Monday, August 20, 2012

Race, Place, and Jesus in American History: An Interview with Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum

Conducted by Hilde Løvdal and Randall Stephens

Hilde Løvdal and Randall Stephens: Why did the two of you take on this project, which became your book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (UNC Press, 2012)?

Paul Harvey and Ed Blum: On one level, the book began the first times we recognized that the Jesus images surrounding us in churches, Sunday schools, and on movie screens had histories. The book came from that feeling of dissonance when we saw representations of Jesus as white and knew, somehow, in our guts that it just wasn’t right.

On another level, the book emerged from years of studying independently the links between race and religion. We determined that it was time to take on the biggest symbol in the United States when it came to both: Jesus himself. We had read Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, FSG, 2003, loved it, but felt like it missed how profoundly race transformed imagery of Jesus and how much the racial images of Jesus influenced American history. When discussing our book idea with Martin Marty, he asked what it would look like to write a racially integrated story of Jesus as opposed to the ways Prothero segregated race into a few chapters. When we did that, we found profoundly complicated stories that not only featured racial conflict, but also demonstrated cross-racial exchange.

We started the book before we even met in person. Ed had reviewed Paul’s book Freedom’s Coming for H-NET and asked how the book would have looked different if it took into account art, literature, film, and material culture. At that point, we struck up an email conversation and planned an edited volume on race, religion, Jesus, and material culture. As we talked more and met every six months as part of the Young Scholars in American Religion, we decided that there was a monograph to be written. Six years later (and several very different iterations of the book thanks to amazing peer reviewers), we have the book!

Løvdal and Stephens: What is your intended audience for the book?

Harvey and Blum:

1. American historians. We both love our profession and the people in it, and this book connects to the major themes in American history that we teach from colonization and slavery to suburbia and the information age.

2. Students of American history and US religious history. We wrote the book in ways that our undergraduate students could understand, and we even created a website for the book – with hundreds of images, primary sources, songs, discussion questions, syllabi, and powerpoint presentations – for students and teachers to read the book, analyze it, and create their own research agendas from it.

3. Scholars of religion in the United States. Too often, religious history is written as separate from the broader trends of the overall discipline or focuses too much on ideas. We joined the many wonderful US religious historians who have been looking to connect our sub-discipline to the bigger points of the profession and to show how religion influenced all forms of society, culture, politics, and life.

4. Thoughtful religious leaders and people who want to know the stories behind the Jesus imagery they see around them and be able to make new choices about how they talk about their faith and display it.

Løvdal and Stephens: Several other prominent religious history scholars have worked on Jesus in America. You mention the influence of Prothero.  What about other scholars like Richard Wightman Fox (Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession, HarperCollins, 2004) when you wrote this book?

Harvey and Blum: Absolutely, although the book that first influenced us was Kelly Brown Douglas’s The Black Christ, which was a short, but wonderful, study of African American perspectives on Jesus from slavery through the works of black liberationist James Cone and womanist Delores Williams. These three books were always in the forefront of our thought. We have used and incorporated material from these authors, and thank them in the acknowledgements.

At the same time, we felt we had a different story to tell. On certain points, especially the impact of power and access to media resources in terms of how Jesus is represented in American history, we challenge some of the arguments that Fox and Prothero make. Both works tend to suggest that Jesus always has been made over in the image of the maker. But in The Color of Christ, we show that this is not simply the case. Jesus was made both like and unlike communities, and the “I-Thou” distinctions mattered.  Moreover, many people throughout US history have not had the representational power or means to create Jesus in their image and have transformed him in other profound ways.

We think the main difference between our book and those of Prothero and Fox is encapsulated by our different covers. While they present Jesus either as a larger-than-life air balloon or the different icons, we focus squarely on how people - everyone from teenagers in Brooklyn to presidents in the White House - have lived with the material realities of Jesus in their midst.

Løvdal and Stephens: How can a local understanding or regional understanding of Jesus say something about a national view?

Harvey and Blum: Local and regional factors are paramount to The Color of Christ. We place a lot of emphasis in the work (just to give one example to answer the question) on Jesus in the South. In many ways, the Jesus of the South – a suffering saint – became a dominant American Jesus. Ironically, that Jesus was formed first in the worldview of slaves and abolitionists. “The Christ of American civilization is the slave,” one abolitionist wrote. Many historians have suggested that the proslavery argument won the “battle for the Bible,” since slavery in general can easily be defended reading the Bible in the common-sense way that people did in the 19th century (and many do today).

But we point out that while slaveowners may have won the battle for the Bible, slaves and abolitionists won the joust for Jesus. After the war, that “southern Jesus” was reclaimed by whites; the very term for the overturning of Reconstruction, “Redemption,” suggests that white southerners saw their postwar political struggle as a kind of cleansing of a sin that had stained their region. Their triumph came to be represented symbolically in the famous closing sequence of Birth of a Nation, where the Aryan Jesus blesses the victory of the heroic Klan over the demonic forces of carpetbaggers and their black allies.

Then, later in the twentieth century, black artists (including a number of southern folk artists discussed in the book) and civil rights activists reclaimed Jesus once again, turning him once again into a figure empathetic to the black southern freedom struggle. This is best represented in Clementine Hunter’s magnificient painting “Cotton Crucifixion,” which depicts the crucified Jesus hanging over a mule-powered wagon full of cotton.

The West (or Wests) is critically important too. For Native American messianic movements, such as Wovoka’s Ghost Dance, the appeal of a neo-Christ who would bring back the Buffalo was tied to their frontier experiences. And the climate of southern California was instrumental in making Hollywood into the twentieth-century hub of Jesus media production. By having more than 300 days per year of good filming weather, southern California and Hollywood played a vital role in transforming how Jesus was presented physically and geographically.

Løvdal and Stephens: How did you want your story to unfold from one era to another or from one generation to another?

Harvey and Blum:
We structured the book by era and it is divided into three parts: “Born Across the Sea” (colonial period to the Civil War) “Crucified and Resurrected” (Civil War to World War I) and “Ascended and Still Ascending” (1920s to the present). Each part tells a different story. Most importantly, we want to show the “long duree” of images (or the lack thereof) of Jesus in American history. The dearth of imagery among Protestants in early America, for example, meant that what imagery that existed came mostly from Catholics and was, literally, “born across the sea.” Even in the “age of visions” – the First Great Awakening – Jesus often appeared as a sort of ineffable brightness, not something that could be described in physical terms. In the 19th century, the Jesus that we are all familiar with was born and disseminated through the religious voluntary agencies, and their attendant means of mass production, that came with the evangelical explosion of that era. This Jesus was crucified in the turmoil of the Civil War, but resurrected after to bless the reunion of the country (and to bless white supremacy, we argue).

The Head of Christ (1941) Warner Sallman
Then, in the final part which focuses on the last 100 years or so, we trace the “ascendancy” of omnipresent Jesus imagery, from Warner Sallman’s ubiquitous “Head of Christ” (and countless imitations and parodies of it), to Jesus in literature, film, and music, and finally to Jesus in contemporary humor (movies, “South Park,” and the like). The mass media of the twentieth century (and into the social media revolution of the 21st) have made Jesus inescapable globally, even as the meanings of his imagery have become almost impossibly tangled with the history of that imagery. The white Jesus survives through all this turmoil, but he is, we say, “white without words.” In short, the white Jesus is the “default” image, to which all others ultimately must defer, even in positions of challenge or parody.

Løvdal and Stephens: Could you say something about the malleability of the image of Jesus? How can Jesus appear so different depending on who is using his image?

Harvey and Blum: Great question, and that is really the heart of the book. We can best answer that by mentioning the three main myths our book explores about Jesus imagery and shifting appearances. First, there is a myth that humans create God or gods (especially Jesus) in their own image. This myth claims that people invariably represent Jesus to look like themselves. So whites make a white Jesus, blacks a black one, Asians an Asian one. But American history shows this is not true, and the myth hides how much racial groups have interacted and affected one another throughout U.S. history. No racial group in the United States has been separate enough to form distinct and impenetrable religious cultures. Moreover, lots of people have worshiped Christ figures that look nothing like them. For centuries, African Americans and Native Americans embraced white images of Jesus, debated them in their midst, and tried to replace them but generally did not. The myth hides the powers of money, of technological access, and of production capabilities. Slaves did not have the time or the manufacturing power to make or market pictures of Jesus as a black man, but they were inundated with images of white Christ figures. And then it gets even more complicated. When the white Jesus helped slaves run to freedom, he was defying white supremacy. So even racial images can be used to work against racism.

The second myth is that the United States has always been a "Jesus nation" or a "Christian nation." When we take seriously discussions of the race and color of Christ, we find that Jesus has been a lightning rod for struggle, conflict, and tension. For every occasion where someone makes Jesus into an icon of entrepreneurial salesmanship, as Bruce Barton did with his bestselling book of the 1920s The Man Nobody Knows, there are other Americans who have made Jesus a lynch victim (like W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes did in the 1930s), as a Native American who promised the defeat of the whites and the return of the Buffalo (as Wovoka did), or as a socialist who would get beat up by American mobs (as muckraker Upton Sinclair did). Jesus has not defined American culture; he has purely been at the center of the titanic and oftentimes bloody struggles over what the culture would be.

The third myth is that liberation theology emerged in the 1960s and was primarily a northern, black male phenomenon. This myth went into full blast during the Reverend Jeremiah Wright debacle of the 2008 presidential campaign when he could be heard on cable television and YouTube videos shouting "God damn America" and "Jesus was black." Media outlets searched for the genesis of these ideas and they turned to the 1960s. They located the work of James Cone as most influential and connected him to Wright and then Wright to Obama.

But liberation theology has a much longer history, and that history included Native Americans, women, and whites far more than the short history lets on. As early as the 1830s, some white Americans, black Americans, and Native Americans challenged expressly the whiteness of Jesus and several presented Jesus as on the side of disempowered people. In the present, there are many non-blacks who use darkened images of Jesus and some white artists even create them.


Anonymous said...


Joseph S. Moore, GWU said...

a wonderful interview on a fascinating and important topic- I'll be sending this along to my students at Gardner-Webb. Thanks!