The last two weeks I’ve tried to convince Anxious Bench readers that we tend to overemphasize the influence of books on Christianity, while understating that of other types of writings: e.g., hymns and prayers. As I conclude that series today, I go beyond the written word altogether and offer some historical and theological reflections on the most famous American painting of Jesus, Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ.
To convey the impact of this painting, I lean heavily on Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God & The Saga of Race in America, who make the important point that “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. Mothers and fathers, Sunday school teachers, and new Christian entrepreneurs were the ones who made Sallman’s Christ ubiquitous.”
But I can also add some background that Blum and Harvey don’t include, since Sallman’s version of Christ originated from within my own, small denomination: the Evangelical Covenant Church. And I close with some personal reflections of having grown up surrounded by that image:
When I come forward at Salem to take communion, I kneel at the prayer rail. As I tilt my head back to drink the cup, my eyes are drawn to a cross that is suspended in mid-air over the communion table. There is no image of Christ on that cross, but my mind invariably supplies a face that looks like Sallman’s Head. At the sacrament that brings together remembrance of the past, experience of the present Body of Christ, and expectation of our future feast in heaven, I still see Jesus as having skin near to the color of my own.
And while that speaks as clearly as anything to the persistent privilege of whiteness within my corner of Pietism and evangelicalism, I can’t entirely regret the influence of Sallman.
The same gentleness that inspired some critics to ridicule Sallman’s Jesus as “effeminate” has done much to confirm my own idea of “biblical manhood” — not violent, aggressive, or coercive, but kenotic. In fact, the caption on our church’s Head of Christ also records that Sallman was inspired by Philippians 2:8-11, which describes a Lord who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Growing up in pietistic, evangelical settings, I’ve always been surrounded by the expectation that we relate to God through a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Indeed, that has been my life’s experience from a young age, and the relationship has been mediated through art as much as prayer, Scripture, and song. If I can claim such a friendship with the Son of Man, it’s partly because my mind so easily conjures an image that my heart so easily suffuses with feelings of love and affection.
Read the full post (and the rest of the series) at The Anxious Bench.