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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 25, 2006

Some celebrate God's image, others cringe

By Jeannine F. Hunter
Gannett News Service

Shaped by shifts in demography, scholarship and theology, images of Christ inspire as well as enrage people, particularly if the portrayal conflicts with their own idea of the divine.

"There are Christians who believe that imaging Jesus at all is inappropriate," says Robin Jensen, professor of the history of Christian art and worship at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. Her latest book, "Face to Face: The Portrait of the Divine in Early Christianity," (Augsburg Fortress, $20), examines how Jesus was depicted through the seventh century.

"There are some traditions that do not use art at all, with a belief that it is impossible to portray Jesus ... And there are traditions, especially the Orthodox Church, that say he had to be visible if he was human and portraying him that way affirms the incarnation," Jensen says.

How Christ is depicted sparks more controversy than the question of whether he should be depicted, Jensen says.

"Do you try to be historically accurate or try to open up in different ways," she says. "There are those who are uncomfortable with contemporary varieties that stir up emotions, for example Jesus as a woman."

Altering what is sacred is controversial, says the Rev. William Buchanan, senior pastor of the Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville. His church has a relief behind the altar featuring a black Christ figure with a multiethnic group gathered at the foot of the cross.

Buchanan says the church was not trying to capture what the "historical Jesus looks like."

He says it was commissioned five years ago because church members sought an "image, a visual representation of our ministry in this community."

"In that relief, you'll see great diversity, people of all walks of life reaching up to the Christ figure," Buchanan says. "For those who enter the sanctuary, the focal point is on Christ inviting people of all walks of life to come unto him."

God comes to people in a way that they can relate to him in their time and place, he says.

"Faith is based on relationships, a relationship between God and that person," Buchanan says.

Among Hindus, elaborate portraits adorn ornate temples as a way to show the different incarnations of God, says Koteshwara Gurukkal, chief priest of a Nashville temple where more than 6,000 devotees worship. "God is supreme. This is a way to give honor to God and respect."

Art does not serve to substitute for the divine but to connect humans with the creator, says the Rev. Peter Do Quang Chau, pastor of a Catholic Vietnamese congregation in Ashland City, Tenn.

"A picture or a statue is not God but a memorial, a way for our mind to think about Jesus," he says. He gestures toward a statue of Mary and baby Jesus that sits beyond the church altar. Its figures have Asian features and clothing.

"If I am Vietnamese, then if I see someone who looks like me, I can relate to God," says Chau.

"I know that Jesus was a Jewish man and resembled the people who lived in his homeland. But I think when someone looks at an image that looks like them or reminds them of their home, then they see someone who shares their suffering, in a way."

How do you depict 'an unknowable essence'?

Human beings are created in the image of God, most major religions agree.

But not all have visual depictions of the divine.

Jewish synagogues do not have images or pictures of God, adhering to an interpretation of the commandment barring graven images as barring visual depictions. It is forbidden because, in Judaism, no symbol or creature could represent the Creator, a unique, supreme Lord whose will is absolute and whose existence is infinite.

"We believe that God isn't confined to our physical conception. In fact, one of our greatest scholars, Moses Maimonides, tried to define God by what God is not," says Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Congregation Sherith Israel in Nashville, Tenn.

While the Scriptures refer to parts of God, people cannot conceive of what God would look like, he says.

"In certain ways, we can think of God acting like a person, but not at all like a person at the same time," Strosberg says. "We have plenty of artwork through the ages, but the focus is not on the people but the actions.

"The inspiration comes from the miracles, from the victories, from the experiences," he says. "It would be those elements that draw the viewer in, as opposed to the faces and the personalities."

Also, because of the transcendent nature of Allah, Muslims also forbid depictions of him and the Prophet Muhammad.

Bahais are discouraged from trying either to depict or visualize God "because we believe that God is an unknowable essence," says Carol Mansour, a Bahai spokeswoman.

"When I say unknowable, I do not mean that we cannot have a relationship with him," Mansour says. "God created me and I cannot understand him and be his peer. And I cannot do that because I am the creation, not the Creator."