Throwing in some last minute thoughts about Christmas before tree burning commences. The incarnation is, in a way, God being made in the image of man, which is part of the humiliation of Christ’s life. It seems to me that the cross begins at Christmas, when the second person of the Trinity is pushed out from between Mary’s unshaved legs, into a world of gravity and cold sores, a world where every passing day brings him closer to death. “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”

With this in mind, I’d like to briefly throw out some thoughts on the trending White Jesus debate, which fired some shots at Christmas. In case you’ve escaped the incendiary debate so far, here are the basics: 2000 years of history has resulted in the predominate depiction of Jesus as a white man, but a quick look at a map will show that Bethlehem is in Palestine, an ethnically Arab region, i.e., not white. The question is whether or not this discrepancy has resulted from and continues to promote white supremacy, and no matter where you “stand” on the issue, your heart rate has by now likely increased even slightly, so before you spiral too deep let me direct you to the curb.

Here’s what we know, or at least what I believe, about Jesus Christ: He himself is not surprised to learn that he was not a historically white man. Nevertheless, he has permitted the world to portray him as such (as well as in other nasty ways) for two millennia. For the ruler of the universe, the Prince of Peace, this seems wildly irresponsible. On further review, however, this isn’t so out of character for Jesus Christ, who, as a friendly reminder, is the God who got himself killed. Reckless!

Jesus has known all this time that he was born in the Palestinian region—not in Sweden, or Great Britain, or worst of all America; still, he allows us to make him in our own image. It’s a risky move, but let’s take a look at some of his other risky moves: Becoming a man introduced mankind to the idea that God could melt numbers and be three in one, and one in three, causing skepticism somewhere down the line among most successful math majors; additionally, casting a herd of pigs into the Sea of Galilee would eventually put him on the rocks with certain animal rights groups.

In this way, from the beginning, the incarnation meant not only that God would die but that he would also be historically misinterpreted. And while surely an all-powerful and omniscient God could imbue every human mind with a perfect and truthful understanding of His nature, God nevertheless tries to explain the truth using words over which we will labor for ages. He also provides us with four different accounts of who he was, which differ at varying degrees from each other.

Thus much of Historical Jesus remains unclear. The Bible gives us no physical descriptions of him–maybe he was fat, or skinny, maybe he was super cut or gangly. We have no idea how fashionable his clothes were; judging by his textual sermons we can guess. But that’s all. Ultimately Historical Jesus is a rabbit hole of speculation and an elusive text called Q, and this is probably God’s intention, don’t you think?

Black-Jesus-hands-upThe preface to Schweitzer’s seminal Quest for the Historical Jesus (1910) includes a funny objection to the search for a historically accurate version of Jesus of Nazareth: “The paradox [is] that the greatest attempts to write a Life of Jesus have been written with hate…[by] men who agree only in their unflinching desire to attain historical truth…” This “unflinching desire” he later calls “ruthlessness.” As in many of the articles appearing online today, the quest for Historical Jesus remains a quest for self-righteousness or -justification disguised as an earnest search for truth.

I certainly don’t mean to wave off the white supremacy issue: there are plenty of bad things about insisting that Jesus was a white man, stupidity being the number one offense IMHO. But one negative result of insisting on a historically correct version of Jesus is self-righteousness. If an old Catholic takes refuge at the feet of White Jesus, is it really appropriate for us to lord her stupidity over her? If White Jesus tells her she is loved, the image of him might be historically inaccurate, but the message remains true.

In the typical Christian interpretation of the Gospels, God dies. Part of this death is also the death of his image; we cannot understand him. Instead we continually misinterpret him to fit our needs. But he allows it. The incarnation is the reversal of creation, where man was created in God’s image; now, to atone for our sickness, God allows himself to be made in man’s image, born into human flesh. He can be black, white, feminist, funky, or just plain sexy. He can be CS Lewis’s golden lion, or Ewan McGregor’s thoughtful Yeshua, or John Milton’s boring Son. In Paradise Lost, Milton writes Satan an interesting script and gives the Son a more lackluster one, which nevertheless represents his character well: the Son allows himself to be perverted so that mankind might be set free. He says:

Behold me then, me for him [mankind], life for life
I offer, on me let thine anger fall;
Account me man; I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom [the Father’s], and this glorie next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly dye
Well pleas’d, on me let Death wreck all his rage. (3.236-241)

Milton’s Son is not as interesting as his silver-tongued Satan (and certainly neither were envisioned as Arabs by the author); but the Son is so self-giving that he is almost inside-out, willing to bend head over heels for his Father’s creation.

The Pauline Jesus is not only killed by and for the sins of the world, but he “becomes” sin. And how insulting–to God himself and especially to us, who claim to put stock in this loser. Why would God allow himself to be perverted in the person of Jesus? One reason: he wants to be with us “everywhere” (ht AZ). He meets us in our perversions, weakening himself to the point of death, for us, that he might be with us in our good and bad, in our hate and anger, in our injustice and sin.

In the typical Christian interpretation of the Gospels, God dies, and is resurrected three days later. I maintain that there is an objective truth about who Jesus is and maybe one day we will understand it fully, and for now we are free to try, and perhaps we should. But more than anything, I hope to realize more and more my own failure to understand the mystery of Chameleon Jesus, so that I can hold onto his grace and compassion all the more.