It started innocently enough. In my role as creative arts pastor at my church, I subscribe to a number of production sites which provide media for use in church services. One of them sent me a well-timed link to a beautifully produced short video of the baby Jesus in a manger, set to a compelling rendition of “What Child is This?” As I mentioned, it had some excellent production value, and in the comment section, I praised them for it. Then as a closing remark, I added, “…I just wish we as westernized Americans wouldn’t continue to perpetuate the idea that baby Jesus was a light-haired Caucasian…”
That set off a fire storm I did not anticipate. And I suspect, neither did the company who produced it.
Within 24 hours, a slew of people made similar remarks, from critically serious to seriously tongue-in-cheek. A few stated that they were in multicultural congregations, and a more historic depiction would have more credibility. Some made the color-blind argument, stating that everyone wants to see the baby Jesus in their image and cultural context. One reviewer stated that he was Eskimo, but didn’t see the need to ask for a more Eskimo-looking baby. And I loved the comment from one reviewer who noticed that the lamb in the stable was much too white. Finally, one reviewer rightly pointed out that the description of the video, as well as the video itself, implies modalism, which is an ancient heresy in which God merely takes on the form of each person—Father, Son, and Spirit—at different times, rather than co-existing eternally in Triunity. (And pardon me for not stepping into that discussion in this blog, although I do believe that this is a bigger deal than what I will say here, and that it definitely needs clarification.)
I think this fire storm of opinion exposes some things about us that maybe we aren’t completely aware. And, being the unintended instigator of this fire storm, I thought I might share some of my own thoughts about this.
One can argue that we as a society have been preconditioned by centuries of white imperialism. And it is certainly true. From Renaissance-period, European-looking Madonnas with the baby Jesus to modern films depicting Jesus as a sandy-haired (with blond highlights) Caucasian in a white robe, we lose sight of the racial make-up of the historical Jesus.
But that was not my point.
One can also argue for political correctness, and point to a fair-skinned baby Jesus as just another unfortunate faux pas. And while there is some truth in there somewhere, I am certainly not one to espouse political correctness, and ask that Jesus be depicted in every skin-tone, so that everyone be represented.
So that was not my point either.
Actually, the point I was trying to make was a Biblical one. The Messiah, the one to whom the nation Israel awaited, was prophesized to come from the line of David (Jeremiah 23:5-6), the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10), the tribe of Judah, (Genesis 49:10). He was to be heir to the throne of David (Luke 1:32-33), born in a little town in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), and amazingly born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14).
See what I’m getting at? The fact that this future King, this Savior, this Messiah, was a Jew is paramount to the story. It is by God’s mysterious and perfect design that through the nation Israel, the Jewish people, that the redemption of all people, and all of creation, would occur. God’s promise to Abraham long ago, and the subsequent prophesies which Christ fulfilled, point to the grace-filled and sovereign nature of our Triune God. That Christ would enflesh Himself as a Jewish baby is one of the most critical aspects to the Christmas story, as important as the virgin birth.
Because it points to this truth about our God: That He does indeed love us, and that His promises are indeed true.
Artistic expressions of Jesus are all around us, especially this time of year. I would encourage those of us who are visual artists to carefully consider how and why you depict Him. Because what you express says a lot about what you really believe.
Artist Credit: The artwork above, “Redemption’s Reach,” was created by my friend, Keith Elliott. It is not a part of the video mentioned in this blog.