When I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, I went to the Louvre for the first time. I only saw parts of their ancient Egypt collection and their Italian painting collection, but it was really amazing. I also discovered that if you have to use the bathroom there, and you say "the loo of the Louvre" really fast it sounds funny.
Anyway, my point -- I had one -- was that many of the Italian paintings portrayed Jesus, and they all portrayed him as a white European. You probably already know this. We recognize this now as understandable but inappropriate. Jesus was Jewish, and obviously Middle Eastern, so he probably had darker skin, black hair, more like what you imagine a nomad looks like than a European. Our desire to get back to the original Jesus is so strong that Mel Gibson filmed The Passion of the Christ in Aramaic in order to make it as historically accurate as possible.
But while I was looking at these paintings and thinking these thoughts, another came to mind. I thought of the book Bruchko by Bruce Olson, a true story of how, as a teenager, Olson flew to South America, walked into the jungle, and has converted entire tribes to Christianity. It's really amazing, and I wrote about Olson on my other blog several months ago. I don't have the book with me, so I can't quote it directly, but as I walked through the Louvre, I remembered how he had converted his first Motilone tribesman, who was also his best friend. The friend asked Bruce if he could ever "lose" Jesus -- I think his exact words were "Can Jesus ever be taken out of my mouth?" Bruce told him he didn't know; he'd have to ask Jesus himself. That night, as the tribe was laying in their hammocks in their communal hut and singing, his friend started singing about how Jesus walks the trails with him, how he has taken away all of his sin, and he can never be taken out of his mouth. It's very moving. While Olson listens to this singing, he realizes that, for his friend, Jesus is a Motilone. And when a Christian reads this, I suspect that her response will be very similar to mine: strong approval. Jesus transcends the particular culture he lived in during his sojourn on Earth, and he knows the Motilone tribe better than any Motilone could. So it's entirely appropriate for Bruce Olson's friend to sing of Jesus walking the trails with him, and thinking of him in the terms that are particular to Motilone culture. That's part of the glory of Christianity: Jesus speaks to us in our particular condition. We can think of him as one of us because he is one of us.
But then, how exactly is this different from what the European painters were doing when they represented Jesus as a European? They portrayed him as if he was one of them, and he is one of them, just as he is one of the Motilones. It's only after centuries of portraying him this way that we started getting focused on whether our portrayals were historically accurate. Of course, historical accuracy is important, and it helps us to understand more about the Gospel story and make it come alive. But one of the main points of the Gospel story is that Jesus meets us where we are. He knows more about our culture, our habitual thinking patterns, etc., than we ever could.
I'm not offering a resolution to this. As I say, historical accuracy is important. But I'm no longer "put off" by people of European descent portraying Jesus as a white-skinned, blue-eyed man. He meets us where we are. Some of us are white-skinned and blue-eyed.