I have been interested in The Color of Christ for a while, but I had not picked it up until Audible.com included it as part of the Audible Plus Catalogue. This new benefit allows members to listen to a couple thousand (mostly older) audiobooks for free.
The Color of Christ is a history of how Jesus has been portrayed and discussed throughout the history of the United States. My main takeaway is that while many have thought of Jesus as white, the actual images of Jesus as white, are relatively recent. Puritans had a strong iconoclast orientation as well as an understanding of the second commandment as including all representations of Jesus. While other Christian communities in the US were more likely to allow for pictures of Jesus, those groups were less culturally influential. It was not until around the 1820s that increased Catholic immigration and other forces started to weaken the cultural prohibitions to representing Christ.
Similar to what was illustrated in Jesus and John Wayne, the way that many argued against the Puritan opposition to representing Jesus Christ was as a means of Christian education. About that time, changes in printing technology allowed for low-cost pamphlets and books to include images. There is an interesting tidbit about the development of Mormon theology. Initially, Joseph Smith spoke about Jesus speaking to him through a bright light. But in later revisions of the story (in the 1820s), it was the tangible physical Jesus, who he described as White with blue eyes. That White Jesus became essential to the development of Mormon theology.
There are so many historical details that were new to me in this book. Part of what was new was Native American pastors that spoke out against white supremacy, slavery, and the lack of Christian ethics. Samson Occom wrote one of the first hymnals in the US and helped found, and fundraise for a school that was originally supposed to be for Native Americans but became Dartmouth. William Apess was a Native American pastor in the early 19th century. He passed away at only 41 but had written several books, including an autobiography and spoke out against the mistreatment of Native Americans and Black slaves and for the importance of being both a Christian and a Pequot.
Another detail I had never heard about was the (fake) Letter of Lentulus. This letter (probably from the 15th century) claimed to be from a Roman official contemporary with Jesus. It was first translated into English in 1680. The portion describing Jesus includes this passage:
He is a man of medium size (statura procerus, mediocris et spectabilis); he has a venerable aspect, and his beholders can both fear and love him. His hair is of the colour of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and very cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the colour of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin.
This description widely impacted how Jesus was portrayed even though it was known to be a fake relatively early. Even early cinema portrayals of Jesus referenced the letter for ‘historical accuracy’.
There is a good discussion about Sallman’s Head of Christ, the most well known and commercially reproduce an image of Christ. Again, much of the push to reproduce the image was evangelistic and related, part of an opposition to the spread of communism. It is estimated that more than a billion copies of the image have been printed.
The strength of the book is that it talks about not just the art, but the culture around the art. There is a very good discussion about liberation theology and the development of Black and other representational images of Christ as well as the earlier backlashes against an overtly White Jesus. The book ends with recent tv and movies like The Passion, Dogma and South Park.
This is a very good reminder that culture, not just academic theology, impact how many understand God. A good example is a book by Henry Ward Beecher, The Life of Jesus, the Christ. Beecher talked about Jesus not being white, but all of the images of Jesus in the book were white, undercutting the rhetoric. That seems to be consistent throughout much of US history. Many know that Jesus was not white, but resist images of Jesus that portray him as anything other than white.