To mark the new millennium, the liberal-leaning National Catholic Reporter sponsored a worldwide competition for a new artistic representation of Jesus Christ, with a $2,000 prize.
The winner was"Jesus of the People" by Vermont artist Janet McKenzie, who portrayed this new Jesus as robed, crowned in thorns, and black. Most strikingly, He is a woman. (The face itself is androgynous, but the model for the painting, as we are continually told, was a woman.)
One of the judges was Sister Wendy Beckett, the cloistered nun whose television series The Story of Painting (BBC) has become a high point of educational TV. Sister Wendy liked the "haunting image of a peasant Jesus-dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him." She told the National Catholic Reporter that she saw a "symbolic sheaf of wheat" and "a symbolic Eucharistic host." The painting "seems to me a totally surrendered Lord who draws us into this holy sacrifice."
Fair enough. But on the same page the artist, Ms. McKenzie, gave her version of the painting. What Sister Wendy saw as a sheaf of wheat, a rich biblical image, is actually a feather, symbolizing, in the artist's words "transcendent knowledge," "the Native American and the Great Spirit." The circle on the left that Sister Wendy saw as a communion wafer is actually "the yin-yang symbol representing perfect balance," a figure out of Eastern religion.
Clearly Sister Wendy was filtering her perception through her own piety. That is fitting in a way, a testimony to her own faith. But this image she praised is in fact an expression of a wholly different religion from that of Sister Wendy, conservative Catholics, and even the National Catholic Reporter. It is the image of a New Age Jesus, the avatar of all religions and the personification of cosmic humanity. In the words of the artist, "the essence of the work is simply that Jesus is all of us."
But the Jesus of the Bible was no mystical ideal nor a Platonic everyman. He was certainly no one who could be appropriated by pagan religions. He was the Word made flesh, a particular human being--living in a particular historical time and a particular culture--who happened to be God Incarnate. Those who "spiritualize" Jesus by turning Him into an abstraction or a symbol may feel modern, but they have only fallen into the ancient heresies of Docetism and Gnosticism, "deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh" (2 John 1:7).
The uniqueness of Jesus-and His Lordship, even over those who reject Him-is suggested by the fact that hardly anyone will ever criticize Him. It is easy to disagree with earthly teachers. Socrates, Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Darwin, and even religious figures such as Mohammed or Buddha, all have ardent critics. Jesus, though, "taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers" (Matthew 7:29). Consequently, no one wants to be on the other side of Jesus. Many "recreate Him." Marxists make Him a revolutionary; feminists make Him a feminist; businessmen make Him a CEO.
On the other hand, Jesus remains, as He said He would, a scandal and a stumbling block. Try saying that Jesus is the only way to salvation in a crowd of multiculturalists. Or try praying in the name of Jesus in a statehouse or at a high-school football game. Generic religion might be socially acceptable, but bring the real Jesus into it, and tolerance ends. No wonder the effort now is to co-opt Jesus, to make Him generic. But it just doesn't work.
Jesus recently made the cover of Newsweek, which surveyed how He is seen in other cultures and other religions. The cover story was yet one more universalistic projection, but at the end, the writer, Kenneth L. Woodward, made a startlingly astute point: "Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every other Jesus. In Judaism there is no precedent for a Messiah who dies, much less as a criminal as Jesus did. In Islam, the story of Jesus' death is rejected as an affront to Allah himself. Hindus can accept only a Jesus who passes into peaceful samadhi, a yogi who escapes the degradation of death. The figure of the crucified Christ, says Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, 'is a very painful image to me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus.'"
Mr. Woodward concluded that there is "no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existence-and hence there is no reason to believe in Him as the divine Son whom the Father resurrects from the dead."