More on the Color of Jesus

We've received quite a bit of feedback regarding John Piper's comments on racially diverse portraits of Jesus, so I want to offer some additional thoughts that I hope will be clarifying.

A few people have asked if it's a waste of time to discuss what color Jesus should be in artistic portrayals of him. There are certainly more important issues, but I think it is a worthwhile question, one reason being that it can lead to discussions of at least two deeper, more important issues: race and art.

Most of the feedback we've received has touched more on the artistic than the racial aspect, so that's what I'll respond to here.

If the goal of art is to strictly represent reality, then, yes, Jesus should always be portrayed as a first-century Jew. But if the goal of art is to interpret reality in order to draw out something particularly true or beautiful, then precise realism is not always required. For example, certain attributes of Christ are highlighted when he is called a lion and others are highlighted when he is called a lamb. Needless to say, neither of these images is "accurate." He is neither a lion nor a lamb; he is a first-century Jew. But beautiful, true things about him become clearer to us when we picture him in these "inaccurate" forms.

A problem would arise if we took one metaphorical image of Christ and only ever perceived him through that interpretation. If I only ever thought of Jesus as a lion, I would be missing out on what makes him lamb-like. Similarly, if I consistently thought of Jesus as a white man, I would be missing out on the glorious importance of his Jewish lineage. But it does not follow that he should never be portrayed that way at all, just like it does not follow that he should never be portrayed as a lion because he is actually a man.

I think it is incredibly important that we think and feel things about Jesus that are based on actual, concrete, historical facts. I just don't think we should lose the capacity for metaphor as we strive to stay true to Jesus, because often it is metaphor that will keep us nearer the actual truth. God uses riskier comparisons to say true things about himself than an inaccurately pigmented Christ could ever be. Think of the gall that an artist would have to have to portray God as a man marrying a prostitute (Hosea 1:2) or to portray Christ as a chicken (Matthew 23:37)—but these are God's metaphors!

Unfortunately, some people do believe falsely about Jesus' race. And, often, as Joe Carter points out, these false ideas come from very deep and destructive belief systems. The question needs to be asked, then, whether the problem is with the images or with the deeper falsehoods that lead people to take the images literally. I definitely agree that historically inaccurate images of Christ can be unhelpful, but I don't think that there is warrant to dismiss all pictures of him that do not fit the profile of an ancient Semite.

All that said, it is wonderful to be a part of a community that cares about honoring Christ and keeping true to his historical, physical, 33-year-long life on this earth that saves us—whether we paint pictures of it or not.