Unfortunately, no one took His photograph. Had they done so, Jesus wouldn’t have had a prayer recruiting most of his potential followers. It is hard to imagine western Europeans falling in love with a dark-skinned Savior from the Middle East, especially a Jewish one.
For many centuries, Western Europeans haven’t paid meaningful attention to dark-skinned writers, musicians, painters, architects, teachers, politicians or philosophers. In fact, they’ve openly discriminated against anyone who didn’t look “European.” Nor would Jesus have had much of a chance today (“Hey, isn’t he one of those guys who attacked us on 9/11?”). We certainly wouldn’t tolerate any dark-skinned man who told us to give up our extravagant (i.e., suburban) lifestyles.
Because there are no photographs, Believers have had much artistic license to imagine Jesus in comforting ways. Jesus always resembles the people who believe in Him. He likes the things they like. He feels their pain when they don’t get asked out to the prom. He cries for them when they don’t get that promotion. He applauds if we finish assembling the best Christmas lighting display on the block (He shouts “Way to Go!” and gives us the thumbs-up.).
But most strikingly, even though His Believers don’t resemble each other, Jesus physically looks like each of them. That’s how He looks in their dreams and prayers, as well as in publicly displayed art. Numerous artists have portrayed Jesus in varying ways. This art typically proves that we have created Jesus in our own image and likeness. Western Europeans have typically portrayed Jesus to look western European. Africans have African Jesus. Asians have an Asian Jesus. Most of these paintings are false, of course. If a man named Jesus walked the Earth, he could have looked like, at most, only one of these many representations.
For Believers, however, the total lack of evidence has never been a hurdle. For Believers, comforting beliefs that cannot be proven true are nonetheless important. What kind of claims get this evidentiary dispensation? The things I want to believe, of course. The many contradictions and gaps in the Bible record are simply no problem to those who want to believe them. And Believers have an amazing ability to selectively be skeptical. The God worshipped by everyone else’s religion is FALSE. Tiny fossil gaps are much more troublesome than the total failure of Christian writers (and non-Christian) to acknowledge the life and miracles of a real life Jesus of Galilee, a startling gap of more than forty years from the alleged death of Jesus until writing of the earliest Gospels.
Given this historical free rein to portray Jesus, I would propose that His American image for the 21st Century be redesigned and promulgated as follows: The new Jesus is driving his high-powered SUV out of the tomb, wearing designer jeans and sunglasses, His blonde hair waving in the breeze. He’s focused on getting a good parking spot at the stadium so as not to miss that first pitch. He has box seats, of course, where he will be sitting next to you and you and . . . YOU. What He wants to hear about more than anything else, is whatever is on YOUR mind (“Jesus, I’m trying to figure out the best airfare to get to Cancun”).
This account is not meant to be blasphemous. Instead, it is an illustration that in modern American culture, whoever Jesus might have been, His image and message have been carefully honed, against all evidence, so as not to challenge or destroy the fantasies or lifestyle of most American Believers. His image and wishes have been carefully crafted so as not to trample on our rampant materialist cravings.
In modern America we don’t need to do much at all to have Jesus as our Buddy. All we need to do is to make that weekly visit to one of those many country clubs with steeples. An hour of uncritical sycophantic swooning per week is one’s ticket to that eternal resort in the sky. “I Believe” dispenses with any need to do real work to make the world a better place to live, including for those who are truly desperate. Jesus continues to smile whenever we choose to buy that new wide-screened TV, even though that $2,000 payments could have kept 20 children from literally starving to death.
“Aw, crap. The poor and needy?” I just heard someone say. “That’s such an old and tired issue! I don’t have time for it. I’m too busy planning a ski trip with my Buddy Jesus.”