the real jesus

Yeezus or Sheezus, whatevs. My own images of Jesus haven’t been much better. Here’s my latest column from Youthwork Magazine (UK), where I unpack that a bit:

The Real Jesus

I grew up in church, a mostly-good kid and all. Sunday School every week from the day I left the nursery. So I heard my share of Bible stories; I heard my share of Jesus stories.

One of my favorites was always the story of Jesus walking on the water. I can still picture—I mean, really, I have the picture in my mind right now—the flannel graph images of Jesus hovercrafting in his pretty blue robe across a glassy bit o’ blue. (Flannel graph, by the way, was the archetypal Sunday school teaching technology back in the day: little die-cut foreground figures—people, boats, the occasional tree—with a felt backing that quickly and neatly stuck to flannel backgrounds with various nondescript Bibleland topographies. My mother-in-law still possesses one of the world’s most complete collections of mint-condition flannel graph paraphernalia. Seriously, her stuff should become the main attraction in a Sunday school museum someday.)

jesus on the water, croppedBack to the hovercrafting Jesus…

In my frozen mental image, Jesus is white and nicely coiffed (seriously, when we reinvented Jesus as white, I’m surprised no one thought to reinvent his hair into a more church-y level of appropriateness—maybe a nice TV-evangelist-combover). And he’s scooching (seriously, “hovercrafting” is the best word I can think of) in the middle of day, across an idyllically calm body of water. Sometimes, in my childhood image, he has one hand raised halfway, about chest-high, in either a sort of blessing, or a casual wave (“Hey, dudes, relax, it’s me.”).

I’m sure that by the time I reached my teens, I knew this flannel-backed image of Jesus walking on the water wasn’t quite accurate. But there it simmered, percolating in my spiritual subconscious.

I’m sure that, during my time at a Christian college and graduate school, I at least knew that Jesus wasn’t white, would have walked rather than hovercrafting, and a few other tweaks. But I didn’t let that spoil my childhood picture.

I’m even sure that after years of being a youth worker and telling this story, I knew that there were more inaccuracies—like the status of the water (I clearly remember a retreat speaker I’d hired doing the single worst rap I’d ever heard in my life about how the boat was buffeted by the ways: b-b-b-buffeted… b-b-b-buffeted.).

But I allowed my childhood image to exist, encased behind psychic Plexiglas in the museum of my mind.

I remember—the experience more than the time and place—finally realizing, well into adulthood and professional Christianing, that the text clearly says the whole water-walking thing took place in the middle of the night (on a stormy night, at that). Of course, that would make a boring flannel graph, since you wouldn’t be able to see anything. And the water: it wasn’t smooth and flat. These expert sailors, the disciples, couldn’t get the boat back into land because a massive wind storm had come up, and the waves were so big they were smashing the boat away from shore (b-b-b-buffeted). This is the water Jesus walked on.

So much for hovercrafting. Now I have to picture the real, dark-skinned, Middle Eastern Jesus, climbing his way through the peaks and troughs of a wild sea storm. His clothing would have been drenched from spray. His hair would have been blown all over the place (where’s a good hair-tie when you need one?). Now the scene looks more like a pitch-black episode of extreme bouldering (on water!), or, like an X Games-at-night rollerblade competition, with Jesus grinding down the “rail” of one wave, hopping to the next, and dropping down into a trough to set up for his next trick.

Crash! The psychic Plexiglas around my childhood image is finally smashed. And now I can begin the reconstructive task of observing the real Jesus.

On a much bigger scale, and with lots more stories, this is part of our youth work task: smashing the psychic Plexiglas encasing teenagers’ false images and ideas of Jesus, whether they grew up hearing Jesus stories in church or not. It’s a noble work of deconstruction and reconstruction. Some might even say “re-imagining”.

While teenagers’ thoughts and pictures of Jesus are from childhood, or from some other phase of their lives, whether they have lots of ideas about Jesus, or only what they’ve heard through hearsay, most of them have some seriously jacked-up ideas about who Jesus was and is, and what he did and does.

Let’s pull the hammers out of our leather youth work tool belts and engage in a bit of museum-image smashing. Let’s lead teenagers on an honest, blunt, even surprising expedition toward meeting the real Jesus.

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