The Trouble with Depicting God

Friday, September 28, 2012

Depictions of the sacred are everywhere in modern American society: a white, bearded, and haloed Jesus on the cartoon South Park; a painting of The Last Supper in your grandmother’s living room; Mel Gibson detailing the crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ.

But America is not removed from conflict over representations of sacred figures. Turmoil has been present since the country’s settlement and continues today in disputes over God’s race and gender.

And so, as Americans stand aghast at the horrors of the deaths surrounding depictions of Muhammad in the online video “The Innocence of Muslims,” one must also recall that the fight over God’s image is not only an ancient one, but one not limited to any single faith.

Paul Harvey is a professor of history at the University of Colorado, and the co-author of “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America," and the author of a recent op-ed on the subject in our partner The New York Times.

"Because America, in part, was founded by puritans who did not believe in imaging God or Jesus, it took a long time for images of the sacred to take hold in American history — it was really in the 19th century when that happened," Paul Harvey explains. When these images did take hold, Jesus did not look much like someone who had been born in the Middle East — he was depicted as being white, and of European origin. These appearances actually were derived from a medieval forgery, which described what Jesus looked like. "It was taken over in the 19th century, even though people knew it was a forgery, and gradually it worked its way from forgery, into folklore, into something that people more or less thought was true."

Harvey said that, in light of recent events in the Middle East, he hopes that his book will give people a new understanding of the long history of violence over images of God. "It's not just something that has happened — that is happening — over there, and that we have always been immune to in our history." With this new historical perspective, perhaps we can understand a bit better how images of God could cause such conflict.


Paul Harvey

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman and Maggie Penman

Comments [8]

Christine from Westchester

God should look like whatever God looks like to you. White, black, male, female, animal, inanimate object. It's what you think he/she looks like and if you think he's tall and blond, who am I to say different?

But this discussion seems to be really about excusing the recent behavior in violent protests and murders in the Middle East. Poor excuses for violence

Sep. 28 2012 03:27 PM

Lame attempt to build a man of straw. Equating 300 year old unrelated occurrences in America with CURRENT abhorrent Muslim behavior/murder.

Sep. 28 2012 11:41 AM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Maybe they didn't have the right art supplies back then to do him, her, it, justice.

The idea of leaving God as a blank makes him, her, it, more scary...If you have an image of God and he looks like your Uncle Morey, he might not be as omnipotent, and he might just look like a guy who is going to give you a nickle and a candy...

I got it... Let's get the guy who made the bad Muslim film to do a whole series of bad movies about different religions and show it to the Muslim World... Maybe it will ease tensions...Worth a shot.

Sep. 28 2012 10:18 AM
Eleanor Lunn from Jackson heights

I object to depictions of God because all of the depictions are of males. How silly!!

Sep. 28 2012 09:47 AM
Robert Fogel from United States

An avid listener is surprised that
after about 10 minutes of talk on the imaging of god and its consequence that the jewish prohibition of such has not been mentioned. Where they not the progenitor of these monotheistic faiths?

Sep. 28 2012 09:33 AM
David from Westchester

I'd like to take issue with the interviewer's statement that depictions of the deity and the prophets are problematic for "all religions". This is the usual annoying use of "all religions" to mean "whatever religion we're currently discussing, and also Christianity". I'm not aware of any strain of Buddhism, or Hinduism, in which any of this stuff was considered sinful. This seems to be another feature of the Abrahamic religions, which are by no means all there is...

Sep. 28 2012 09:32 AM
rose-ellen from jackson heights

"The single god-allah?"That sentence itself is deceitful as it uses the word "allah" as if it were a proper name for a god when of course you know it is simply the arabic word for god.Another tactic of the anti muslim propaganda meant to deny the reality of islam as being an abrahamic faith which believes in one god-the god of the bible at that.And the way you bring in pre islam paganism is also a standard tactic of anti muslim propagandists who claim islam is really the worship of a pagan god!

Sep. 28 2012 09:29 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Of course there are depictions of Jesus all over. They are based on the historical Shroud. Some are disresectful, but we send emails complaining about it, that's all. The one above is actually not bad.

In Islam, because of their view of God as completely transcendent, it makes perfect sense that if someone insults the prophet, they have to die, sooner or later.

Sep. 28 2012 08:02 AM

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