Popcorn Theology

If you were born before 1960, it was likely a weekly ritual for you—the Saturday matinee at the local movie theater. Probably a double feature, maybe of a B-western movie with Lash Larue, and a Big Bug sci-fi flick like The Deadly (giant praying) Mantis. And in between, lots of cartoons. And with it all, LOTS and LOTS of popcorn drenched in butter.

You probably didn’t realize it at the time, but as a young child you may well have absorbed, along with the butter soaking on that popcorn,  more of what you eventually came to believe and has stuck with you all these years about “theology” –than you did in Sunday school the next morning. Wonder where most Americans first got the idea that the biblical Devil, if you could see him, would be red all over and have a pointy tail and horns? And that angels, if you could see them, would have a halo and wings? Look no farther than the popcorn-theology of the steady diet of Hollywood cartoons that most young children are exposed to. Walt Disney likely had one of the most influential, with the 1938 release of Donald’s Better Self.  It has “educated” several generations of young folks in the ins-and-outs of the tactics of the Devil and angels. It was released on VHS in 1986, and the latest generation can still be indoctrinated with its theology via the copy on Youtube.

The imagery of this film is still so memorable that Hallmark honored it with a Christmas ornament in 2009.

In the cartoon short, Donald is tempted and badgered throughout the day by a “Devil duck” (his “badder self”?) to do what he knows he shouldn’t … such as skip school to go fishing, or smoke. And by an “angel duck” (his “better self”) to resist the temptation.

But surely most people didn’t get “stuck” in this infantile view of the supernatural? Surely they eventually studied the Bible and found out that there is no “physical” detailed description of the Devil at all. And that any time an angel is described interacting with a human, there are no wings or halos in sight. (See: Answers about Angels)  No, for modern society is replete with images of red devils and haloed angels. Everyone learned their ducky lesson well!  You can even get a vinyl red devil to sit on your OWN shoulder to whisper in your ear, or both a devil and angel even more up-close and personal.

So if that’s where we first got our view of what the Devil and angels look like, where did we first get our ideas of Jesus?

Consider this:  If I ask you to “envision” the face of Jesus … is this what you see?

It has been many decades since I “believed” that the Jesus of the Bible, the Jesus of the land of Israel in the first century AD, would have looked like that picture. But to this day, if someone would ask me to envision Jesus, that exact picture is the first thing that pops, uninvited, into my mind! I immediately push it aside, because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he wouldn’t have looked a thing like that. But that picture has a powerful grip on a tiny corner of my subconscious mind! And I’ll bet it has the same grip on the minds of  many if not most readers of this blog.

When I’m thinking more logically, I know that THIS picture is likely a lot closer to what Jesus may have looked like.

This is a face “reconstructed” by forensic anthropologists to show what an “average” young Jewish male of the first century would have looked like. Using skulls from that time period, and the modern techniques that can often assist in identifying skeletons related to crimes, these experts have given us a more realistic glimpse into the past. Below is part of the description of the method they used. See the whole story on the Popular Mechanics website.

Reconstructing Jesus

Matthew’s description of the events in Gethsemane offers an obvious clue to the face of Jesus. It is clear that his features were typical of Galilean Semites of his era. And so the first step for Neave and his research team was to acquire skulls from near Jerusalem, the region where Jesus lived and preached. Semite skulls of this type had previously been found by Israeli archeology experts, who shared them with Neave.

With three well-preserved specimens from the time of Jesus in hand, Neave used computerized tomography to create X-ray “slices” of the skulls, thus revealing minute details about each one’s structure. Special computer programs then evaluated reams of information about known measurements of the thickness of soft tissue at key areas on human faces. This made it possible to re-create the muscles and skin overlying a representative Semite skull.

The entire process was accomplished using software that verified the results with anthropological data. From this data, the researchers built a digital 3D reconstruction of the face. Next, they created a cast of the skull. Layers of clay matching the thickness of facial tissues specified by the computer program were then applied, along with simulated skin. The nose, lips and eyelids were then modeled to follow the shape determined by the underlying muscles.

A Matter Of Style

Two key factors could not be determined from the skull–Jesus’s hair and coloration. To fill in these parts of the picture, Neave’s team turned to drawings found at various archeological sites, dated to the first century. Drawn before the Bible was compiled, they held crucial clues that enabled the researchers to determine that Jesus had dark rather than light-colored eyes. They also pointed out that in keeping with Jewish tradition, he was bearded as well.

It was the Bible, however, that resolved the question of the length of Jesus’s hair. While most religious artists have put long hair on Christ, most biblical scholars believe that it was probably short with tight curls. This assumption, however, contradicted what many believe to be the most authentic depiction: the face seen in the image on the famous–some say infamous–Shroud of Turin. The shroud is believed by many to be the cloth in which Jesus’s body was wrapped after his death. Although there is a difference of opinion as to whether the shroud is genuine, it clearly depicts a figure with long hair. Those who criticize the shroud’s legitimacy point to 1 Corinthians, one of the many New Testament books the apostle Paul is credited with writing. In one chapter he mentions having seen Jesus—then later describes long hair on a man as disgraceful. Would Paul have written “If a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him” if Jesus Christ had had long hair? For Neave and his team this settled the issue. Jesus, as drawings from the first century depict, would have had short hair, appropriate to men of the time.

An Accurate Portrait

For those accustomed to traditional Sunday school portraits of Jesus, the sculpture of the dark and swarthy Middle Eastern man that emerges from Neave’s laboratory is a reminder of the roots of their faith. “The fact that he probably looked a great deal more like a darker-skinned Semite than westerners are used to seeing him pictured is a reminder of his universality,” says Charles D. Hackett, director of Episcopal studies at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. “And [it is] a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.”

So if Jesus looked more like this swarthy fellow than like the pale, long-haired chap with the sensitive face in this portrait …

Where did so many millions of us get the idea that he DID?  The answer is in the history of that portrait. It was painted in 1924 by a commercial artist named Warner Sallman. Part of the story is described in a Christian History magazine article:

One day Sallman urgently needed to get a cover done for the February, 1924 issue of the religious magazine Covenant Companion. He wanted to do a face of Christ, but wasn’t satisfied with his ideas. Hovering in the back of his mind was a statement by E. O. Sellers, the night director of Moody Bible Institute, “…make Him a real man. Make Him rugged, not effeminate. Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will see in his face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.” No small task! Little wonder Sallman was unable to find precisely the right idea at first.

With his deadline looming, he saw a vision early one morning of the face he must draw. He went up to his studio and made a sketch. Years later he converted that sketch to a painting–the best-known representation of Christ done in the twentieth century.

Here are more details on the Sallman Saga from a Christianity Today story.

The charcoal sketch called “The Son of Man,” which appeared on the cover of the Covenant Companion in 1924, attracted enough admirers over the years that Sallman painted an oil version in 1940. The image was titled “The Head of Christ.” For many people, this image of Jesus, composed like a photographic portrait, looked like the serene “best friend” they wanted in their Savior.

The Baptist Bookstore picked up various sizes of the lithographic image and placed it in bookstores across the South. A growing variety of products using Sallman’s painting appeared—religious instructional materials, prints, gift items, and eventually clocks, lamps, buttons, mottoes or Scripture texts, Bibles, and puzzles. Impressed by the avid public response, Sallman’s publishers urged him to produce several images from the life of Jesus using the same likeness. An enterprising commercial illustrator, Sallman studied many visual precedents used in devotional settings and produced by other religious publishers and based most of his very successful images on them, such as “Christ in Gethsemane,” “Christ at Heart’s Door,” “The Lord is My Shepherd,” and “Christ Our Pilot,” produced from 1942 to 1950.

The World War II context was equally important for the dissemination and popular reception of Sallman’s chief image, “The Head of Christ.” The Salvation Army and the YMCA, both members of the USO, handed out pocket-sized versions of the picture to American soldiers leaving for Europe and Asia. Millions of copies found their way around the world and became a fondly remembered part of the war experience for many veterans.

After the war, groups in Oklahoma and Indiana conducted broad campaigns to distribute the picture across private and public spheres. A Lutheran organizer of the effort in Indiana said that there ought to be “card-carrying Christians” to counter the effect of “card-carrying Communists.” Copies of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” were placed in public libraries, schools, police departments, community centers, and even in courtrooms. One photograph from 1962 shows Vice President Lyndon Johnson posing reverently beside a copy of the picture sent to him in Washington. Today, the portrait of Jesus is still found in both Protestant and Catholic churches, enjoys fond use among Mormons, Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans, and hangs in Christian homes in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe.

One humorous side-note to this story—note the quote by E.O. Sellers: “Make Him strong and masculine, not weak, so people will see in his face He slept under the stars, drove the money changers out of the temple, and faced Calvary in triumph.”  Evidently our image of what a Macho Man would look like has changed drastically since the 1920s/30s.  This became obvious to me when, in about 1962, I first saw Gone With the Wind, which premiered in 1939. The choice of Leslie Howard to play Ashley Wilkes utterly bewildered me. I couldn’t help but be astonished that the fiery young Scarlett O’Hara would have preferred a pale-faced man with delicate, genteel features who looked like Leslie Howard over a darkly dashing man who looked like Clark Gable.  I just cannot imagine Howard’s Ashley character “sleeping under the stars” and beating up on anybody!

The bottom line is that the “common” but very unbiblical perspective on what Jesus looked like has been almost totally crafted, not by anything in the Bible, but on deliberate, heavy merchandising of the Warner Sallman picture … and the thousands of other rip-off Jesus pics painted by copycats. It has been estimated that over a billion dollars’ worth of Sallman-Jesus “products” have been sold since he created the icon!

This is relevant to this blog’s consideration of the topic of Hell because it is my contention that an almost  identical historical process has been followed to arrive at the current, common view of Hell, both in the secular world and within church circles. It’s just been a much longer process.

We’ve been sold a non-biblical Hellish story.

Follow the history of that story in future installments of this blog.

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3 Responses to Popcorn Theology

  1. Pingback: Popcorn Theology | Currently StaRRing …

  2. Pingback: Angels in the Limelight | NonDante

  3. Pingback: On Wings of Angels | NonDante

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