Societies create Jesus in their own imageby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
The Bible teaches that God gave the world his only son. It's this child's birth that's celebrated by more than two billion people each Christmas. What the Bible doesn't do, though, is offer a good description of the Almighty's holy offspring. In fact, the earliest image we have of Jesus Christ was created 300 years after he lived. Perhaps it's only natural then for followers to depict Jesus in ways that make sense to them.
St. Paul, Minn. — The Virgin Mary is draped in deerskin. Joseph sports moccasins. And their child, the baby Jesus, is wrapped not in swaddling clothes, but a papoose.
"And the three wise men are three chiefs coming."
This Algonquin Indian representation of Christ's birth is just one of over 200 nativity scenes Rev.Gerald Dvorak has set up in the basement of the Church of St. Joseph in Hopkins.
The Catholic pastor has been collecting the religious figurines for more than 30 years. He has sets from Italy and Bolivia, the Congo and Japan and dozens of other places around the globe.
"Here, rather than Jesus sleeping in a manger, he's sleeping on a pad of leaves."
Reverend Dvorak grew up with the blue-eyed, light-skinned image of Christ. But as his collection clearly shows, that depiction is merely one of many. Just as God is said to have created man in his own image, societies have created Jesus in theirs.
A Masi portrayal of Christ's birth has a zebra and giraffe making the pilgrimage to see the Messiah. The African newborn is naked except for the strings of beads on his ankles and wrists.
Next to him, a plump baby Jesus donning a hat is presented gifts from the wise men of the Amazon - turtles, bananas and a panther.
Across the room, a 19th century French village is sprawled across three folding tables. In this version of the first Noel, Mary and Joseph find room in a ceramic-tiled inn right next to a pub.
For Reverend Dvorak, this all makes perfect sense.
"It shows the relevance and power of the faith, that Christ is here. He's not limited to the 1st century".
Father Joseph Johnson agrees. He's the rector of the Cathedral of Saint Paul. The way he sees it, the story of Jesus transcends time and place.
"It's relevant to every culture and every culture seeks to take it and make it its own, which then means a wide variety of depictions of Jesus," he says.
"Truly, Jesus would have looked like a Jewish person in the Roman territory of Palestine 2000 years ago. But art is a means by which we can take the message flowing from that historical reality and...make it something that others in this particular time and place can draw near to and connect with."
Christians simply relate better to a savior who looks like them. Which is why, centuries ago, Western Europeans painted Jesus with white skin and flowing, golden-brown hair. And why, today, murals in many north Minneapolis churches portray Jesus as an African-American.
But, perhaps more than our skin color, it's our life experience that determines how we choose to view Jesus, says Father Joseph.
"Modern Western culture likes a very antiseptic Jesus, whereas when we see the images that the Hispanic immigrants bring with them, we just kind of go, 'Ooh.' They're very bloody. It's a beaten up Jesus. And in a way it's because we live in a modern industrialized nation that's very neat and tidy and clean. They come from, in many cases, a very poor and oppressed situation and so they really resonate with the suffering Jesus. That's a Jesus that they can relate to."
To see just how Jesus has been adapted for modern-day, American society, look no further than St. Patrick's Guild. The St. Paul store sells everything from religious gifts to church supplies to life-sized representations of Christ on the cross.
Employee Shannon Barr shows off one of the most popular items among children. It's a figurine of Jesus playing hockey. But instead of shin guards and a mesh jersey, Christ wears a long, white robe.
"That's something I appreciate about this item. Jesus doesn't have to change to be in my life. He doesn't have to put on jeans to join me on the street, you know."
Some customers prefer a more godlike Jesus, but most really enjoy seeing the savior as a regular dude, Guild owner Tim Doran says.
"This picture is called The Laughing Jesus and it's extremely popular here. He's bursting out in laughter. Someone just told him a great joke. And it's refreshing to see him in that image."
For Shannon Barr, it doesn't matter if the son of God is represented as a good-humored carpenter or a somber spiritual leader. She says no matter what the image, there's one thing that always seem to come through.
"He's often gazing at the person who is looking at the statue or the image in a way that seems to be making a connection, gazing at you as, 'My dear one, come to me. I am here for you.'"
And that's true, she says, whether Jesus is a dark-skinned Zulu, a wool-clad Peruvian or a white European with long, golden hair.
There is, however, one way Barr wouldn't want to see Jesus depicted.
"I don't like to see him all dazzled up."
That means no hipster attire, no trendy motorcycles and no bling.
"There's nothing we can do to add to him. He's already more than we can handle."
- All Things Considered, 12/23/2008, 4:54 p.m.