The Color of Christ by Blum and Harvey

Sallman  Head of Christ Warner Sallman, Head of Christ, 1941

Historians Blum and Harvey take us through appearances of Jesus through American history, with special attention to issues of race and race relations. In painting, films, animations and television, the face and body of Jesus has comforted, inspired and outraged people. From Puritan Protestants who had no images of Jesus (“radical iconolasts living in an age of radical iconoclasm”) to the “Jesus jokes” of South Park and Comedy Central, the face and body of Jesus has been used by…

…red, white, and black Americans…to make sacred senses of their worlds. In the process, they have taken and given life, they have justified injustice and battled against it; and they have cried out in agony while bending their knees in gratitude.

…as white Protestants reached out with eyes of faith to see Jesus, a growing number of Native Americans and African Americans along the East Coast began to behold Jesus too. Whiteness never dominated their encounters…these colonial Christians were far more likely to be seen in glorious light or in ravaged red. The eighteenth century American Jesus figures were no emblems of white supremacy but agents of dynamic exchange made through cross-cultural encounters.

Underneath the turbulence…emerged a new popular consensus about Christ’s body. It came from a Midwestern painter…No matter how many critics denounced its stereotypical white features…the Sallman  Head of Christ became the literal face of Jesus to millions…. the rise in popularity of Sallman’s Head of Christ showed that everyday Christians, not just church leaders or theologians, were the prime movers of faith’s material culture…

As the United States continued to struggle with its racial and religious identity in the decades to come, the jokes in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century joined the political culture wars. Jokes based on Christ’s whiteness came from several different angles and attested to his continuing power as a sacred figure.

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