With each Easter season, it is not uncommon to find a litany of images of the Christ -- whether magazine cover stories challenging His Deity or sloppy scholarship questioning His very existence.
But when it comes to portraying Jesus -- whom Christians believe to be fully God and fully man -- is it possible to capture His essence and majesty in a single image? And are the images we see true biblical representations, or a stumbling block to faith in Jesus?
Growing up in the Deep South, I was surrounded by images of Jesus that were very stereotypical and placid. As a matter of fact, they depicted Christ as a Western European, far from his true Jewish, Middle Eastern identity.
In his best-selling book "The Jesus I Never Knew," author Philip Yancey describes the challenges presented by these one-dimensional images: "I remember especially one image from Sunday School, an oil painting that hung on the concrete block wall. Jesus had long, flowing hair, unlike that of any man I knew. His face was thin and handsome, his skin waxen and milky white. He wore a robe of scarlet, and the artist had taken great pains to show the play of light on its folds ... [He was] someone kind and reassuring, with no sharp edges at all -- a Mister Rogers before the age of children's television."
These images grew increasingly confusing for Yancey in his adult years. "How," he writes, "would telling people to be nice to one another get a man crucified? What government would execute Mister Rogers or Captain Kangaroo?"
If you have been watching the History Channel miniseries "The Bible" over the past month, the Western European Jesus found in so many paintings and films over the years has once again been reinforced in people's minds.
In contrast, MGM's 1959 epic "Ben-Hur" -- one of the most-watched films of all time and winner of 11 of 12 Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture and Best Actor) -- never shows Jesus' face, but only his back. Without a face seen or a word uttered, both Jesus' compassion and power are dramatically demonstrated.
Film may be a better medium than painting to depict the many dimensions of Christ, whether it be "The Jesus Film" (1979) or "The Passion of the Christ" (2004). But can the Son of God's attributes and character be truly captured in a painting or a film, or is He better represented in the written Word of God?
A Bible Study Fellowship, or BSF, commentary on the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans notes the limitations to portraying God -- whether the Father or the Son. "[Images] are always less than [God] is," it notes, "and therefore they obscure rather than reveal His glory. They inevitably mislead the worshiper, for they suggest false ideas by the comparison. Even though God revealed Himself to us personally in Jesus Christ, it is no accident that Jesus came before the age of photography or television. Instead of revealing Himself by pictures, God reveals Himself by words, specifically by the Words of Scripture."
Maybe that is why C.S. Lewis sought to depict the redemptive story of Christ allegorically in "The Chronicles of Narnia," which has played well over the years on paper, in film and most recently in Focus on the Family's radio theater. As Lewis himself wrote in 1961, "The whole Narnian story is about Christ. That is to say, I asked myself, 'Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it, what might have happened?' The stories are my answers."
Lewis chooses to represent Jesus as a lion. "Since Narnia is a world of Talking Beasts," he wrote, "I thought He would become a Talking Beast there, as He became a man here. I pictured Him becoming a lion there because (a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts, and (b) Christ is called 'The Lion of Judah' in the Bible."
This Easter, as we reflect on the life, death and resurrection of Christ, maybe we should consider afresh the Gospel of St. John and the words of his first chapter: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."
John A. Murray is headmaster of Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Md.