Race, Place, and Jesus in American History

Over at the Historical Society blog, Randall Stephens and Hilde Løvdal conduct an interviewwith Edward J. Blum and myself about The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (UNC Press, 2012). In it, we try to hit some of the main points of the text. A little excerpt below; click here for the rest.

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 claimsthat 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. . .

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

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Jesus: The Videos

My co-author for the book The Color of Christ, Edward J. Blum, has over the summer had a team of students working on a website to accompany our book, and it’s just about there, so we hope you’ll check it out. The website includes a huge array of supporting and supplementary material to go along with the book — links and images to texts, painting, movies, other books, etc., as well as suggested powerpoint templates, classroom syllabi and assignments, and much other material for teachers and professors. We are also collecting youtube style videos made by a variety of folks both about their own responses to Jesus images in their lives as well as responses to a series of paintings by Janet McKenzie, “Stations of the Cross.” Go here to watch a few of those videos, and more will be posted in the next month or two.

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The Jesus Collector

This is from my friend John Fea, historian at Messiah College and author of the excellent book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Primer. He also runs the blog The Way of Improvement Leads Home, and posted this there:

Ed Blum and Paul Harvey are ramping up the publicity efforts for their forthcoming book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  They have put together a websiteof videos, classroom materials, and excerpts from the book.  As part of the website, you can tell your own story about Jesus.  Here is a taste of a story from Benjamin Polk, a self-described “Jesus collector”:

I am a Jesus collector. More specifically, I collect Jesus action figures. Don’t worry, my Jesi (I prefer the Latin plural) are not sacrilegious. There is no Jesus with kung-fu punching action (what demon could deny a solid chop from the Living Word) or who changes from lowly carpenter to Transfigured Lord of All (surely a reversible head would suffice). No, these Jesi are advertised as providing children everywhere with the privilege of playing with the Christ rather than some hippie mutant amphibian, militant robot, or creepy baby doll. Most Jesi come with fishes and loaves as accessories, so children can have a tea party (or at least a satisfying lunch) with their savior right out of the box. 

Expect a review of The Color of Christ at The Way of Improvement Leads Home soon.

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Pictures of Jesus

This is a wonderful post by a young historian at William and Mary, reflecting on my co-authored book The Color of Christ. Enjoy!

“I’ve Got a Picture of Jesus”
by Christopher Jones

Each evening for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly making my way through Ed Blum’s and Paul Harvey’s forthcoming The Color of Christ. I’ll have a fuller review in an online journal forthcoming at a future date, but wanted to take a minute to add my voice to the well-deserved chorus of praise sung by Publisher’s Weekly and Matt Sutton. The Color of Christ is a tour de force of the history of both religion and race in U.S. history, brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, at times humorous and at other times moving. More than anything else, though, reading the book has caused me to reflect on the ubiquitous presence of Jesus imagery all around me, from my childhood home and memories to the artistic portrayals of Christ hanging in the hallways of my local chapel to the lyrics of music—both sacred and secular—I listen to day in and day out.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that as I read about the expansive “transatlantic exchange of Jesus imagery” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries last night, I was reminded of this gem from Ben Harper’s 2004 collaborative album with The Blind Boys of Alabama.

“Picture of Jesus” touches on so many of the themes Blum and Harvey highlight in their book. There is no explicit mention of race in the song’s lyrics, but in it Harper and co. sing about well-worn pictures of Christ’s crucifixion kept in one’s wallet and of Jesus appearing as “a man in our time” whose “words shone like the sun” but who “tried to lift the masses / and was crucified by gun” (Martin Luther King, Jr?). And what of the musicians’ race and religiosity? Harper is the son of an African American father and a Jewish mother, and he often speaks of his rather eclectic spirituality that incorporates not only traditional Christianity but also Rasta and nature religion. Is his “picture of Jesus,” I wonder, the same as that of his collaborators, the (literally) Blind Boys of Alabama, a Christian gospel group whose career has spanned 73 years, survived Jim Crow, and witnessed the Civil Rights Movement and the dramatic shifts in America’s racial and religious composition? 

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Review of New Book The Color of Christ

A review of my new book (co-authored with Edward J. Blum) in the Publisher’s Weekly, just published (July 9, 2012).

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. Univ. of North Carolina, $32.50 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8078-3572-2

In this powerful and groundbreaking book, historians Blum (Reforging the White Republic) and Harvey (Freedom’s Coming) examine how images of Jesus reflect the intersection of race and religion in America. Blending historical analysis, lucid prose, and captivating primary sources, Blum and Harvey trace the remaking of Jesus from Puritan America to antebellum slave cabins, from Joseph Smith’s revelations to Obama’s presidency. The authors compellingly argue that Christ’s body matters, that it signifies power, reflects national fears and evolving conceptions of whiteness, and perpetuates racial hierarchies by continuously reifying the idea that whiteness is sacred. Blum and Harvey deconstruct the axioms that racial groups simply depict God in their own image, that the white Jesus of America is a mere replication of European art, and that Jesus has been depicted as white since America’s colonization. The authors devote significant time to exploring how marginalized groups, especially African-Americans and Native Americans, have reacted to and reimagined representations of Jesus. They masterfully probe how a sacred icon can be a tool at once of racial oppression and liberation. A must-read for those interested in American religious history, this book will forever change the way you look at images of Jesus. (Sept. 21)

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Review of The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History

The religious historian Matt Sutton has reviewed The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History, for the Christian Century. You can read the review here. A little excerpt:

There are probably few reference books that vacationers will drag down to the beach this summer. And though I make a living in academia, there aren’t many works of reference that I want to read from cover to cover. I love history because I love stories, storytelling and engrossing narratives- not because I’m taken with the facts, figures and dates that populate reference books. But once I agreed to review The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History I had no choice but to crack the spine. I am glad I did.

The guide, edited by Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum- the former a highly respected and accomplished historian of American religion, the latter one of the rising stars in the profession-provides an excellent overview of many of the most important trends, topics and issues in American religious history.

Read more: http://www.readperiodicals.com/201205/2667177581.html#b#ixzz1wCpdrm99

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Youtube Interview on Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster

Here’s a Youtube interview done with me about my book Moses, Jesus, and the Trickster in the Evangelical South (University of Georgia Press,2012).


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