Howard Thurman

thurmancoverI’m happy to announce the publication of Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography, with Eerdmans’s Press. This is the first modern biography of this absolutely central figure in American religious, racial, and intellectual history, one whose theology and writings provided a direct link to African American traditions of nonviolent resistance.

A small portion of this book was published as “Howard Thurman and the Arc of History in San Francisco,” a couple of years ago, and as Howard Thurman Inspired Martin Luther King’s Philosophy. A review of this book, just prior to publication, can be found here. 

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Recent Interviews and Podcasts

9781442236189In late 2016, I published two new books: 9780226415352

**Christianity and Race in the American South: A History

**Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History

Below is a list of recent interviews, podcasts, and lectures based on work from these two books.

The Research on Religion podcast features an interview/podcast focusing on my book Christianity and Race in the American South: A History. The interview is sponsored by the Baylor Institute for for Studies of Religion.

The New Books Network podcast features an interview/podcast focusing on my book Bounds of Their Habitation. The interview is conducted by noted scholar Lilian Calles Barger.

Noted historian Thomas Kidd conducts an interview with me about the book Bounds of Their Habitation here, for the blog The Gospel Coalition.

John Fea’s regular feature “The Author’s Corner” focuses on my book Bounds of Their Habitation.

Noted Yale historian Tisa Wenger reviews Bounds of Their Habitation at the Reading Religion page sponsored by the American Academy of Religion.

A piece discussing my two book published in November 2016 appears here at the Religion in American History blog.

My 2015 lecture at Baylor University, “The Battle for Jesus During the Civil War,” is available here as a video. An article in the Baylor paper discusses the talk.

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The Color of Christ Meets a Cast of Critiques

jesusguitarRecently at my blog Religion in American History, three outstanding scholars published the critiques they delivered of The Color of Christ at the 2013 American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore; and at the end of those, co-author Edward J. Blum and I responded. Click here to go first to our response, and then follow the days backward or click below on the links provided for the individual responses.

Response from Kathryn Gin Lum (Stanford University)
Response from Josh Paddison (Wittenberg University)
Response from Jennifer Graber (University Texas)

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Color of Christ Named Top 25 Outstanding Academic Title

Professor’s book named outstanding academic title

 by , reprinted from UCCS CommuniqueColor of Christ

Subject editors of Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries recently announced The Color of Christ: The Son of God & the Saga of Race in America as one of the Top 25 Books in its annual Outstanding Academic Titles List.

The Color of Christ was written by Paul Harvey, professor, Department of History, and Edward Blum, associate professor, Department of History, San Diego State University. The book explores the nature of Christ worship in the U.S. and addresses how his image has been visually remade to champion causes of white supremacists and civil rights leaders alike, and why the idea of a white Christ has endured.

Choice is a leading source for reviews of academic books, electronic media, and Internet resources of interest to those in higher education. More than 22,000 librarians, faculty, and key decision makers rely on Choice magazine and Choice Reviews Online for collection development and scholarly research.

In a Dec. 16 release, Choice shared the “Top 25 Books: and “Top 10 Internet Resources” lists. A full Outstanding Academic Titles list will appear in the Jan. 2014 issue.

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The Color of Christ: Discussion Forum at the American Academy of Religion

Hoping to see lots of blog friends, readers, and followers at the American Academy of Religion in Baltimore coming up in less than two weeks, for the special “authors meet critics” session on The Color of Christ, to be held Monday, November 25, 9 – 11:30 a.m., in Convention Center 310. The session is co-sponsored by the North American Religious History Section, and the Afro-American Religious History Group. There is a great lineup of respondents, noted below. Hope to see friends there. For those who can’t make it, there’s a great online forum on the book, published here. 

North American Religions Section and Afro-American Religious History Group

Theme: Authors Meet Critics: The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Paul Harvey and Edward Blum (University of North Carolina Press, 2012)

Stephen Prothero, Boston University, Presiding
Monday – 9:00 AM-11:30 AM
Convention Center-310

From Protestant rejections of religious iconography to the messianic mythologies of American original religions like Mormonism to the poetry of Langston Hughes to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, Jesus Christ has been a “shape-shifting totem” of religious and racial meanings. Exploring such various verbal and visual representations of Jesus Christ in The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey tell the story of “the holy face of race in America.” This round table consisting of responses to the book from scholars in various disciplines will evaluate Blum and Harvey’s explanation of “how a land settled, in part, by Puritan iconoclasts from England became one of the most abundant producers and consumers of diverse Jesus imagery.”


Joshua Paddison, Wittenberg University
Kathryn Gin Lum, Stanford University
J. Kameron Carter, Duke University

Edward Blum, San Diego State University
Paul W. Harvey, University of Colorado
Jennifer Graber, University of Texas

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Audio Interview on The Color of Christ at New Books in Religion

Below is an audio interview now posted here at the site New Books in Religionabout my co-authored book The Color of Christ. My co-author and I speak about the book and many other issues with host Kristian Petersen. Thanks to Kristian for hosting us!

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America


Jesus has inspired millions of people to both strive for social justice and commit horrific acts of violence. In the United States, Jesus has remained central in the construction of American identities and debates about Jesus have frequently revolved around his skin color and bodily appearance. In The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America(University of North Carolina Press, 2012), we get a history of Americans’ encounters with images of Jesus and the creation of them. Edward J. Blum, professor of history at San Diego State University, and Paul Harvey, professor of history at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, have carefully mined a plethora of sources, including paintings, drawings, music, poetry, sermons, visions, and other historical documents, to reveal the rich conversation Americans have had around religion and race. The Color of Christ offers a chronological history from the colonial period to the present that weaves through the construction of Jesus’ image in various Christian groups consisting of primarily white members, and appropriations and challenges within Native Americans and African Americans communities. In our chat, Blum and Harvey discuss the ups and downs of American religious history, offering various vignettes of Jesus’ role in determining opinions about race. They also help us think about being an author, including issues of public scholarship, hustling as an academic, creating a book website, successful peer review, editorial control, and co-writing a book.

 Interview with Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey [ 1:05:56 ] Hide Player | Play in Popup | Download
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A Visit to Augusta, Georgia

(Crossposted from the Religion in American History blog)

Paul Harvey

Some weeks ago I made quick visit to Augusta, Georgia, to give a lecture and have a public conversation and forum at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library in downtown Augusta. The evening was moderated by Dr. Jeffery Thomas, pastor of the Trinity CME [Christian Methodist Episcopal] Church, a historic black congregation in the city. It was my first visit to the city.

I’m not going to lie; I wasn’t thrilled with myself for booking this particular venture, especially after I learned the exorbitant plane fare from COS to AGS was going to eat up my honorarium and then some, and after the last year of quite a bit of guest lecturing and seminar-ing all around the country, I was a little tired of plugging a certain book by one Edward J. Blum; but I agreed to do it back in the spring, so there I was driving to the airport at 4:00 a.m. for my 5:50 flight to Atlanta and then Augusta, mostly hoping I would be done with that coming evening’s events in time to retire to my room and watch Game 7 of the NBA finals.

As is surprisingly often the case in life, that which you get dragged into and just barely make after not being able to come up with a decent excuse to miss, turns out to be the thing that you would never have want to missed, one of those gifts life gives you. Many years ago, the single greatest jazz performance I have ever seen, at the late and lamented Koncepts Cultural Gallery in Oakland, came after I had spent two days in bed with an excruciating and blinding migraine, the cure for which was found from an astonishing tuba-piano-sax-drums quartet that tore through the entire history of jazz in a 2 1/2 hour set, the likes of which I have never seen repeated anywhere else.

I won’t say my experience in Augusta rocked my world in quite the same way, but it did result in an evening at the Library and day of visiting religious sites there that I will never forget, and for which I’ll always be grateful.

After arrival, I made my way in my rental car from the hotel towards the downtown area. I had meant to check my map to see where the Augusta National Golf Club (where The Masters is played) was, but had forgotten to do so. Never fear — as I drove on the street that empties into John C. Calhoun Expressway — yes, that John C. Calhoun — the massive green ivy walls protecting the former indigo plantation that is the Master’s course appeared before me. I got in the right lane, looking to see if there was any place to turn in and sneak a peek at any of the famous holes — heck, maybe I could get lucky enough to see one of the most sacred sites of all: Hogan Bridge, in the middle of Amen Corner, leading to the 12th green. But no, a mighty fortress is The Masters, and the ample security in and around the facility is there to make sure loiterers like me don’t hang around long.

I was so busy trying to sneak my way into the course that I missed the entrance to the Expressway and instead continued down Broad Street, which quickly emerged as a lengthy row of dilapidated shotgun houses and abandoned former mill houses and small plants which reminded me of neighborhoods I have driven through in the Mississippi Delta, or some parts of other southern cities. Between The Masters and Broad Street, I was getting a sense of the book-ends of this place, and a little parable of economic inequality in American history and in the American present.

Augusta Confederate Monument

Arriving at the library, I was given a tour of what is a beautiful new facility there, and some time later met the moderator, Jeffery Thomas. He was a native of Augusta, who had gone to college there, went to Claremont in Los Angeles for his Ph.D., and had returned to Augusta to pastor a historic congregation. He was also serving as a Professor of Religion at Paine College, an institution I had researched previously for a portion of chapter two of Freedom’s ComingWe immediately fell into a fascinating conversation about various black congregations in the city, and in particular of the history of his own, Trinity, which emerged from a long relationship with a local (white) Southern Methodist Church.

Dr. Thomas had come prepared with questions for me, and as we began, an audience primarily of local African Americans (many from his congregation, I believe), and a few folks from Georgia Regents University (formerly Augusta State University — including my longtime friend John Hayes) listened as we went back and forth on various questions of religion and race in American history. He was a gracious moderator, but had his own strongly held views on the subject and freely interjected them, which only enlivened the conversation. It became evident that while my favorite word is some variation of “history,” his was “subjectivity,” apropos of his training in the psychology of religion.

Following an abbreviated lecture I gave about “Suffering Saint: Jesus in the South,” the dialogue began. The crowd, as it turned out, featured some very devout folks who were a bit uncomfortable with some of what I had to say, some religious liberals who wanted me to condemn the religious right, some freethinkers who just wanted me to condemn religion period, and some academics who queried me on specific points of my talk as they would do at a conference. At one point, the microphone went to an older woman in the audience, who, in a very kind and friendly but determined fashion, gave me a piece of her mind about various points with which she took issue with me. There was some good-natured laughter after her peroration, and the moderator Dr. Thomas immediately said, “I just thought I should mention, the person who just finished talking is my mother.” I learned after the talk that she had been a schoolteacher in Augusta for many years, and it was evident that she wasn’t going to let some upstart out-of-town professor from someplace dissuade her from her views.

I completed the evening with some book signing (the way to an author’s heart is through a book signing), great conversation with various audience members, and a lengthy catch-up conversation with Nancy Bristow, a professor of History at the University of Puget Sound whom I had gone to graduate school with but hadn’t seen in something like 20 years; she happened, by the most bizarre of coincidences, to be in Augusta for a few days, and had just happened upon a flyer for this lecture. These moments of serendipity were building.

Following the evening at the library, I went with my friend John Hayes (whose book-in-progress may be previewed here in the form of the article “Hard, Hard Religion: The Invisible Institution in the NEw South,” and whose great piece on Johnny Cash graces the new volume Gods of the Mississippi edited by our own Mike Pasquier) and one of his colleagues, walking a few blocks through some desolate streets only to stumble upon a couple of blocks of hipster eateries and the like that would not be out of place in Durham. We shared tapas and great conversation, and agreed to meet up the next day.

John picked me up the next morning and for the next few hours took me around on a rather amazing tour of southern religious history within the space of a couple of miles of Augusta. We started at the oldest (or second oldest, depending on whose history you believe) black Baptist church in the country, the Springfield Baptist Church, home after the Civil War to the Rev. William Jefferson White (a personal hero of mine) and to a school in the basement which eventually became Morehouse College (now, of course, in Atlanta). It’s always kind of amazing when places you have written about extensively but have never seen suddenly appear before you. Out of Springfield, as well, emerged several other early black Baptist churches in the area, a couple of which we drove by later in the morning.

From there we drove from the riverwalk to some of the downtown streets, and before long we were looking at the Augusta Confederate Memorial, which competes with those of Richmond for Lost Cause sentimentality. Its inscription reads (in part):

For the honor of Georgia

For the rights of the States

For the liberties of the South

For the principles of the Union, as these were handed down to them

By the fathers of our common Country.

We then made our way to the original church building where the Southern Baptist Convention was established in 1845 — and if you know anything about my scholarship, you will recognize that’s a site I should have (but haven’t) seen a long time ago. The building remains fairly simple and beautiful, but is abandoned, the Baptist church there long since having fled for the suburbs (I gather it is rented out periodically for other events, but not regularly used). If I’m not mistaken it’s own by a Baptist Historical Society (or Foundation, or something — maybe someone can give me the details), but besides the historical marker there, one would simply mistake it for another of Augusta’s downtown abandoned buildings. Nearby, I should add, is James Brown Boulevard, and the Jessye Norman Center for the Performing Arts, both of these luminaries being raised in the city. (Brown’s family moved there from South Carolina when he was four).

 From there, we toured a beautiful and evidently very thriving Catholic church just caddy-corner from the former Baptist church (which featured, I’m happy to report, a plethora of white Jesus images), and then on to the Reverend C. T. Walker’s historic Tabernacle Baptist Church, getting towards the black neighborhood of the downtown area. But even more exciting (because unexpected) for me was the huge and architecturally fascinating United House of Prayer for All People (of “Daddy Grace” fame) church building, a structure with New York Public Library Lions on the outside guarding it, a paint scheme which might have come from a Moorish Science Temple, and a stone modernist exterior that gave it an imposing feel. I was dying to look inside — but alas, it was locked.

site of founding of Southern Baptist Convention, 1845

For the remainder of the morning we drove around Paine College (the black Methodist college in town where some folks who appeared in my book Freedom’s Coming taught), the old mill village just a bit away from downtown, and some Holiness-Pentecostal congregations in the area. We saw the congregation that met in a church that in the late 19th century had literally been “rolled down the hill” for the villagers, a story recounted in the late and lamented young scholar Julia Walsh’s article “Rolling Religion Down the Hill.,” about religion and working-class politics in Augusta around the turn of the 19th/20th century. (I still miss Julia terribly).

We then had organic and locally-sourced burgers at a very popular downtown spot, where the local congressman was working the crowd. I found my way back to the airport and back to Colorado Springs, happy and even exhilarated both by the lively conversation at the library, my meeting up with friends old and new, and by a feast of religious history within the spans of a few blocks of the downtown.

I was a bit tardy in writing a note of thanks to the library, but finally having done so, I got this message back in response: “By the way, I heard today that our facilitator for the evening, Rev. Dr. Jeffery Thomas . . .  died yesterday.  He felt rather ill on Sunday…and died on Monday.  That’s all I know…” 

He was, I have since learned, 49, 3 years younger than me. One of the last things he said to me concerned my picture of a black Jesus from the black Miami street artist Purvis Young, which appears in my book Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South. I had indicated that Young had passed from the scene just at the time of the flowering (and increasing value of) the work of self-taught artists, and that he had thus not enjoyed the true fruits from his labor. Dr. Thomas said, “but he was, actually, a wealthy man; it shows in the spirit of his work.” We agreed to stay in touch as I went back to work on my book-in-progress Trouble the Waters: Religion in the South from Jamestown to Katrina. Shortly thereafter, we shook hands and bid each other well and farewell. That could be the last time, maybe, I don’t know. 

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William Gipson Harvey, 1925-2008

For Father’s Day, I thought I would post some remarks that I gave at my father’s funeral in August of 2008. His obituary may be found here.

Remarks for William Harvey Memorial Service

When I began thinking of these remarks to memorialize my father, a couple of sentences immediately came to mind. The first: “Guess I better get to the ‘horspital’ and make sure everything is stable.” The utter corniness of this dry witticism never failed to strike me in the countless times I heard him say that, usually in his hurry to return to his medical clinic in Beaver, Oklahoma after a quick lunch at home. I also noted that he rarely failed to have his medical bags along with him, nor that he rarely if ever failed to give my mother a kiss on the cheek when he arrived home or when he left to get back to the horspital.

If his favorite ritual saying about the horspital speaks to Daddy’s good-humored wit (seen also in his favorite habit of taking visitors on a tour of what he loved to call the “inner city” of Beaver, Oklahoma, population 1,800) even during the middle of his incredibly long work days, another of his favorite grammatical conundrums speaks to his love of words, language, and knowledge. He loved to ask: Q: “In the sentence, the streets are running with water,  what is the subject”? My answer: “streets.” His response: “Are the streets running”? That question used to torment me, and once in graduate school I asked a colleague in the English department about it. She came back at me with an incredibly complicated set of grammatical terms which I won’t, and can’t, reproduce here.

Daddy’s grammatical query here was normal for him; he loved to quiz us about geography, history, religion, and other subjects, often at lunch after a Sunday morning where he taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir, took copious notes on countless sermons, tithed without fail, and sometimes abruptly left to attend to medical emergencies.

And two more recent anecdotes come to mind as well. Last year, we had a family reunion in Estes Park, Colorado. Sitting outside there on a Sunday afternoon, the discussion fell to medical subjects, and Daddy began talking about a recent case involving a patient who experienced persistent pain in and a rash on his knee. After what was doubtless a conversation with this man that far exceeded the time limits on patient consultation that any HMO would ever tolerate, Daddy deciphered that the man might have been bitten by a tick and perhaps had Lyme disease. He had learned this reading some medical article somewhere, and only after a long back-and-forth with the patient did this possibility even emerge, given that his knee condition seemed, at first glance, rather remote from this diagnosis.

Daddy loved medicine, studied it his whole adult life, and served as a family practice doctor for about 44 years. He was blessed with good health, missing probably just 4 or 5 days total due to illness.  Just four months ago, in fact, he was still seeing patients, and had a busy summer planned of working in local clinics, ministering to indigent patients in this church’s Good Shepherd Clinic, taking care of kids at Baptist summer camps, and delivering meals to folks in need in Oklahoma City.

Daddy’s love of taking care of patients became even clearer to me in a conversation with him last year. He spoke of working at one of the walk-in clinics in Oklahoma City. He had had a long day and had seen a few dozen patients, something that frankly worried me given his age by now, and my unthinking assumption that he somehow felt obligated to work and would have just assumed stay home and relax, as, just to cite a random example, I myself would choose given a similar circumstance. (Once, in fact, he referred to my rather lengthy stay in graduate school as a “permanent vacation,” meant to be good-natured teasing but one that certainly contained a large element of truth; my job then, and now for that matter I guess, is to read books all day long and occasionally write one, and it still seems like a permanent vacation). Anyway, in response to my attempt to sympathize with his long work day in this instance, I said something like “wow, that was a long day, you must look forward to retiring for good,” and he said in response, “well, I enjoy seeing and talking with the patients.”

Nothing more than that; Daddy was not one to talk that much. At the same time, he truly loved the social aspects of his medical practice, talking with patients not only about their medical issues but about the weather, their kids, their recent trips. Along the way he could learn something that might just help him diagnose their problems – such as, in the anecdote above, learning that the man with the knee pain had vacationed in the Rocky mountains recently and thus very well might have been exposed to a tick bite.

In certain ways, Daddy was not what one might call “practical.” Broken kitchen sinks, balky car transmissions, busted garage doors, and damaged pieces of furniture befuddled him (just as they do me – thanks for those genes, dad). He tended to be a good-humored sucker for every home alarm system salesman and every charity, real and bogus, that came calling. Acceding to offers from sincere-sounding people on the phone once left him, for example, with several hundred useless pens at his clinic, and not anything like what was described on the phone. He just assumed the best of everyone, and if he learned later that he had been taken, he just laughed at his own propensity to naiveté. Fundamentally, he just couldn’t bear to hurt anyone’s feelings.

But if Daddy usually couldn’t fix things at home, he could minister to body and soul. Daddy was a quiet and gentle person both at home and in public. He was invariably optimistic, and he lived out the tenets of his Christian faith in countless ways big and small. We loved him, and we will miss him.

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Studies in Race, Religion, and the American South

In the new issue of Cresset (a publication from Valparaiso University), the scholar Harold Bush has a really nice overview of recent work by myself and my co-author Edward J. Blum:

Harold Bush, “Studies in Race, Religion, and the American South,” Cresset LXXVI (no. 4): 51-53. 

Bush first discusses (and rightly praises) Blum’s first book Reforging the White Republic and his 2nd work W. E. B. DuBois: American Prophet, and then has a few paragraphs on my work Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South. Bush then spends the 2nd half of the essay on our co-authored book The Color of Christ. Bush provides gracious and sympathetic readings of all these works, in his summary of recent studies of race, religion, and the American South. Here’a a brief excerpt:

Now joining forces as two of the best mid-career historians of American religious culture and history, Paul Harvey and Edward Blum’s latest achievement is The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. There is some overlap between The Color of Christ and Harvey’s book Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster, particularly Harvey’s final chapter about the black Jesus during the Civil Rights era. As such, Harvey’s volume begins the discussion of the changing “face” of Jesus in American cultural history. Harvey’s book ends with a discussion of Martin Luther King’s eulogy for the four girls killed in Birmingham and the face of Jesus blown out of the stained glass window at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September, 1963. This is precisely the anecdote with which Harvey and Blum begin their newest volume. Thus we immediately see a connection between the works.

coverMore expansively, The Color of Christ tells the story of the changing imagery of Christ from the seventeenth century to South Park. That is asking a lot, and perhaps that is why these two scholars chose to bring each other in as co-authors. Together they do a magnificent job, and cover a lot of ground. In particular, this book is provocative in challenging us to rethink the interconnections between race and religion as documented in artistic renderings of Jesus. The authors claim, “To focus on the holy face of Jesus in America is to reckon with the making and power of race” (14). The authors’ project is thus firmly in the tradition of cultural studies: “By honing in on Christ’s body and how Americans encountered it through artwork, dreams, visions, descriptions, and assumptions, this book reveals a great deal about the people of the United States: their passions, creativity’s, dilemmas, and problem” (14).

The premise of the study is that the progression of images of Jesus had profound social and cultural results, particularly with regard to matters of race:


Religious ideas and images challenged racism, whether in the form of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe imagining a whipped slave as she took communion and then writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin or of artists painting new black, red, or brown portraits of Jesus to inspire pride in peoples rendered nonwhite. At times wicked, at other times wondrous, the combination of race and religion continues to impact Americans (16).

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Color of Christ at the Newberry Library

This was originally posted at Origins, the blog of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. It features an interview with Edward J. Blum and myself about our book, in preparation for our appearance and lecture at the Newberry Library on Jan. 22.

The Color of Christ: An Interview

Posted on Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Color of Christ: An Interview

In the history of America’s religions, perhaps no figure has been more central than that of Jesus. With nearly three fourths of the population still self-identifying as Christian, Jesus remains central to large swaths of the nation. But from the moment Europeans first brought Christianity to the New World, Christ’s presence here has been contested. The Scholl Center’s own “Out of Many” program has been showing how Christianity has always been a religion-in-relation in America. But in an important new book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey chart how the image of Jesus in America has been a crucible for much of the nation’s history. From justifying the atrocities of white supremacy to inspiring the righteousness of the civil rights crusade, Jesus has been woven into American life. On Tuesdauy, January 22 both Blum and Harvey will be visiting the Newberry to give a“Meet the Author Talk” at 6pm in Ruggles Hall. The talk is free and open to the public. In anticipation of their visit, the Scholl Center reached out to the co-authors to learn more about their work and get a sense of what they hope to share. We hope to see many of you there.

Scholl Center: Give us a glimpse into the intellectual process leading up to this book, its argument, and what you hope it contributes. What’s at stake in writing about the color of Christ?

Edward Blum & Paul Harvey: It began with us thinking about how characters of the sacred world (God, Jesus, angels, Satan, demons, and the whole gang) have been racialized throughout American history. We centered on Jesus because he is where heaven, earth, and hell collide in the Christian tradition. When Americans mapped racial characteristics upon Jesus by paying special attention to his skin tone, his hair color and length, and his eye color, they were translating their worldly obsessions with the body onto a figure who had lived in this world but who transcended human time and space.

The relationship between race and religion, however, moved in both directions. The sense that Jesus had a particular race rebounded into how Americans lived their religions. Native Americans and African Americans had to consider what it meant for a white man to be their savior (when other white men opposed them). White Americans had to confront their sense of spiritual entitlement in appearance but against the biblical tale of Jesus teaching that the “least shall be first” and then being imprisoned and crucified.

The stakes about the color of Christ have been and are tremendous. Historically, the color of Christ has played a role in what peoples could join particular religious organizations (such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints); it has been invoked in court cases to prove one’s whiteness (and hence fitness for citizenship). It has been used to denounce interracial marriage and to try and stop presidential candidates.

Just as the color of Christ influenced broad political and religious problems, it has also figured in the everyday spiritual lives and experiences of Americans. Christ’s color has deeply influenced how people relate to God and to others. In very personal ways, many people have close emotional attachments to the Jesus they first beheld in children’s Bibles or Sunday School walls or in their bedrooms. When confronted with questions of that Christ’s physical appearance, it creates a divide between cognitive approaches to faith (what I know about religion) and emotional links (what I feel toward the deity). So the stakes run from the profoundly intimate to the powerfully political.

SC: Jesus obviously coexists with a host of sacred figures in the history of Christianity: angels, saints, demons, Mary, etc. Do these religious figures have their own, possibly alternative and subversive histories of racial embodiment? Or is Christ’s centrality to American Christianity so strong that his construction as white impacted the racial coding of sacred figures more broadly?

EB & PH: All of those other figures are definitely critical, especially the Madonna. We think Jesus has been especially important, though, because of the incarnation. Most Christians consider Jesus Christ the human form of God. His body, then, can become a particular window into thinking about the presence of the divine. At times when Jesus has been rendered as a white man, it has been followed by a claim that only white people could be saved and get to heaven. We have never heard of a comparable case for other figures like saints or angels.

A definite case could be made for depictions of the devil as the closest counterpoint for our description of Jesus. Claims that link “darkness” to sinfulness (and hence dark skin color) have been made through considerations of the body of Satan. The main difference, however, is there is no central incarnation of Satan in human form that has allowed Americans to gravitate to the body of the devil in the same ways they have done with Jesus.

SC: You note an intention of your work is to dismantle the pervasive “myth” that humanity makes God in its own image; that the complicated relationship between race and the sacred in America limits people’s ability to envision a divinity in diverse. But where you open the text emphasizing the impact social inequality played shaping Jesus’ racial embodiment, you conclude the book by considering Christ’s remarkable mutability on the web. Has the digital age finally made narcissism the sacred’s hue? Or is the proliferation of Jesus imagery online still bound by the constraints of race?

EB & PH: Both. The proliferation of sacred imagery, digitally and elsewhere, is in part a by-product of the pluralization of American life since the 1960s. It’s a result, too, of the role technology can play in making creation and dissemination accessible to wider groups of people.

And yet: because the “default” image of Jesus is white, so deeply rooted in American life since about the 1830s or so as we argue in the book, all other images in a sense “refer” to that one, in the same sense that jokes and parodies depend upon knowing the referent. And too, Jesus is often “white without words,” as we suggest in the book, with people such as Billy Graham suggesting that no one knows what Jesus’s color was while the products put out by his evangelistic association give the traditional portrayal of Jesus, or when comics accompanying a song such as “Jesus loves the little children of the world” show Jesus touching all of the children except for the black one. So the power of technological production and distribution has yet to overcome the “constraints of race” entirely, in large part because those constraints are often unspoken, unacknowledged, and even unconscious.

SC: Co-writing anything is difficult, but I imagine co-writing a text that spans centuries presents an even broader set of challenges.

EB & PH: Challenges there were, to be sure, but opportunities as well, because the relative weakness of one scholar can be offset by the strength of the other, and one author may be able to delve more deeply into a particular topic knowing that the other author will be the one primarily to “handle” another topic, and that kind of collaboration can enrich a text beyond what a normal single author could do. In our case, Paul’s close attention to music was matched by Ed’s focus upon visual imagery in print culture and films. It is a trite word, but “synergy” best describes The Color of Christ. It is a better work than we could have written individually.

Perhaps the biggest challenge came when rewriting the text after shipping the first version out to peer reviewers and getting some excellent advice about how and why the entire text should be restructured. In that particular case, we found it helpful to have one author “take the lead” on the reorganization, with the 2nd author then responding and making his own edits once the initial reorganization and fairly massive shifting around of material had been done.

Historical scholarship by and large has been understood as a solitary endeavor, but we had some excellent models – such as The Kingdom of Matthias – to build upon in terms of seeing what was possible with a co-authored text. And in this current age of electronic sharing and the digital humanities, it’s clear the the humanities can, must, and will move much more in the direction of the sciences in terms of teams of collaborators working on projects. What you are doing here at the Scholl Center, and what Edward Ayers did with his team for the pioneering Valley of the Shadow project on the Civil War, are just two examples of how humanities collaborations may produce work far beyond the capabilities of the heroic solitary scholar model.

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