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.