Jesus Lets Himself Go

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper


Carpentry is hard work, as Jesus must have known. The occasions when I head to the basement and chew through wood with an electric saw and nail boards together through pre-drilled pilot holes always leave me feeling like I’ve burned a few calories. Not to mention walking everywhere. No Hondas, Volkswagens, or Smart Cars in those days. A guy could sure build up an appetite. My wife pointed me to Newsweek’s blog this week, where a story about the portion sizes portrayed in paintings of the last supper over the past millennium is posted. The conclusion drawn: the food servings have continued to escalate in size as food production and acquisition have become easier.

This is not so surprising, given that what people value is what they portray in art. As I’ve mentioned before, Stephen Prothero, in his book American Jesus, demonstrates that portraits of Jesus reflect the self-perception of the society in which they are produced. Few attempt to make a life-like representation, largely because no one knows what Jesus might have looked like.

Jesus as an ordinary guy

A few years back, Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the University of Manchester reconstructed, based on forensic research, what he believes Jesus likely looked like. The portrait is not handsome, and to be fair, not based on the actual skull of Jesus which has been missing for a couple of millennia. I used to ask my students in Intro to Christianity what difference it would make if Jesus was not good-looking. They tended to react strongly – particularly those of Christian disposition – there was an inherent blasphemy in suggesting that Jesus might not have been drop-dead handsome.

Now, if we gently push his chair back into that fateful table one more time, we might wonder how an overweight Jesus might appeal to those who struggle with weight issues. More of him to go around, as the saying goes. I’ve viewed much religious art in my time, but I’ve never seen a love-handled Jesus, let alone a chunky savior. And perhaps that is the biggest miracle of all, given that he eats more each passing year.

Saint John, Elton, That Is

“I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems. On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus wanted us to be loving and forgiving. I don’t know what makes people so cruel. Try being a gay woman in the Middle East — you’re as good as dead.” According to Parade.com, this was Elton John’s take on Christianity. I find the comments endearing in a naïve sort of way. They further demonstrate how people construct their gods in their own images. Compassionate? No question. Super-intelligent? Well, maybe. He certainly was creative, witty, and above average in intellectual celerity. Gay? Not likely. Not for doctrinal reasons, but simply for cultural ones. “Gay” as a lifestyle simply did not exist in the first century. The Bible maintains a steely silence on any aspect of Jesus’ sexual life, so we can never know. Perhaps it’s a case of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Understood human problems? Bingo! Yahtzee! That is, I believe, what Jesus was all about. In my humble opinion, Elton hit that one dead on.

The crafting of Jesus into our own form is a major aspect of Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus. A fascinating romp through a bizarre collection of made-over Jesuses, Prothero’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in civil religion or Thucydides. Even a religion prof from my alma mater, however, didn’t fully convince me that anybody really understands who Jesus was. Such is the way with all truly great individuals.

Unlike some commentators who are clearly upset by Elton John’s summation of Christianity’s founder, I am a bit more circumspect about it. No one has cornered the market on Jesus. As hard as various Christianities have tried, Jesus still emerges in divergent forms to diverse individuals and populations. From Superstar to “super-intelligent gay man,” there is no doubt that Jesus left an eternal imprint on the human population of this planet and that those who believe in him will always portray him in their own image.