re a pastor. 

“Which picture should I use?” 

“I never thought anyone could say this but there are not enough pictures of Jesus. At least not enough different ones."

“I think I have spent more time looking for a picture than on my actual message.” 

Sometimes I have elected not to show a picture. But for me, that’s not a legitimate long-term option because there’s a part of me that wants to “see him.” In my personal framework, it seems to me that Jesus went through quite a lot to incarnate himself as a human like me, and it feels contradictory to never attempt to physically depict him. 

So what does one who loves Jesus do? 

Recognize there is no final or perfect picture of Jesus and often the ones hung up or projected are not trying to make that claim.

For me, this has taken the edge off. 

Even in my parents’ home, we have a variety of pictures of Jesus. One day I said to my Mom, “Do you think Jesus actually looked like that?” And she said, “No, I just like that he’s praying over Jerusalem. He’s praying for people. He’s praying for us. Besides the picture was probably made in China and we got it on sale somewhere here.” This picture hangs over our mantle because of a combination of Jesus’ ever-persistent intercession for us and my parents’ frugality.  

Keep conversing and pressing forward. 

Over the years I have had a few conversations. I remember one person saying, “I have honestly never thought about it til you mentioned it. I guess it’s very probably that Jesus didn’t have blue eyes and blonde hair.”

In seminary one of my African-American brothers expressed that while he knew that Jesus probably did not look like him, the images he preferred helped him identify with Jesus, specifically in his prayer life. I appreciated that. 

Realize we honor him in this process. 

This has helped me keep the distractions in my heart to a minimum. The fact this brings us tension shows our reverence for God and our sensitivity to the many different faces in our church community. 

I have a few pictures of Jesus hung up on a few walls. 

In my office and over my desk is “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Caravaggio.

Jesus is a bit fair in that picture. So is Thomas and one other disciples. And why are they so old looking? There was a bald disciple? 

I also think the pieced wound on Jesus’ side should be bigger. I’m not asking for the blood and brutality of the Passion of the Christ but come on Caravaggio, the Romans were using spears not butter knives.

But what I love about the picture is what it spiritually says to me. 

Jesus understands Thomas’ doubt, and Jesus understands mine. And he says, “Come and see for yourself.” And for me brings to life the words, “Blessed are those that have seen without believing."

There’s actually quite a lot more one can see in that picture and that’s what great art does. It speaks to many different people in many different ways. 

Even in trying to find a graphic for this new series "Really?!?” we asked all sorts of these questions. I am sure we asked even more within our individual hearts as well. I think we can agree that Jesus did not look like DaVinci’s rendering. I think Leonardo would say the same. But to say the least, is not an amazing piece of art? 

May God bless the artists that try to bring the abstract to life. It’s quite the difficult task but there is goodness to be found in it.  

And may the Lord use all the various depictions, images, actors to tell the world: “You are loved, and hope and salvation can be found in me."



ISIS is the reason I believe in Jesus

Summary: A couple of months ago, in response to a surge in ISIS strength across Syria and Iraq I was reminded of one of the most important reasons that I follow Jesus, because Jesus' power does not come from the power of the state, or coercion or military strength, but through humility and sacrificial service. Let's hope that the Shalom of God's kingdom transforms the hearts of ISIS and comforts those who suffer in Paris, in Beirut, and beyond.

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This post originally appeared on the blog of Robert Frazier, Grace Chapel's Watertown Campus Pastor, in response to a surge in ISIS strength across Syria and Iraq. We think it's worth sharing today. As Pastor Robert put it, "I was reminded of one of the most important reasons that I follow Jesus, because Jesus' power does not come from the power of the state, or coercion or military strength, but through humility and sacrificial service. Let's hope that the Shalom of God's kingdom transforms the hearts of ISIS and comforts those who suffer in Paris, in Beirut, and beyond."

I am a Pastor, but I have doubts. I carefully and seriously consider questions and challenges to my faith, and the historical Jesus in particular. I continue to question and doubt because if Jesus isn’t real, if what He said is not important, if it’s not essential and true: I don’t want to spend my life telling other people what he said and did. I don’t want to waste my life telling a story that doesn’t matter.

There are lots of reasons to believe in Jesus, from intellectual to historical to aesthetic, from practical to emotional to theological; the reasons to put your faith in Jesus of Nazareth as a teacher and as savior of the world are numerous and convincing. There is no shortage of books and online conversations laying out that reasoning in ways much more adeptly than I am capable. But I will tell you about one reason I believe in Jesus: ISIS. Yeah, that ISIS. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, those murderous radicals filling our newsfeeds, highlight a big reason I think that Jesus, and Christianity, stands head and shoulders above every other religion or philosophy in the world.

ISIS is fundamentally about power, about using the coercive force of military power, political terror and shameless violence against the weak and powerless to exert their will over the region that they control. And beyond that, ISIS’s objective is to claim authority over all Muslims in the world by creating a religious caliphate, a brutish form of control hearkening back to the middle ages.

Now, I have argued sincerely the last few weeks that there is room for a moderate Islam, one that does not demand the sort of violence that has been expressed through Al Qaeda and ISIS. I think that President Obama is trying to keep us from the language of a holy war against Islam so as not to inflame the moderate forces across the middle-east. The problem is that, fundamentally, the Koran and Islam view coercive power of military and physical force as a valid way to control the weak and vulnerable. It is not something to avoid but something to embrace. Strength=righteousness in Islam.

Luc Ferry, a French philosopher, has made the case that first Judaism, and then Christianity, were the first and only religious systems with universal human rights as central to their faith. Both religions invoke the powerful to care for the weak and the vulnerable. Jesus went so far as to say that you cannot be His follower unless you care for the weak like you care for your family. The downtrodden were not just to be pitied, but honored and respected.

And this sort of upheaval of the natural order of might equals right,, the reversal of the powerful doing what they want at the expense of the weak and powerless; this makes me think that there is something unique and powerful about Jesus. His followers are numbered in the billions, exist on every country of the planet, and almost all of that happened without using the coercive power of the state to compel belief.

The philosophy that the weak deserve what the powerful do to them is not limited to Islam. It is built into the teachings of Hinduism (and derivatively Buddhism). Their central beliefs endorse that the weak and poor deserve their station in life because it is justice for things that they did in past lives. This does not promote universal human rights, but instead is a way to preserve the power of those in the higher castes.

We see the same in Mormonism and other Christian cults (including Islam, a heretical off-shoot of true Christianity). They offer a way of explaining the world that justifies the actions of the rich and powerful as the blessings of God for their righteousness. We also see this in western atheism and materialism, which are both philosophically the grandchildren of western Christian humanism. Belief in materialism or Darwin’s survival of the fittest promote the devaluation of human life, promotes the genocide of handicapped fetus’ and ultimately resulted in European fascism of the mid-20th century and the genocidal mania that motivated Nazism. If, like these belief systems tell us, there is nothing beyond what we experience in this life, then the powerful will get what they want and the rest will fight for the scraps.

But following Jesus is different. It means putting down the tools of coercion and power, dying for your enemy, speaking love in the face of hatred. It means non-violent resistance. It asks for sacrificial love by the powerful for the sake of the poor and weak and vulnerable. In a word, it is love. The truest love that overcomes hate and war. It is forgiveness, a surprising kind of mercy that provides a way forward for war-torn nations. It is moral courage to stand up to those in power and risk your life for the sake of others’ freedom.

This is why I believe in Jesus. This is why I believe in the beautiful picture of sacrifice and love that is fulfilled with Him on the cross, crucified for those who killed him. It’s why I believe that He rose again and overcame the sin and death that put Him in the ground. It’s so beautiful and so full of truth, and so different than every other way of doing things that it just has to be true.

And if it is true, it means there is hope that love will overcome. That terror cannot drive out perfect love.

When you hate what you see in ISIS; when you feel afraid about what is happening in the world; when you feel sick about a seashore red with the blood of beheaded Christians, remember this. Remember that there is another way. For every reason that you hate ISIS, start falling in love with Jesus. Because not only is He different than the ways of the world, He is the only way to find ultimate peace. Hatred and violence only breed hatred and violence. But perfect love casts out all fear. And perfect love starts, and ends, with Jesus.