Jesus Was Not Ultra-Fuckable
If you haven’t seen the reconstructed image of Jesus by forensic anthropologist Richard Neave, then I have some bad news for you. The porcelain Messiah of your wet dreams — the one we inherited from Western artists as early as the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance — actually looked more like this:
Since its first appearance in the 2001 documentary, Son of God, the Interwebs have been abuzz recently with renewed vigor for Neave’s depiction of Christ — and, it’s no wonder why. Given the obvious political tension we find ourselves in, the image serves as a kind of critique of the xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments often associated with the Christian Right.
Several articles and blogs have already been written showing how Neave’s Jesus confronts the hypocrisy of conservative Christian extremists — that realizing Jesus was not just Middle Eastern, but also a refugee, should cause something of a Damascus Road experience (see, Ac. 9) among all the “Christian” xenophobes out there.
But this image presents us with another layer of critique that has yet to be explored. Although Neave must have taken several artistic liberties, his version, nevertheless, offers us with a much more historically accurate depiction of Christ than the “Ryan-Gosling Jesus” of our childhood that had all of us creaming our pants in Sunday School. That is, if no one had told us this was supposed to be a picture of Jesus, we’d all probably write this guy off like any other schlub off the street. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus was beautiful, but in the same way most people are — in that Dove-beauty-campaign sort of way. Keeping in mind that he looked like your everyday first-century Jew — basic at best (as the kids say) — means there was nothing about Jesus’ physical appearance that he could use to his advantage — either to sway public opinion or even to gain an audience. That the image of the invisible God was expressed in stark ordinariness is an important thing to think about when reflecting on the Incarnation.
‘What is Beautiful is Good’ Stereotype
It’s far too easy for us, especially today, to discriminate — however unintentionally it might be — against Others left and right like Tinder swipes (that was almost poetic), simply because of their physical appearance. While we all might like to believe that what matters is on the “inside,” all of us, unfortunately, tend to put a priority on aesthetics — at least initially — before even considering something “stupid,” like, someone’s moral integrity or intelligence.
In fact, psychologists have observed this bias for decades, what is known as the what is beautiful is good stereotype. Studies have shown that physically attractive people are rated by others as more intelligent, more able, more morally upright and just better human beings than the rest of us “monsters.” This can be seen in myths and fairy tales as well as films throughout history. Not only that, but this perception of beautiful people as more valuable members of society acts as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, allowing them preferential treatment in areas of employment and social opportunities. And, while the human mind naturally develops this “mental shortcut” to make interpersonal judgments somewhat more efficient, it’s still pretty fucked up!
Who was Jesus?
The invisible God made tangible in Christ, however, goes against the grain of our cognitive biases. Not only did he look ordinary, but everything about him reeked of nothing-special:
Jesus, a fairly common name at the time (Yeshua = Jesus/Joshua), grew up in a lesser known part of Galilee called Nazareth. He was some sort of craftsman. And, while tradition has us believe he was a carpenter, he could have easily been something of a bricklayer, a stonemason, or something more demeaning, like a blogger.
Jesus emerged out of obscurity around the age of thirty as an itinerant preacher and teacher. And, unlike his physical appearance, the things he said and did received much attention and criticism. He hobnobbed with the disenfranchised (e.g., the poor, tax collectors, Samaritans and prostitutes), rubbed elbows with lepers (who are the last people you want to rub your elbow on) and challenged the religious/political milieu of his day.
His opponents deemed him a bastard child, a false teacher, a political dissenter and a blasphemer.
His followers, however, thought he might be the Messiah — which in their minds was a militaristic or political leader, or some blend of the two — who would unite Israel, reclaim David’s throne and overthrow Rome.
Instead, his friend, Judas, sells him out with a kiss, and he’s arrested, beaten, mocked and eventually executed in the most humiliating and torturous way — naked on a cross.
The Incarnation Reveals the Other Among Us
As apt as we are to gravitate toward sameness (people who are like us; people who are NOT Other), and particularly beauty, Jesus makes himself known to us by becoming completely Other. There was nothing about his appearance, his words or the things he did that would allow us to pin him down. To know him was to sacrifice our expectations and assumptions of him.
In this way, the Incarnation is not just an image of the invisible God concretely expressed in Christ, but an image of some us who feel invisible to the world. That God revealed himself as Other functions as a constant check that keeps our automatic judgments and cognitive biases from stereotyping and type-casting those who are Other to us. It blows up our categories and the preconceived expectations we have that cock-block us from truly engaging and understanding those different from us (e.g., whether it be race, culture, gender, physical appearance, personality, etc.). Indeed, when we allow ourselves the vacillating experience the Other brings and resist the temptation of reducing them to our limited understanding, we acknowledge to them that they too are made in the image of God.
Sorry for ruining your Christmas,