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Saturday, October 01, 2005 

Paint a vulgar picture

First of all, I want to thank everyone here at VSoM for having me. No one can replace JLS, but perhaps when you're reading my first post, my voice will be transformed into his, and you'll know that I am his true and destined successor, not JLS the third or Sidney Rigdon.

My favorite Mormon myth has already been mentioned in passing in the comments on John's post. Yes, I'll admit it: I believed the Del Parson's Jesus myth. Fortunately, no one knows my real name, so the teasing will sting much less.

Imagine for a moment being in the ninth grade in Utah, walking ten feet off school property to attend seminary between algebra and earth science class. Our overly-enthusiastic, fresh-off-the-mission seminary teacher is filling our heads with the gospel. Or at least what he believes is the gospel. His stories include such classics as Elders being killed at the beach on their P-day (divine retribution for breaking the rules or Satan controlling the water? You decide!), angels with flaming swords protecting the Sister missionaries from would-be rapists, and of course, missionaries in Harlem miraculously starting their car without a battery to escape muggers. Most kids at that age already have a built-in b.s. detector, but not me. I am soaking it all up uncritically as my seminary teacher tells us how the artist commissioned by the Church to paint a portrait of Jesus keeps getting his painting rejected by the Brethren. They say that it's not quite right, and tell him how to change it. Finally, he prays for inspiration and presents them with his final draft. The prophet says that it is the closest resemblance to the Savior that he has ever seen. And that picture is (drum-roll please)... the red-robed Jesus that we all know and love!

Pretty ridiculous, I know, but somehow it got swept up with everything else I was learning about the church and I never realized that it was a Mormon myth. When I was at the MTC, I was certain only to buy the picture of the red-robed Jesus for the cover of my discussions, because it was the only one that looked just like him! Very embarrassing.

The thing I love about this myth is the sheer presumptuousness of it. It's not enough to be the only church guided by Jesus, we also have to be the only church that knows exactly what he looks like. I think it also reveals a little bit of our inferiority complex. Mormonism has always had the rhetoric of a world religion but been stuck with the membership of a regional religion. We are always looking to grab on to something to ease the tension between our self-image (God's One and Only True Church) and the image others have of us (weird, small, Utah religion).

We must be in the right church. Our apostles can pick Jesus out of a line-up, like they were on Law & Order. "Number 4, please step forward." This myth also reveals our collective fantasy about the prophet and apostles: we desperately want to believe that they are having face-to-face time with the Savior. They never say anything about it (at least not for the last eighty years), so we cling to the belief that they just aren't telling us.

Sadly, nothing in life will ever be as simple as these myths, or more accurately, Mormon fantasies. Gordon B. Hinckley goes on Larry King and 60 Minutes and gives vague, wishy-washy, and maddeningly unsatisfying answers. We want him to be Moses, we want him to speak to God face to face. We don't want to hear about feelings and impressions; we want to hear how God warned him about 9/11 and the tsunami. So when we hear a story from the Sunday School President whose brother-in-law works at the Church Office Building and swears he was there when it happened, we feel our faith has been vindicated.

That's okay, we won't have to worry about these things for too much longer. I heard they aren't calling any more missionaries because the second coming will happen before they come back. Good thing Brigham Young constructed the foundation of the Salt Lake temple so that it can be lifted from above.

Welcome, Ned. Excellent thoughts.

Gosh, now with Ned AND John C I'm going to have to visit here regularly.

I like Hinckley's answers to Larry King and Time. The man is being honest - he's not just saying what people want him to say. I like that he can admit when he doesn't know something. It's the myth-maker who always knows.

As an art historian, and someone who critisizes art on a daily basis, here is my beef with Jesus in the Red Robe. HE IS A JEW! Why the heck does he look Scandanavian? I'm sure someday I'll see Jesus and go, "Huh, you really do look like that." and then I'll be embarressed. But in the meantime, it is my beef.

Also... Ned, WELCOME! An excellent post! I look forward to hearing more from you.

Good stuff Ned. Looking forward to your further thoughts.

I agree Sarah. The Mormons really like Surfer Dude Jesus. The Discovery Channel did a show on this recently and this was what they came up with:


My mom was in shock. LOL

Whoops! Try this link for the Discovery Channel Jesus pic:


Thanks, guys.

Interesting, lchan. I think myths thrive when we are kept in the dark about how the church works.

That's a very good point, Sarah. Unfortunately, I don't think we can even get a Jesus with a tan by the correlation committee, let alone a truly Semitic Savior.

Wendy, can you imagine the reaction if that Jesus was put on a Sunday School manual?

I think it's natural to want Jesus to correspond with your culture. However, if we truly want to be a global church, it doesn't seem fair to promote a blue-eyed, extremely pale Jesus.

Did anyone notice that the alt tag on that picture says "Artist's sketch of Jesus as a teen"? That's funny.

I don't think it takes a genius to figure out that Jesus most likely had dark skin and dark hair. But, as someone who is also interested in art history, I think you would be fighting a long history of how Christ has been envisioned to portray Christ differently. The red robe picture is instantly recognizable as Jesus because it is consistent with how Jesus has been portrayed for over 500 years.

Ned, do you really feel like Pres. Hinckley is trying to keep members in the dark about how the church works?

Sorry for the confusion, lchan; I actually meant the opposite. I think we need more stuff like GBH's 60 Minutes interview or the new book about David O. McKay and how he wasn't able to convince some members of the 12 to overturn the priesthood ban on African-Americans.

When we get glimpses of the church's actual governance, it immunizes us from folk doctrine and myths that spring up in the absence of light.

Sorry I wasn't more clear.

I've seen some Semetic Christs and some others. Of course we don't know what effect, if any, God had on the way Jesus looked.

What about the Italian renders of Christ? The African ones? You can see a lot of interesting art ... but I think that when the Savior shall appear, we shall see him as he is, and will see in him ourselves if we have become like him.

I attended a fireside once as a teenager where something like the Del Parson's jesus myth was related, and afterwards a friend of mine asked, "So which painting were they talking about? The one where he's wearing a red cardigan?" I've never looked at that painting the same way again.

Oh, and just to be annoying...why COULDN'T Jesus have had blue eyes? I know TONS of Irish people who don't have red hair. Has anyone been to Isreal? What does "Jewish" look like anyway? And what did it look like 2000 years ago? Just wondering...

Relegious art makes me uncomfortable anyway...except for Carl Bloch's stuff, which I am SO happy the church is embracing...(even buying!)

Great post Ned. Thoughtful and very well written.

I agree with you Carrie Ann. I think there is a fine line between art and kitsch and respecting religous art that line is crossed far too often. I often see this line crossed here in Bavaria-the sacred heart of Jesus pictures and so forth. Baroque art can be kitschy too, what with all of the fat cupids and gilded everything!

Personally I prefer not to have pictures of Christ in my home because it doesn't "feel" right. I don't mind pictures of the temple, but I just don't agree with most of the depictions I see of Jesus. Usually they ARE too kitschy imho. ;-)

And what about Jesus' wife and kids?

Good grief. You guys have all forgotten your religion. God was Jesus's father, right? So half of Jesus's genes came from God's own sperm. And God, being the ultimate partiarch, his genes HAD to be dominate over the ones from Mary's egg. That is why Jesus could say "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father." It's just spit 'n image. So of course the true picture of Jesus looks Scandinavian. God is a Viking!

I've always liked this blog, but rarely visit for some reason. But Ned's addition makes me a faithful full-timer. Good call, VSoM!

Just for the record:
1. I read somewhere that Del Parson said the myth wasn't true. Sorry, Ned. I thought I'd seen it online, but perhaps it was in the Daily Universe at BYU?

2. The best pictures of the savior, I think, are by Minerva Teichert, specifically because she's not a realist. I like that.

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This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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