This book was a surprise in many ways. It is not concerned with exploring what race Jesus was. It is an exploration of how Jesus has been portrayed inThis book was a surprise in many ways. It is not concerned with exploring what race Jesus was. It is an exploration of how Jesus has been portrayed in America. I have often wondered why we don’t see biblical epics from the Middle East. After reading this book, I think that the American biblical epic is a side effect of America’s unique implementation of colonialism and racism.
The authors begin near the end of their virtual timeline. They begin with the bombing at the 16th street Baptist church. The bombing took the lives of the four girls and it also strikingly removed the face of the white Jesus in one of the stained glass windows of the church. The authors began their investigation to ask how a white Jesus ended up in a Black church. “How he sanctified white supremacy for some and opposition to racial injustice for others.”
One of the surprises for me was that the white Jesus was not a direct import of Europe. The Puritans forbade any portrayal of Jesus. Their visionaries felt free to describe Satan and his cohorts. But Jesus remained only a white light in their descriptions. There was a document called the Publilus Lentulus letter that purported to describe Jesus as white with brown hair parted in the middle; the letter was derided as an obvious forgery even in their time. Artists who wanted to paint images of Jesus left the states for Europe for fear of being tainted with the crime of painting icons. I was also surprised at how Jesus was ‘sold’ to native Americans. Often the native Americans fell into two camps: dismissive of the missionaries who came from a people who killed their own god, or seeing a Jesus who was more like themselves.
Jesus doesn’t become imaged until the 1800’s. The two authors focus on three main reasons why. One was slavery. As enslaved American and abolitionists see Jesus as a symbol of liberation, their opposition seizes on the Publilus Lentulus letter as proof that Jesus was white. Another factor was the beginnings of the church of Latter Day Saints. The early Mormons believed that black skin was a symbol of sin. They supported the Confederacy and believed that it heralded the second coming. A third factor was the battle to subdue the Native American population. Thrown into the mix was America’s quick adoption of mass distribution. Mark Twain jokes about all of the biblical tracts that river boatmen were inundated with, all of them propagating a white Jesus. The image of a white Jesus with brown hair and blue eyes was exported everywhere where missionaries roamed.
The book ends in the modern era. The authors point out that while many churches have removed images from inside the church, the American image of Jesus is still propagated in “t-shirts, movies, books, and air balloons.” In 1978, the church of Latter Day Saints opened the hierarchy to Black men. They had also earlier resurrected an old Danish marble statue (11 foot) that affirm, the authors say, their commitment to Jesus, whiteness, and power. One of the final scenes in the book is at the 16th street Baptist Church where a Black Jesus replaced the one that was bombed. The changing immigration patterns have made the image of Jesus inside the church more varied. Outside the church, American propaganda (unconsciously?) still often uses a white Jesus as a symbol of its righteousness and power.
I found this book while rambling through the library. This is one reason why i hope that bookstores and libraries never go away. The discovery processI found this book while rambling through the library. This is one reason why i hope that bookstores and libraries never go away. The discovery process is nothing like what’s possible on an online store. I have read other books by Elaine Pagels, so picking up this book was not a complete mystery.
Elaine Pagels begins with an overview or the book, Revelations, and the works that she believes influenced the author. As she does this, she also gives context for the history of the book. Much of this was new to me. She proposes that John of Patmos was a second generation Jewish Christian. I had assumed that most of the Jewish Christians perished when Jerusalem was destroyed. In one of the initial chapters, she lays out the theory (supported by others) that John was part of the Jewish branch of the church. Like Jesus’ brother James, they felt that new Christians should be either observant Jews first, or at least follow Jewish law. While many of John’s rants are against Rome, some of them are against Christians who are following Paul’s letters that say that gentiles need not follow any Jewish law.
Another surprise was realizing that the early church fathers and mothers were African and Asian. The names that we know are Greek and Latin, but the writers themselves are Libyan, Egyptian, and from Asia Minor.
And while I had read how the early Catholic church banned gnostic writing and other gospels, I had never read any of the political battles that went into that banning. The catholic hierarchy was still being built. It was patterning itself after Rome. However, the church itself had been spreading and establishing itself without a hierarchy for over a century. There were gnostic traditions that read much like Jewish or Buddhist mysticism. None of these people saw a reason to submit to a hierarchy. Battles went back and forth with each side going into exile at time. I am left to feel like the mystics were simply outlived in many cases. Monasteries that were led by prophetic leaders died and their successors handed the keys of power to the catholic church. One wonders what might have happened if both traditions ran side by side.
One unhappy surprise was reading how far what I will (snottily) call the cult of ignorance goes back. In 346, Athanasius writes a biography of a monk who had fought against his centralization of church power. Now that the monk is dead, he is free to describe him as an illiterate and simple saint, even though the man was educated in philosophy and theology. He describes him as someone who despises educated teachers and more importantly he says that he willingly subordinated himself to the clergy. And I read that even earlier, Tertullian says that being illiterate is an advantage when seeking God.
On the other hand, some of Tertullian’s words I like. Pagels says that he turns Roman lessons on their head. The assumption was that Roman power came from their piety to their gods. Tertullian says sarcastically “all rule and empire are gained by war and victories”. And long before the declaration of independence, he tells a Roman magistrate that “it is a fundamental human right, a power bestowed by nature, that each person should worship according to his own convictions, free from compulsion”.
It’s a short book and Pagels eagerly directs you to the scholarly works that supports the ideas in this book. I enjoyed it....more
I can only echo the delight of others after reading this book. Somewhere along the line, I heard that the author of “The Count of Monte Cristo” was onI can only echo the delight of others after reading this book. Somewhere along the line, I heard that the author of “The Count of Monte Cristo” was one quarter Black. Since that fact was blithely tossed into his official biography and never backed with cultural references, I assumed that he did not consider himself Black. I also assumed that he was a self-made man who came from nothing. Little did I know that he came from nobility, even if impoverished nobility. Alexandre Dumas’ father could have been called “Count” if he had not renounced his father’s name in order to join the military. It appears that France was lucky that he did, because he was one of their best Generals during the War of Revolution. Considering that he could be considered an aristocrat, it is obvious that he had some political skills because he managed to keep his head when many of the nobility were deemed traitors to the revolution. Alas, he was not enough of a politician to evade Napoleon’s jealously, rage, and opportunism.
In this book, we see France go through a magic time when the new citizens of France completely remake their society. While the rest of the world engaged in slavery, they abolished it. They encouraged men of color to attend their schools and universities; they elected them to office. When Dumas asks a white hotelier for his daughter’s hand, the only requirement is that Private Dumas become a Sergeant first. (He comes back, one year later, only a few steps from his ascent to becoming a General.) Unfortunately, that time is brief and General Dumas lives to see Napoleon bring slavery back, enforce laws against white/black marriages, and close all schools to mixed race children.
This is a fascinating book and a fascinating historical character. Instead of yet another civil war book, I would love to know more about this brief period in French history and some of the other Black and mixed race men who helped bring France to life and were then kicked to the curb. The author notes that there is STILL no memorial to General Dumas in France. There was one once, but the Nazis melted it down during the war....more