A popular story on the internet these last few months shows the head and torso of a young woman, photoshopped to look “beautiful” in a dozen different cultures and countries. The interpretation of “beauty” in many of these cultures is very striking, and she looks significantly different in some of the photos. Beauty isn’t all about looks, though. It attracts us for the qualities of “goodness” or “harmony” that we experience when encountering beauty. A personality can be beautiful, too. Jesus Christ is universally admired for a kind of personality or character beauty. And this, too, has widely different interpretations depending on time and place and culture. California has a reputation for being “laid back,” tolerant, blissful. So this sculpture shown above (at the Spanish mission San Luis Rey de Francia) of Jesus on the way to his crucifixion doesn’t show him sorrowful, bent and broken, or tortured, like he often is in European art. Here he looks like he’s about to give Mary a high-five and say, “It’s done, we did it!”
This picture above shows Jesus as he was seen by theologians in 18th century Austria. Medical advances at the time made pharmacy seem like a kind of miracle of healing, so they showed Jesus in this painting as a pharmacist, since he was a divine healer. The scales, used to measure chemical amounts, here represent the Last Judgement. The chalice, heart, and anchor on the prescription table represent faith, love, and hope. In the background scene, Jesus is healing a blind man.
One of my favorite cultural reinterpretations of Jesus is this re-telling of a gospel story by a Jesuit priest who was a missionary to Ming dynasty China in the 16th century. The priest had to make this Jesus story comprehensible to the Chinese who were Taoists and Buddhists. (The name of Peter is translated into Chinese phonemes as Bo-do-lo).
After the Lord of Heaven was born on earth, and had taken human form to spread his teaching to the world, he first shared his teaching with twelve holy followers. The first of these was called Bo-do-lo. One day Bo-do-lo was on a boat when he saw the distant outline of the Lord of Heaven standing on the seashore, so he said to him, “If you are the Lord, bid me walk on the water and not sink.” The Lord so instructed him. But as he began to walk he saw the wild wind lashing up the waves, his heart filled with doubt, and he began to sink. The Lord reached out his hand to him, saying, “Your faith is small, why did you doubt?” A man who has strong faith in the Way can walk on the yielding water as if on solid rock, but if he goes back to doubting, then the water will go back to its true nature, and how can he stay brave? When the wise man follows heaven’s decrees, fire does not burn him, a sword does not cut him, water does not drown him. Why should wind or waves worry him? This first follower doubted so that we might believe; one man’s moment of doubt can serve to end the doubts of all those millions who come after him. If he had not been made to doubt, our faith would have been without foundation. Therefore, we give thanks for his faith as we give thanks for his doubts. – The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci
The Jesuit had to get past the kind of Christian dualism found in his theology and try to encompass the Taoist idea that good and evil do not exist as separate things but are just different phases of Tao. And so doubt is given as much importance as faith.
Last but not least, Tom Waits does a nice gospel blues tune called “Chocolate Jesus” which somehow to me never seemed satirical, but profoundly reverent through some weird antinomian alchemy that only Tom Waits can produce: