With considerable skill, Edward Blum and Paul Harvey have closed a gap in the scholarship of race and American religion by crafting a sweeping narrative chronicling the ways that the physical image of Jesus has encoded various iterations of American racial imagination. The Color of Christ builds on Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (2003) and Richard Wrightman Fox's Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (2004), by featuring racial and ethnic constructions of Jesus alone. The result is an impressive piece of scholarship that rests at the intersection of studies on whiteness and other ethnic studies, as well as works on material religion and visual culture.
Blum and Harvey argue that Jesus imagery has always reflected the dynamics of power. The book begins and ends with the tragedy at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where an explosion not only killed four young girls in 1963, but literally took out the face of the white Jesus appearing in a stained-glass window. The symbolism serves as an entryway into the meaning of color when affixed to the visage of the man understood as the key to salvation for Christians.
In the same way that the story of the Birmingham murders frames Blum and Harvey's narrative, so also do the fortunes of the "Publius Lentulus letter," a medieval forgery purporting to be a firsthand account of Jesus. The letter describes Jesus with long hair "the color of the ripe hazel nut," parted down the middle, and with perfect skin of a "slightly ruddy complexion," accenting his "bright" eyes (p. 21). It was known by most to be a forgery from the start, but by the mid-nineteenth century until the 1960s, many Americans treated it as if [End Page 477] it were authentic. The book tracks not only explicit references to the letter but also the way that elements of Publius Lentulus come to be taken as normative.
The book traces the physical representation of Jesus from the colonial period where the Puritans (who not only knew Publius Lentulus to be a forgery, but opposed all depictions of Jesus as a violation of the Second Commandment) imagined Jesus only in terms of bright light. For Puritans, the authors astutely note, "Whiteness was not made sacred in the form of Jesus, in part, because whiteness itself as a marker of racial identity and power did not yet exist" (p. 29). But this began to change in the years following the American Revolution. By the early 1800s, new printing technologies and advances in transportation combined with the rise of multiple missionary societies to change everything. Soon the "white Christ" was everywhere and the remains of the Puritan establishment failed to temper the spread of his portrait.
Blum and Harvey lead us through encounters with this imagery in dozens of contexts, with special attention to African American, Native American, and Mormon appropriations and reconfigurations of Jesus. Through the Civil War, American imperialism, Native American revival movements, the rise of the Hollywood film industry, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War, liberation theologies, and Comedy Central's The Daily Show and South Park, we are led through the twists-and-turns of American racial history. Though Jesus emerges as an icon of white power by the late 1800s, it is as clear that by the 1960s, most Americans grew increasingly self-aware of the racial characteristics they assigned to him. While the authors argue that the white Jesus was now deeply embedded in the American subconscious, the uneven, slow but steady reconfiguration of the racial power structure and the gradual erosion of the white majority appear to have had an impact on Jesus imagery.
There are points at which the narrative shifts away from the physical representation of Jesus toward the many ways Jesus "The [End Page 478] Christ" (a title used somewhat problematically...