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The American Christ
He was a capitalist. He was an urban reformer. He was a country boy. He was “Comrade Jesus,” a hardworking socialist. He was the world’s first ad man. For a century and a half, novelists have been trying to recapture the “real” Jesus.
November 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 7
The Messiah is anything but a manifesto for the sexual revolution, however. Rather, it is part of the evangelical counterattack, and Holmes emphasizes that sex is fruitful within marriage but degrading outside it. Her Mary Magdalen is a victim of incest who fled from home and was forced into prostitution for the sake of survival. Mary Magdalen welcomes the protection and continence of the Jesus entourage as a relief from a demoralizing life of sexual trading. Jesus himself, meanwhile, has conquered the sexual temptations that Tamara represented in order to set out on his redeeming mission.
The question of race has been intertwined with many issues in American history, and the search for the real Jesus is no exception. The physical descriptions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus given by each author are themselves clues to their racial ideals and the influence of prevailing race theories. In Europe Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of the creators of the anti-Jewish Aryan philosophy that was to culminate in the Nazi movement, argued in the late nineteenth century that Jesus was not Jewish but a pure-blooded Aryan. Many American biographers and novelists of Jesus seem to have agreed, and descriptions from that era give us a blue-eyed, fair-skinned Jesus, as though a perfect Saxon had wandered unawares into Palestine. Henry Ward Beecher admitted in 1871 that we have no idea what Jesus actually looked like, but not so Lew Wallace. In Ben Hur Wallace introduced Mary: “Her complexion more pale than fair...the eyes were blue and large, and shaded by drooping lips and long lashes; and, in harmony with all, a flood of golden hair, in the style permitted to Jewish brides.”
Wallace’s Jesus has the full benefit of Mary’s genetic advantages, and as a young man his face is “shaded by locks of yellowish bright chestnut hair; a face lighted by dark-blue eyes, at the time so soft, so appealing, so full of love and holy purpose, that they had all the power of command and will.”
A couple of decades later the Holy Family was even paler. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps described Mary at the moment of the Annunciation: “She had a fair complexion, blonde hair and bright hazel eyes. Her eyebrows were arched and dark, her lips ruddy, and full of kindness when she spoke.”
In The Man Nobody Knows Bruce Barton emphasized a different aspect of Jesus that he thought had been too long overlooked—not his complexion but his soldierly physique: “His face was tanned by the sun and wind....He was an energetic outdoor man. The vigorous activities of his days gave his nerves the strength of steel. As much as any nation, ever, Americans understand and respect this kind of man.” Barton also emphasized the physical superiority of Jesus to his Roman judge, Pontius Pilate: “In the face of the Roman were deep unpleasant lines; his cheeks were fatty with self-indulgence; he had the colorless look of indoor living. The straight young man stood inches above him, bronzed and hard, and clean as the air of his loved mountain and lake.”
Robert Norwood’s The Man Who Dared to Be God followed Barton in presenting a Jesus who was “broad-shouldered, sturdy, tall for his years, full of vital fire, magnetic, golden...[with] a body which was beautiful in its strength and symmetry of line.” Norwood, writing in 1929, also offered a racial portrait which showed a few degrees of darkening since 1900: Jesus’ head is now “a billowing of russet gold hair.”
The passage of another twenty years made the Holy Family slightly darker again, but still more plausible as Western European Protestants than as Middle Eastern Jews. The Mary of Fulton Oursler’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, in 1949, is “very young....Dark hair framed the pale face above the light blue mantle and the intense blue eyes set so wide apart.” Oursler’s Jesus, in this telling, is “on fire with a dangerous purpose. He had reached sturdy manhood; His hair was long and soft and golden brown and hung around His shoulders; He had His mother’s glorious dark eyes; His muscles were strong from hard work. His face was paler than the skin of most men.”
It took until the 1970s and 1980s for white American authors to give up the pale-faced Jesus. In The Messiah Marjorie Holmes writes of “those dark, liquid eyes” and “his dark curls.” But if American whites were reluctant to relinquish a Jesus after their own image, so too were American blacks. One of the most impassioned preachers of black pride in the 1960s was the Reverend Albert Cleage of Detroit, and in Black Messiah (1968) he exploded the white Jesus myth in one stark paragraph, in favor of what seemed to him a much more congenial alternative: “For nearly 500 years the illusion that Jesus was white dominated the world only because white Europeans dominated the world. Now with the emergence of the nationalist movements of the world’s colored majority, the historical truth is finally beginning to emerge —that Jesus was the non-white leader of a non-white people, struggling for national liberation against the rule of a white nation, Rome....Jesus was a revolutionary black leader, a Zealot, seeking to lead a Black Nation to freedom.”