Icon Essay by Marian Chiaramonte
(c) 2009, Marian Chiaramonte
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
Jesus, Revelation Chapter 22:13, The Bible.
We have the freedom to believe or not to believe one of many claims Jesus has made and others have made about him through the centuries. However, in our North American pop culture society, Jesus has become many things. “Christians have depicted him as black, and white, male and female, straight and gay, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Klu Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator.”( Prothero, 8) In North America, Jesus has become a pop culture icon because Christians and people of other religious faiths and beliefs have had the freedom to see Jesus in their own way.
In this essay I will discuss Jesus as a pop culture icon in regards to semiotics, Maslow’s theories, Marshall McLuhan’s medium/ message and extensions, other worldviews, consumers applications and finally my views on Jesus as an icon.
The face of Jesus is a symbol in itself. His face is unmistakable in most countries and cultures around the world. The shroud of Turin is a popular picture of Jesus face (the sign). The signifier is an archaeological cloth imprint of his face and body marred and bloodied during the crucifixion. The signified is the shroud “the single most studied artifact in human history. And yet the controversy still rages.” (Online)
. In most pictures his hair is usually long with a beard and moustache. His skin is milky white, his eyes translucent. . In contrast he is shown with Mary holding Jesus dead body, as the suffering Jesus, in Michelangelo’s world famous sculpture, the Pieta. (Gire 21) The most famous and most recognized symbol is the cross. “The cross of Jesus is the supreme evidence of the love of God” (RBC, 10) The signifier of the cross is Jesus crucified. The signified of the cross is Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of all mankind. The empty cross and the empty tomb symbolize the resurrection, where Jesus rose from the dead and came to life to live forever and that those who believe in Him would also have eternal life in heaven when they die. There are pictures (sign) of Jesus as lamb. The signifier is Jesus as the sacrificial lamb. The signified means he sacrificed his body to be tortured and crucified to death so we did not have to bear our sins alone. Jesus paid the price. There are pictures of Jesus standing with a white flowing belted robe, teaching on the Sermon on the Mount. The signified is the preacher. The signifier is evangelist and teacher Another sign is pictures of Jesus with his hand on a person’s head. The signifier is Jesus caring for people making them well. The signified denotes Jesus as the healer of people’s sicknesses and diseases.. Leonardo Da Vinci’s world-renowned painting of The Last Supper is the sign. The signifier is Jesus sitting with his disciples breaking bread and drinking wine. The signified is Jesus verbalizing his betrayer and the teaching of the symbolism of the bread being his body crucified and the wine, his blood shed for the sins of mankind. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome Italy, many pictures of Jesus and the story of the Bible are represented there for the world to see. Jesus is portrayed as a lion in the book and movie entitled The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. The sign is the lion. The signifier is Jesus as Saviour and judge. The signified, is the Lion destroying evil and establishing good in the land of Narnia. (CS Lewis) . A fish sign symbolizes Jesus. The signifier is, ‘fishers of men’. The signified is the followers of Jesus. The fish symbol was created with Greek letters that spell ICTHUS which means “Christ God’s Son Saviour.” (signifier) This symbol was used at the time of the early church persecutions. The fish sign was written on walls, buildings or in the sand. This was done to tell when Christians were gathering. This method is still used in some countries today. (Online) The sign of the Dove related to Jesus. . The signifier is the Holy Spirit. The signified is the third part of the Trinity which Jesus is part of along with the Father God, the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit. The dove appeared at Jesus baptism that signified Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit (Online)
Regarding Maslow’s theory, I think there are some levels that would apply to people in their need and quest for Jesus. Jesus is linked to the creation theory so then the physiological needs come from him; breathing, water sleep, to name a few. Safety is another level, having security that Jesus is taking care of them and of morals of Jesus teaching in all areas of life.. The level of esteem of respecting others and being respected by others is similar to Jesus teaching, “Love thy neighbour and yourself. (Bible, Mathew 19 verse 19) And Self Actualization, particularly, morality, lack of prejudice, these are teachings of Jesus and the Bible on following the Ten Commandments and also Jesus teaching on not judging one another. (Exodus, Chpt 20, Mathew Chtp19 verse 18 ).
The medium is Jesus as the Son of God, teacher, and preacher. The message a myriad of subjects/sermons including; love, marriage, bringing up children, forgiving others, sexual practices to name a few. Coming to know Jesus in a personal way and learning about Jesus and reading his teachings, is an extension of who you are in Christ and how you live as a Christian.. It is an extension of what you teach your children and how you and relate to others. The extension of being a follower of Christ is that Christians are the body of Christ and of the Great Commission. “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you to the very end of the age (Christ: Mathew 28: 19, 20)
Popular culturists of the 20th century have depicted Jesus as a conformist CEO with a suit and tie (Clifford Davis painting, Prothero, 180b) A more feminine Jesus portrayed in a painting by Currier and Ives (Christ walking on the Sea). Stephen S. Sawyer painted Jesus as a boxer called ‘Undefeated’. And in 2000, Janet McKenzie won the “Jesus 2000 art contest showing Jesus as a African American woman being ‘Jesus for the People’. (Prothero – picture inserts, 179 – 180). In the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus was portrayed a man, not God who succumbs to many temptations on the cross. “The sex scene infuriated many critics, but in fact it is just one of many iconoclastic musings to be found in the film. (Online). Jesus is depicted being tortured and crucified in the highly controversial and most anticipated movie, the Passion. (Gibson, The Passion of the Christ)
Approximately 85% of North Americans and some European and Asian countries today see Jesus, and the cross symbol as a sign of being a Christian and belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour.
However, followers of Islam argue that the mistake of Christian theology is “that it has allowed the message to be injected into the messenger, so that the word of God transformed Jesus himself into the divine word.” (Kung 13) Mohammad on the other hand, is the messenger bringing the message. (Kung) 13) Mohammad and his Muslim followers alike know Jesus to be a prophet. As Jesus performing miracles mentioned in the Qur’an as examples of God working in Jesus, but not that Jesus is divine. (Kung 14) Hinduism a European term, is a collection of religions that is directed by dharma not by strict practices and disciplines. They believe in many ways to salvation, encompassed by shared traditions and religions. Unlike Christianity which believe Jesus is the only way of salvation (Kung 142- 143) The gods Hindus believe in are neither good nor evil but rather, are only human unlike a belief in Jesus as divine and without sin. (Kung 183)
The obvious differences of Buddhism is that Buddha taught about achieving Nirvana in this life and reincarnated over and over, whereas Jesus taught about grace for living in this life and when accepting Jesus as your personal saviour, and a promise of eternal life with him in heaven after we die on earth. (Kung, Bible)
Regarding the political aspect of Buddhism is that it teaches tolerance with people of different beliefs. (Kung 353)” Has not in fact Buddhism unlike Christianity, managed to keep presenting it’s teaching and it’s truth in a decisive fashion without having to suppress or even violently eradicate other forms of faith and life.” Direct quote Kung 353) Now Christians and Buddhists are starting to talk where there have been many misunderstanding’s in the past about Buddhism from Christians. (Kung 307) Marshall McLuhan, who converted to Catholicism, was influenced by St. Thomas Aquinas and
G. K. Chesterton’s (What’s wrong with the World and Orthodoxy), as was C.S. Lewis. (McLuhan, 15) McLuhan had this to say about his conversion to Christ: “There was no trauma or personal need. I never had any need for religion, any personal or emotional crisis. I simply wanted to know what was true and I was told…WHAM! I became a Catholic the next day.” (McLuhan, 17 ) He goes on to say “My own attitude to Christianity is, itself, awareness of process.”
In 1966, John Lennon declared “We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.” (Online) That quote caused quite an uproar, some radio stations stopped playing their music and young people burned their records. (Online) Over 40 years later, Paul McCartney still has to explain that quote from Lennon. (Online) The Beatles made eastern mysticism popular by visiting India and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation that eventually swept North America for the latter part of the seventies. (My own father tapped into this type of mediation in the attempt to find peace, and as a result I also got a chance to experience.) Regarding Jesus, “many more tuned into the Bible and took Jesus as their guru.” (Prothero 125) Jesus, in the late sixties and early seventies was portrayed as the ‘Hippie Jesus who made love not war, and who wore sandals, a robe and had long hair. “The Jesus people described him not as a distant divinity but a near and dear friend they could know, love and imitate.” Prothero 130) Jesus was so ‘popular’ that the Christian century magazine noted “Jesus was proclaimed ‘in’ in the year 1971, as the year of Jesus.” (Prothero 132) Among many magazines, Time’s cover on June 21, 1971 read, ‘Jesus Revolution’ (Time). Christian rock star of the time, Larry Norman, had a song called ‘Readers Digest’ where he sang about the break up of the Beatles in 1970 and an ever-growing popularity of the iconic Jesus. Norman said, “people kept Jesus at arm’s length, but this year he is a superstar. Dear John (John Lennon) who’s more popular now?” (Prothero, 132) The popular plays of that year were Jesus Christ superstar and Godspell that only added to his popularity and icon status. “The Jesus people did see Jesus as a divine saviour and end time judge, who did miracles and“ with common working people, the unemployed and bums. (Prothereo, 131). McLuhan’s medium – Jesus as Saviour and Judge as the medium and his miracles and associations with others as McLuhan’s “extensions”.
Consumerism of Jesus stuff became very popular through the Jesus movement. T shirts displayed the slogan, “High on Jesus, and honk if you love Jesus bumper stickers. An extension of McLuhan’s message, if you will, cited buttons stating, “The Messiah is the Message.” (Prothero 129) Advertisers like Coke had a campaign that said, “Jesus is the Real Thing”, and Pepsi’s, “You have a lot to live and Jesus has a lot to give.” (Prothero 130) In 1959, the movie BenHur – the tale of Christ, was the winner of 11 Academy Awards. The movie sustained the most Oscars until the 1990’s when the movie, The Titanic won 14 Oscars. The best selling book of the 1970’s was Hal Lindsey’s, “The Late Great Planet Earth which signified Jesus as” a hippie and spiritual revolutionary.” (Prothero 130). . In the 1990’s the Left Behind Series novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin became best sellers (Prothero 130)
Many mainstream rock stars include Jesus in their song lyrics, which turned out to be top charters such as, Paul Simon’s Mrs Robinson, “God bless you please Mrs Robinson, Jesus loves you more than you will know.” And James Taylor’s, Fire and Rain song, “Look down upon me Jesus, you got to help me make a stand, you’ve just got to see me through another day. And the group Ocean, ‘Put your hand in the hand of the man who calms the sea.’ (Prothero 136) There are many more books and song about Jesus to date, that are far too numerous to mention here.
Jesus is a hot commodity amongst North Americans and beyond. It started in the early 19th century and increased during the ‘Jesus movement’ of the sixties and seventies was responsible for the Christian retail business to attain a whopping $4 billion in yearly sales. (Prothero, 146). These retail products include, bibles, books, music CD’s, DVD’s, poster, buttons, T shirts, patches, bumper stickers, key chains, pictures, paintings, rosaries, cross necklaces, earrings and the list goes on. I would say most Christians and even a lot of non-Christians have a picture of Jesus or a cross symbol and or bible in their possession. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, WWJD slogans could be found on a myriad of costume jewellery, books etc. that became a faith based statement for Christian youth and young adults. The letters translates into ‘What Would Jesus Do’.
Icon: Impact on my life
I have been personally impacted by Jesus, and not because of his ever-increasing icon status. Jesus and the Holy Spirit personally touched me 20 years ago. It was at a time of trauma when I was diagnosed with detached retinas in both eyes and the threat of losing my eyesight. Just before the first eye operation, I called out to God. I said “God help me.” And just then I saw a ‘vision’ of his the face of Jesus above my operation bed, with light like a halo around his face. Sounds a little crazy, you might say, but I was awed, and had a great peace that everything was going to work out. I had grown up in the Catholic faith, but as a teenager, I abandoned my faith for a rocking rebellious time and a pop culture saying of, ‘drugs, sex and rock and roll’. Through the years, I would say, I still believed in God, but when I called out to him at the age of 28 year’s old. This was just the beginning of a process of a personal relationship with Him. Jesus became my personal Saviour, a friend, a personal God who never condemned me for my past behaviour, but rather loved and loves me with an unconditional love. I can commune with Jesus in the spirit realm 24-7, if I choose. I feel and know without a doubt, he is always with me every where I go.. I made a profession of faith that goes something like this, “Jesus forgive me for my sins, I commit my whole life to you and I want to be obedient to your words of scripture found in the Bible”. For me, being a Christian does not mean following a set of ‘laws’, and that I do everything right and do not sin. I am not perfect and sinless like Jesus. But when I do sin, I can go to Him in prayer and confess my sins and I know He forgives and wipes the slate clean. I believe my ultimate reward will be in heaven when I will see him face to face and I will live forever with Him. This is possible because of His death on the cross and resurrection. His death took the penalty of my sin. His resurrection gave me life eternal after my death on this earth. I really came to know him not just as a picture, a cross on a necklace, a rosary to help me pray, a huge coffee table Bible that was never touched, but as a living, ever present God – force, spirit in my life. My consumerism over these past 20 years, has consisted of Bibles, related books, CD’s of various Christian musical artists, DVD’s of Christian movies, occasion cards with bible scriptures, pictures/paintings denoting scripture, etc. I would not say these purchases have been made from an idol point of view, but rather as ‘extensions’, if you will, (to use McLuhan), as growing tools for my walk with God and outreach to others. If my Christianity has not taught me to love all people and respect other’s and their religious beliefs than I am no Christian at all and then Jesus is not personal, He is just a popular icon somewhere up there.
The Library congress of America holds more books about Jesus, than any other historical figure ( Prothero, 11) and the Bible is still one of the best selling books world wide. “Mick Jagger and Bono sing about looking for Buddha and find Jesus.” (Prothero 11) Throughout this essay, the icon Jesus is represented in many way. The Son of God, the Saviour, the Judge, a prophet, a hippie, revolutionary, peacemaker, a business man, a movie star, a rock star’s top 40 record. The medium is Jesus the message is salvation. His extension is life eternal.
Jesus is Maslow’s physiological, safety, esteem, and self-actualization needs. He is everywhere; on bumpers stickers, necklaces, and crosses, books, pictures, sculptures, and paintings all over the world.
Finally, I will sum up my essay with a quote from C.S. Lewis;
“You must make your choice either this Man is the son of God or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.” (Lewis, Shadowlands
Kung, Hans. Christianity and the World Religions. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1986
McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium and the Light – Reflections on Religion. Canada: Stoddard Publishing Co Ltd., 1999.
Prothero, Stephen.American Jesus – How the Son of God became a National Icon. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2003.
The New King James Version. The Bible United States Of America, Word Publishing, 1997.
(Online) Jesus Revolution, Time Archives http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/10,9263,7601710621,00.html June 21, 1971
No Greater Love, Our Daily Bread, November 11, RBC Ministries, Volume 53, Number 8, 2008
Shadowlands , Dir Richard Attenborough, Anthony Hopkins, Jullian Fellows, Ruddy, Monde-Roxby, Michael Dennison Fox Searchlight Pictures 1993
The Passion of the Chjrist, Dir Mel Gibson, James Caviexel, Maia Morgensten, Equinox Films, 2004.
The Last Temptation of Christ, Dir Martin Scorsese, William Dafoe, Harvey Keital, Barbara Hershey, David Bowie, Paramount, 1988
Ben Hur –The Tale of Christ , Dir, William Wyler, Charlton Heston, Stephen Boyd, Haya Harrareet.
Google. Christian Symbols. Checked October 17th, 2008. http://atschool.eduweb.co.uk.caroltrb/Christianity/christian_symbols.html
Google The Beatles are Bigger Than Jesus – John Lennon. Copyright 2002.Checked October 17, 2008 http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000591/
www.shourd.com. The Shroud of Turin. Copyright 1996 – 2008 Barrie M. Schwortz
Google, www.answers.com/topic/thelasttemptation-of-christ-film-1 The Last Temptation of Christ 2008