Portrait of God as a Young Man

Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was msn.com. There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.

The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.


While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.

The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.

9 thoughts on “Portrait of God as a Young Man

  1. Brent Snavely

    Idolatry? Perhaps such icons are symbols-of-self, an attack upon which generates as much furor as would an attack upon one’s own person. I wonder if the picture at issue was of the “white” man so prominently displayed in the church/building where he-who-raised me conducted so many ceremonies…


  2. “But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible.” Interesting perspective you’ve chosen. I’m only guessing here, but I’m pretty sure the religious right didn’t kick up this dust bunny. The “perceived slight” began on the other side of the room when some “New Atheist”, I suppose, took offense where none was intended. It seems there’s only one point of view that doesn’t deserve room at the multi-cultural table. I hadn’t visited your site in a while, but it doesn’t look like much has changed.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Jane. I wouldn’t expect much to change; my responses reflect some 40 years in an evangelical wilderness perspective. I take your point, however, and I also cite the New Atheists as equally guilty. That’s the thing about reading–we often see what we expect to see.


      • I didn’t really expect your indictment of the Religious Right bully in this post when I started reading it. I’d been taking a sabbatical from your blog and I’d sort of forgotten why.

        For most of the post I was nodding along with you. I thought you’d found the humor in anybody getting their panties in a twist over an innocent gift of school children from a simpler time. I was chastising myself for neglecting you.

        Then there it was, the Religious Right was the villain of the story. I clicked on the article to see what terrible thing they must have done to make it impossible for someone to look at a forty year old artist’s rendering of Christ without suffering religious persecution.

        But the Religious Right hadn’t really done anything. In the 1940’s they didn’t even know they were going to be the Religious Right and those kids certainly hadn’t intended to offend anyone. So who was it that was stirring up the dust?

        As you say – we often see what we expect to see.


  3. Pingback: Icon, Idol, I Don't Know. - Bleak Theology : Bleak Theology

  4. Stephen Tarr

    For something to be “religious,” doesn’t require any intrinsic religious quality at all. I get that this was a picture of a man that they described as Jesus. But it could equally have been a picture of a daffodil. If something has been in place long enough or was contributed by someone of blessed memory, then people can easily endow it with sacred qualities. Just try and get rid of that old chair donated to the church by the founding mother!

    Of course, here the picture was objected to on the grounds that it was intrinsically religious (and justifiably too; in my view it was clearly a case of the establishment od religion). But I wonder if there would have been similar resistance on getting rid of it if someone had complained purely on aesthetic grounds?


    • Steve Wiggins

      A very interesting angle, Steve! I imagine that a chair or daffodil could also be idolized in the right context. Crimes against art take us into some very interesting territory.


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