Was Jesus Homely?

There was a piece in a Times Union blog written by high school student Allison Moss a few weeks ago, addressing the question “Was Jesus Gay?” This was based on something singer Elton John reportedly said. Well, Jesus Christ Superstar suggests that he (or He) was bisexual. Of course, as much as I adore JCSS, I never considered it theologically authoritative.

It was that question that prompted me to revisit the notion, “Was Jesus homely?” As I understand it, we really have no idea about the physical characteristics of Jesus. He was not depicted in art until decades after walking the earth. Looking in the Bible, there appears to be no description whatsoever, except an interpretation of Isaiah 53:2, which says, “He has no form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him”. If this is in fact referring to Jesus, and the subsequent verses of the chapter are used in Messiah (Handel) as Jesus verses, then this Jesus fellow was rather plain-looking.

There’s a lengthy Wikipedia description about the depictions of Jesus, which I don’t treat as gospel either, but it IS interesting. My favorite section is on this point: “But when the pagan Celsus ridiculed the Christian religion for having an ugly God in about 180, Origen (d. 248) cited Psalm 45:3: ‘Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, mighty one, with thy beauty and fairness.’ Later the emphasis of leading Christian thinkers changed; Jerome (d. 420) and Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) argued that Jesus must have been ideally beautiful in face and body. For Augustine he was ‘beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven’.” So humans, using their own sensibilities, created the appearance of Jesus in their own image of what he (or He) must have looked like. The beard and long hair was copped, ironically, from the image of competing “gods”.

In other words, early depictions of Jesus suggested that He was plain-looking, but other religionists stuck their thumbs in their ears, wiggled their fingers, and chimed in a sing-songy voice, “Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah, nyah, nyah, your God is ugly!” So Christians made THEIR manifestation of God look more like OTHER people’s manifestation of the gods. Given the Biblical directive way back in Genesis that God made humans in God’s image, it seems as though people feel compelled to return the favor.

Moreover, He was probably short. How else does he evade the madding crowd that wants to throw him over a cliff?

So eventually, Jesus started looking, more or less, like this guy:

Theologically, it would make more sense to me if Jesus was less than handsome. It is now well documented that tall, handsome people fare better in social interactions than others. What would be the theological point if Jesus were physically appealing? One might ask if people were following Him for shallow reasons based on His countenance rather than for his message.

When images of “black Jesus” became popular four or five decades ago in some households, people were shocked, SHOCKED. “THAT’S not what Jesus looked like!” Maybe, maybe not. He probably looked more like that than this, given the geography:

I think this Time magazine cover is a fairly accurate representation of what Christ, and indeed Christianity, looks like; it depends on the point of view.

***
Yes, this is a rewrite of a post from six months ago. It just felt like a Holy week piece.

ROG

J is for Jesus

I suppose a couple caveats in order: I am a Christian, but I have no desire to proselytize. Conversely, I have no desire to mock the faith. Surely one or more people will think I’m doing one or the other.

I thought this Time magazine cover(#) was a fairly accurate representation of what Christianity looks like; it depends on the point of view.

Take, for instance, the physical characteristics of Jesus. He was not depicted in art until decades after walking the earth. What did Jesus look like? Looking in the Bible, there appears to be no description whatsoever, except an interpretation of Isaiah 53:2, which says, “He has no form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him”. If this is in fact referring to Jesus, and the subsequent verses of the chapter are used in Messiah (Handel) as Jesus verses, then this Jesus fellow was rather plain-looking.

There’s a lengthy Wikipedia description about the depictions of Jesus. My favorite section is on this point: “But when the pagan Celsus ridiculed the Christian religion for having an ugly God in about 180, Origen (d. 248) cited Psalm 45:3: ‘Gird thy sword upon thy thigh, mighty one, with thy beauty and fairness.’ Later the emphasis of leading Christian thinkers changed; Jerome (d.420) and Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) argued that Jesus must have been ideally beautiful in face and body. For Augustine he was ‘beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven’.” So humans, using their own sensibilities, created the appearance of Jesus in their own image of what he (or He) must have looked like. The beard and long hair was copped, ironically, from the image of competing “gods”.

So, the “standard” look of Jesus is understood to look something like this:

But of course, there are blond Jesus portraits:

In many homes, in the 1960s United States, there were pictures of Jesus that looked more like this montage:

Some folks saw the depiction of a black Jesus as a source of pride, while others called it blasphemy. Given the Biblical directive way back in Genesis that God made humans in God’s image, it seems as though people feel compelled to return the favor.

I was going to continue on a slippery slope of the differing philosophies of various Christian denominations, and the various depictions of Jesus as everything from a Pascal (sacrificial) lamb to a guy who turned over tables in righteous anger, but instead I’ll just leave you with this delineation of church memberships in the United States.

Oh, and this story: back in 1995, when I was still a Methodist, I was in a class called Disciple, where we poured through the whole Bible in 34 weeks. Among other things, one week’s exercise was to go to a faith community different from your own; getting out of one’s comfort zone is something I am in favor of.

As it turned out, there was a Coptic church in Albany at the time. The Coptic church is the Egyptian Orthodox church. The service, mostly in Arabic, but some in English, lasted over three hours! After the service, I had a conversation with a knowledgeable member. Everyone who participated in communion drank from the same cup; they did not worry about communicable diseases because the Lord would not let that happen in the Sacrament. As a non-Orthodox, I was not invited to partake of communion, although a Roman Catholic, who believe in transubstantiation, could have. In fact, the gentleman, in the nicest possible manner, assured me that I was going to hell for my Protestant beliefs. It was all VERY interesting how different the teachings of Jesus can be interpreted.

(#) First three images from LIFE, for personal non-commercial use only
ROG

Jesus Christ Superstar: An appreciation


My friend Ellen has one of those turntable thingies that transfers vinyl into digital recordings. She recently made a couple recordings for me, both of Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice collaborations that I’ve long had on LP, Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar. Dreamcoat, which was written first but recorded after Superstar, was OK, but Superstar had a profound affect on my way of thinking; perhaps it still does.

I originally got this album for Christmas in 1970 and played it so often, I can STILL tell you where all the skips are on my recording. I found it to be a great jumping off point for great theological discussions, rather than the anathema that some religious folks thought it was, especially with my friend Pat Wilson, a good Catholic woman who was the wife of my dentist. (For context, think of the controversies that Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film “Last temptation of Christ” or Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” engendered in certain circles.)

Overture – Ensemble
It starts with that insistent theme that appears in the next song, hits the high point with the “Superstar melody, and ends with the mournful last piece.
“Heaven on Their Minds” – Judas
I happen to think even today that there are those who worry too much about heaven and not enough about treating God’s people on earth.
“What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing, Mystifying” – Jesus, Mary, Judas, Disciples
While Jesus is a tad snarky here, it is consistent with his frustration with his disciples that after three years, they still didn’t get it.
“Everything’s Alright” – Mary, Judas, Jesus, Disciples
The religious elite were often complaining about the lowlifes Jesus hung around with. But I DO think we have the resources to “save the poor from their lot”, if not the political will.
“This Jesus Must Die” – Caiaphas, Annas, Priests, Disciples
Always loved the deep voice of Caiaphas voice.
“Hosanna” – Caiaphas, Jesus, Disciples
It has always astounded me about the mood of the crowd from the cheers of Palm Sunday to the rejection on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
“Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem” – Simon, Jesus, Disciples, Roman Guards
Simon and others thought that Jesus was going to be the second coming of the warlike Maccabees, which was not the plan. “To conquer death, you only have to die” was not, in the Biblical context, a reference to physical death but rather death to a sinful life.
“Pilate’s Dream” – Pilate
This is the same tune as Poor Jerusalem. Initially, i thought this was a mistake, but it’s performed so differently that this has become one of my favorite songs.

“The Temple” – Jesus, Profiteers
There was a second century philosopher whose name escapes me who thought that Jesus was pure love. But this is an angry Jesus. This is the first time, save for the Overture, that the Gethsemane theme appears.
“Everything’s Alright” (reprise) – Mary, Jesus
“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” – Mary
Not the first and certainly not the last to suggest a sexual/romantic relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus – see, e.g., Dan Brown. I didn’t believe it, but this suggestion did not bother me.
“Damned for All Time/Blood Money” – Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, Priests, The Mob
Judas’ conflict, though not exactly as written, does speak to the greater truth about fulfillment of Scripture.
“The Last Supper” – Jesus, Judas and Apostles
That the disciples STILL didn’t entirely know who and what they were dealing with is evident.
“Gethsemane” – Jesus
Possibly the most controversial song. That Jesus was, in part, human made his resistance to dying much more real.

“The Arrest” – Jesus, Judas, Peter, Apostles, Caiaphas, Annas, The Mob, Roman Guards
If I were to play one of the roles, I’d like it to be Peter; NOW we’ll fight for you.
“Peter’s Denial” – Peter, Mary, Apostles, The Mob
I was once in a Bible study and one member said she’d NEVER have denied Jesus, that she’d gave gotten the message right away; I never believed that.
“Pilate and Christ” – Pilate, Jesus, Annas, Mary, Apostles, Roman Guards, The Mob
The singular funniest thing on the album is a fellow with a distinct British accent saying, “someone Christ, king of the Jews.” Featuring an ironic restatement of Hosanna.
“King Herod’s Song” – Herod and his Court
High camp.
[“Could We Start Again Please?” – Mary, Peter, Simon, Disciples, Roman Guards
NOT on my album; it was only from later versions.]
“Judas’ Death” – Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, The Mob
Reiteration of Damed for All Time. was Judas’ betrayal preordained? Yeasty stuff.
“Trial By Pilate” – Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, Jesus, The Mob
Really gets to the core issue about predestination -“Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.” But if it’s all predetermined, what of free will, which allowed for the Fall from grace?
“Superstar” – Judas, Soul Girls, Angels, Paparazzi
Israel in 4 B.C. DIDN’T have mass communication. Why did Jesus come THEN? And if he came NOW, would he be on radio or TV? Would we believe in Him if he were? Bringing it to today, would he be our Facebook friend? Would we follow him on Twitter? What would He feature on His MySpace page or His YouTube videos?

“Crucifixion” – Jesus, Disciples
The seven last words.
“John 19:41” – Jesus, Disciples
The final controversy, on an instrumental track, no less. The citation is to the burial plot for Jesus. What, no Resurrection? Sacrilege! But I never thought it was Lloyd Webber and Rice’s job to complete the story the way orthodox Christianity does. It’s THEIR telling. And it means a great deal to me, just as it is.

The videos, BTW, were primarily from the not-well-received 2000 Broadway performance which my wife and I actually saw in previews. Not having seen a Broadway musical since Raisin nearly 30 years earlier, I enjoyed it at a certain level, though some of the videos now seem a tad overwrought.
***
Another appreciation of Superstar.

ROG

My Musical Obsessions

For a time, I was pretty obsessed with the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside”; I blame the French. Actually, I blame my friend Deborah who lives in France. She turned me onto the Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams version of the song that appeared in the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter. Subsequently, I learned that Red Skelton and Betty Garrett reprise the song in the same film.

The Montleban-Williams version was recorded, but it was not the first one released. That honor went to Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, one day before Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer, and BOTH of those recordings charted on the same day.

One of the best versions was done by Louis Armstrong with Velma Middleton. The story of the Satchmo version can be seen here.

What reminded me of all this was a version of the song on Coverville by Zooey Deschanel & Leon Redbone from the Elf soundtrack.

Also on the Coverville Annual Holiday Cover Show was Mele Kalikimaka/Waters Of Babylon by The Priestess & The Fool. The first song, of course, is the classic Hawaiian-sounding song by Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters. The second, though, is a song by Don McLean, the “American Pie” guy, originally called Babylon.

LINK.

Initially, I thought: “what a bizarre segue!” Babylon is based on Psalm 137, scripture most pastors I’ve known dreaded preaching about, as it’s depressing as hell. BTW, Psalm 137 is also the source of Rivers of Babylon by the Melodians from The Harder They Come soundtrack.

But the I began rethinking my objection to Babylon. Though it’s not very “Christmasy”, one of the earliest events after the birth of Jesus in Matthew 1 and 2 was the slaughter of the innocents, ordered by King Herod in Matthew 2:16-18, not unlike the events around Moses’ birth. Maybe the musical segue is not so strange after all.

The great thing about blogs is that it lets me obsess, then ideally, release it.

ROG