Members of the majority white culture may not realize it, but white Jesus is a fraught symbol. According to black theologian Major J. Jones, when European colonialists came to Africa and began treating its people as less than human because of their color, it became “psychologically impossible” for Africans not to have problems with God’s color. How could they ever conceive of a God who looked just like their oppressor? This legacy of black oppression, of course, traveled to the Americas, where white Jesus is omnipresent in visual culture.
In her book Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago (University of Illinois Press, 2016), art historian Kymberly N. Pinder unpacks some of the ways that twentieth- and twenty-first-century Christians have countered the dominance of white Jesus with alternative sacred imagery that is black-affirming. Lavishly illustrated with sixty color photographs and eight black-and-whites, the book explores African American religious images—murals, mosaics, stained glass, sculptures, even T-shirt designs—from Chicago churches and their neighborhoods between 1904 and the present, focusing on their intersection with the social, political, and theological climates of the times. The image of a black Christ, Pinder argues, participated in some of the most significant movements in black history, including gospel music, sermon broadcasts/televangelism, the Chicago Black Renaissance, the civil rights movement, Black Liberation Theology, and the Mural Movement. The stream of influence flowed both ways, as each church’s preaching and outreach, musical, and visual cultures fed into one another.
A collection of case studies rather than a comprehensive guide, Painting the Gospel features churches whose pastors consciously nurtured a strong visual culture. “These sites,” Pinder writes, “enable me to chart how the arts interact with each other in the performance of black belief in each space, explain how empathetic realism structures these interactions for a variety of publics, and observe how this public art sits within a larger history of mural histories” (2). “Empathetic realism” is a term Pinder develops throughout the book as she considers how religious images have the power to assert political agendas of equality and humanity and thereby empower viewers, providing social and spiritual uplift. “Christ’s own difference, for which he was persecuted, becomes a source of empathy and identity for the African American,” she writes (8).
Christ as a dreadlocked black man on the cross, hip-hop youth kneeling at his feet, and Mary as an African woman in traditional Nigerian dress activate personal narratives for a black audience where private and public, the personal and the holy, the real and the represented, all meld, allowing for a spiritually transformative experience. (22–23)
The book covers works of art that have been largely excluded from art historical, theological, and sociological scholarship because of their racial or religious particularity. Working at the confluence of these disciplines, Pinder is concerned not with the artistic merit of the images but rather how they make meaning, how they “work” for an individual or a community—and especially how they interacted with and impacted certain milestones in black history. Her approach, her angle of inquiry, is much in the vein of David Morgan and Sally Promey.
In many ways, Painting the Gospel is an extension of an article Pinder wrote in 1997, titled “‘Our Father, God; our Brother, Christ; or are we bastard kin?’: Images of Christ in African American Painting.” This article addresses black-Jesus images in the world of twentieth-century fine art, which were produced by such artists as Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, Aaron Douglas, Archibald Motley Jr., Frederick C. Flemister, Romare Bearden, John Biggers, David Hammons, and more. Pinder wondered whether black Christians consumed this imagery in the public sphere. Continue reading “Book Review: Painting the Gospel: Black Public Art and Religion in Chicago by Kymberly N. Pinder”