LDS PODCASTS, Episode 5
In the Image of Christ:
Culture and Tradition Shapes Religious Images and Icons, Including Those of our Beloved Savior
Welcome back. It's Tuesday so, according to my promises, here's another podcast. Shucks we only officially launched this thing Saturday night, so I doubt if many of listeners are fully caught up with the four podcasts presently posted. But a promise is a promise, and besides, I've had some fun topics on my mind.
The spike we've experienced in the past few days is heart-warming. Thank you to every listener, especially those who have already offered donations. Trust me, this is quite a project for myself and my programmer, Jared Buttars, and we'll take all the support we can get. I'm working on offering a cool perk or gift to give anyone who donates 20 bucks or more, but we're still working out the details. I pretty sure we'll make it retroactive to our launch date of December Fifth. Maybe we'll do something like all those fund-raising websites and offer a free copy of the next Tennis Shoes book to those who donate $50 dollars or more. Or a free audio for those who donate $100 or more. Or both for $150. I'm just makin' this up as I go. Obviously there's no obligation. All these books and audios will be cheaper to wait and purchase after they're done. But if you like what we're doing, if you like the concept and direction and quality, maybe you wanna play a role in making it happen. Or not. Either way, these weekly podcasts will remain free.
One person asked how I obtained such a cool url, foreverLDS.com. To me I'd wonder if it comes off a little pretentious. The fact is that I've owned that URL for well over a decade. It used to be associated with my first website cheimerdinger.com. Now it becomes the url of this podcast. So what does it mean, foreverLDS? Is that like a testimony, proclaiming we will be forever LDS? Sure, I'll go with that. Or is it more like saying LDS-ness--Latter-Day Sainthood--is something eternal. Something that will last forever. I like that even better. It means whatever you want it to mean. I just like the aura it creates, the sturdiness.
Hey, and before I get too deeply into this week's topic, allow me to take a moment to thank Michael Bahnmiller, the composer of the original, opening music you just heard. Michael is an aspiring composer who has worked with Academy Award winning movie composers. Michael created this music specifically for foreverLDS and just gave it to us. I still can't believe he did that. He listened to the first podcast, caught the vision of what we're trying to do, and just wanted to be involved. He didn't even ask me to give him a plug, although I just did. Thank you, Michael! Now I guess it's up to me to live up to that contribution with a consistent, quality product.
I was hoping to offer an interview this week, but I'm still mastering the technology of all this, which requires the purchase of various obscure pieces of equipment and setting it up properly. I'm not quite ready for all that. So you'll just have to listen to just me again. Oh well. In my future interviews I'll draw from just about every category of persons and personalities, from celebrities to scientists. Most will be LDS, but there's also a few non-Latter-day Saints I'd love to bring aboard. Remember I'm a convert to this Church, and I got connections. But no hints of who I might interview until an interview is actually "in the can" as they say. The goal of this podcast will never change. I'm celebrating the Gospel. I'm celebrating the Savior and the Restoration of His Church, and everyone I interview will clearly understand that objective beforehand. Nevertheless, fascinating, faith-affirming information can be gained from a myriad of sources, and I plan to take advantage of as many of those as I can.
Those who read my novels or follow my various blogs know that I like to conduct thorough research. Doesn't always mean I have it right, or that I don't make factual mistakes, but I try to be as plausible in my representations as I can, recognizing that fiction, just by its very nature, will always present certain limitations. Still, I'd like to give readers a truthful "impression", for lack of a better word, both emotionally and intellectually. Notice also that I said that "those who read my novels" know about my research efforts. Those who only LISTEN to my books on audio don't quite have that opportunity. And this is my fault. The first time we recorded one of my novels unabridged my publisher gave me a lot of flack about recording the chapter notes that I put now put in the actual hardcopy books. And I failed to stand my ground. Maybe it was the right choice. I dunno. Such notes are easy to skip in a book if the reader isn't interested. Not quite so easy in an audio recording. I think I could have insisted that it be done in a way that a listener had the option of skipping the scholarly stuff with one press of a button, but I didn't pursue it.
Listen, it was quite a battle to even convince my publisher to allow chapter notes at all. They were very reluctant. Chapter notes in a fantasy novel? Who'd ever heard of such a crazy thing! Yet I really wanted my readers to know the logic behind some of the descriptions and plotpoints and character decisions that I was making. This battle with my publisher, whether to include chapter notes in my novel "Warriors of Cumorah", which was the first Tennis Shoes novel that had chapter notes, lasted about 30 days. In fact it was exactly 30 days. That's because a decade earlier I'd negotiated a little clause in my contract that said I had the final say in editing decisions on my novels, and if the publisher didn't see it my way after 30 days, I could take the manuscript elsewhere. So, our standoff? Exactly 30 days, after which time I was happily informed that my chapter notes would stay. I'm glad I made that stand because I've had many positive comments over the years about that information. And those who aren't interested in the scholarly stuff? No biggie. They can just move on to the next chapter.
I could have made the same fuss about keeping the chapter notes in my audio books, but after winning the first fight I guess I just didn't have the will to fight a second fight. And frankly, I wasn't entirely sure listeners would appreciate having to hit even a single skip-forward button if they wanted to continue the story and have their suspension of disbelief uninterrupted. So for those who only listen to my books on audio, yeah, there's a component that you're missing, but se le ve. Nothing I can do about it now. EXCEPT talk about some of those things on occasion this podcast. Lucky you! If you wanna see it that way. Can't be boring. Can't be boring. That's the mantra of foreverLDS. Can't be boring. I hope, most of the time, I succeed at that, but nobody's perfect. Least of all, yours truly.
Anyway, in case I ought to confess, research can slow down the writing process. Trust me, this is no less frustrating for readers than it is for me, the writer. It seems with every book I raise set the bar for myself a little higher. I want my facts just a little more plausible. Undoubtedly I still make glaring mistakes, but hey, I'm trying. My heart's in the right place.
And the thing I find most frustrating is how many facts--and I'm talking about some of the most commonly accepted ideas in our religion and in all of Christendom--are not facts at all. They're just educated guesses. In some cases they're just habits. Traditions. Commonly accepted notions that most Latter-day Saints and Christians never even think twice about. Now, before I get into this, I think you should know, none of these supposed habits--traditions--happens to be essential to your salvation. If we happen to get a few things wrong, trust me, it's harmless. It doesn't diminish the power of the Good News of eternal life offered through the Redeemer of Mankind, nor does it diminish the reality of the Restored Gospel and the Priesthood of the Son of Man. But it might raise a few eyebrows. Surprise a few people. I know when I first learned that some of our traditions had no basis in fact, it certainly surprised me. I figured somebody must have verified these things beforehand--the scriptures, Joseph Smith, some other general authority or academic scholar--but nope. As it turns out some commonly accepted traditions are just that--traditions.
So here's one of them. And to me it's an interesting one. We don't know what Jesus Christ looks like. Now, at first mention, some might concede, well, that's obvious. I mean, you can't walk into any Church bookstore or religious art gallery without noticing that the various faces that artists use to portray the Savior all have different facial features. Different musculatures. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about all of it. All of the characteristics commonly employed to describe the Savior's mortal appearance. I'm not even talking about His Immortal appearance because every person who has ever even attempted to offer up some kind of description of an immortal Savior finds this effort impossibly daunting. The Immortal Christ? Forget about it. Our carnal minds can't grasp it--but artists who portray Him in mortality invariably use the same characteristics or badges, as they are often called. These badges include long hair, attractive features, lean tone, short beard and moustache, usually a white robe, brown hair, although some artists of European heritage are inclined to make it as light as possible, and often blue eyes. The blue eyes we'll talk about later, but what about the other so-called badges?
All fiction. All of them products of tradition. What? You mean no prophet, no scripture, no modern general authority ever declaratively confirmed any of these characteristics? Not even the shoulder-length hair? Not even the beard and moustache? Nope. Not a single one. So where in blazes did we get these descriptions? How come every modern artist uses these badges whenever they depict the Savior in paintings or sculptures or plays or movies? Well, the fact is, if artists DIDN'T use these basic badges, chances are that audiences, customers— common folk like you or me—wouldn't have the vaguest idea who was even being depicted. These traditions are powerful. And they go back at least a thousand years.
It all apparently started in the Byzantine Empire--modern day Turkey--just about the twelfth or thirteenth century ad. The seat of the Byzantine Empire, in case some arn't aware, is Constantinople, or modern-day Istambul, the headquarters of the Orthodox Christian Church, which very much exists to this day and may be the second largest Christian denomination in the world, right after the Roman Catholic Church, unless you group all Protestants into one category, in which case they'd be third. Anyway, dating back to about this time period a document comes into the hands of Christendom known as the Lentulus Letter. So what is the Lentulus Letter, some might ask? Well the Lentulus Lentter purports to be a document sent to the Roman Senate by the governor of Jerusalem who served just before the appointment of Pontius Pilate. This so-called governor of Jerusalem claims to go by the name of Publius Lentulus. The letter reads as follows:
Lentulus, the Governor of the Jerusalemites to the Roman Senate and People, greetings. There has appeared in our times, and there still lives, a man of great power (virtue), called Jesus Christ. The people call him prophet of truth; his disciples, son of God. He raises the dead, and heals infirmities. He is a man of medium size; he has a venerable aspect, and his beholders can both fear and love him. His hair is of the color of the ripe hazel-nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled, with a bluish and bright reflection, flowing over his shoulders. It is parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and vary cheerful with a face without wrinkle or spot, embellished by a slightly reddish complexion. His nose and mouth are faultless. His beard is abundant, of the color of his hair, not long, but divided at the chin. His aspect is simple and mature, his eyes are changeable and bright. He is terrible in his reprimands, sweet and amiable in his admonitions, cheerful without loss of gravity. He was never known to laugh, but often to weep. His stature is straight, his hands and arms beautiful to behold. His conversation is grave, infrequent, and modest. He is the most beautiful among the children of men.
Cool, eh? One might even say moving. It really is a remarkable document. There's only one problem with it. Okay, there's numerous problems with it. In fact, there's so many problems with it that even the least educated scholar among us would hardly know where to begin. First, there was no Roman Governor of Jerusalem. There was a Roman procurator of Syria who had authority over Jerusalem and Judea, but his headquarters were at Caesarea, which the Bible makes perfectly clear. Moreover, numerous historical sources give us the name of the procurator, or governor of the area before Pontius Pilate and after Pontius Pilate and his name was Publius Lentulus. The only Roman authority actually based in Jerusalem would have been the commander of the Antonia garrison--you know, that rather obscene looking building overlooking the Temple Courtyard if you've ever seen a model of Jerusalem at the time of Christ. This garrison was actually rather small compared to other Roman cities of that size in the Empire--except during Jewish festivals, when riots frequently broke out, but the modest size of the Antonia garrison at most times of the years was to appease the pious Jews--the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedren--who absolutely despised the Romans. Oddly enough, Roman sentiment toward the Jews was pretty mutual. Okay, even that needs to be qualified. Many Romans actually liked Jews--especially Jews living in areas outside Judea, like in Alexandria and in Rome itself. These Jews seemed much more willing to adopt Roman customs and liked Roman technologies. It was those pesky Jews in Judea who really got on their nerves. There were uprisings and riots and false messiahs and militant zealots every couple of years that had to be quashed, often with considerable bloodshed. That's why the prefect based in Ceasarea went to Jerusalem every Passover, because that's when the violence usually erupted. He didn't go there on holiday. Well, tempers finally bristled and got out of hand to the point that the Romans literally flattened the entire city about 40 years after Christ's crucifixion, even destroying the Holy Temple, which Jerusalem's architects and craftsmen had just finished a couple years earlier after Herod the Great--the same Herod who slayed the babes in Bethlehem--started this reclamation project before the Savior was even born. Finished and then flattened--just like that.
Anyway, there are many other problems with the Lentulus letter. The form isn't right. No Roman official would have addressed the senate in this way. The pattern of the language is awrong, but hey! The internet didn't exist back then. In fact, literacy itself was pretty scarce and clarifying information just wasn't available. So for a thousand years this description stuck. Other sources that also date to this time period include the Image of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin, but in reality the oldest images of the Savior, dating back to wall frescoes of the 3rd and 4th Centuries, depict Jesus as clean shaven, with short-curly hair, a lot like the average Roman citizens or hero-Gods of the time. In other words, they made Christ in whatever image was most appealing to them, depending upon the current customs.
Many Latter-day Saints might be surprised to learn that in the 19th and early 20th Centuries members of our Church were discouraged from having paintings of Jesus Christ in our homes and Churches. Why? Well, for much the same reason that the Jewish religion doesn't like graven images--our leaders feared that rather than worship God our members might be inclined to worship an image of God rather than God Himself. This idea began to change in the 40s and 50s. And looking back, it might seem kind of silly to most Latter-day Saints since I don't think any of us have ever felt inclined to place a picture or statue of Jesus in front of us as we kneel down to pray. But a hundred years ago? This was a rather serious matter. Some Latter-day Saints might misunderstand the notion that we are commanded to worship our Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ, and not worship Jesus Himself. But this seems easy enough to explain and correct. Still, I've never heard of any Saints who felt the need to use icons or images as a help-aid to worship.
Now there is a journal from a contemporary of Joseph Smith named Alexander Neibaur that claims Joseph Smith once described the Savior as having “blue eyes” and “light complexion” but this teaching was never widely disseminated in our Church and is not regarded as doctrine. Not even James Talmage, author of the seminal volume Jesus the Christ, ever attempted to describe the Redeemer’s physical features, choosing instead to focus upon His capacities for love, mercy, and compassion.
The most we get from a modern prophet or Apostle may be from Elder Bruce R. McConkie. In his book The Promised Messiah it reads: “We know very little about the personality, form, visage, and general appearance of the Lord Jesus. Whether he had long or short hair, was tall or short of stature, and a thousand other personal details, are all a matter of speculation and uncertainty. We suppose he was similar in appearance to other Abrahamic Orientals of his day, and that he was recognized by those who knew him and went unheeded in the crowds by those unacquainted with him. A Judas was needed to identify him to the arresting officers; people spoke of him as though he were the carpenter’s son; and he seemingly appeared as other men do. . .”
I like that description. I like Bruce R. McConkie.
Inevitably, I think we have to come back to the description provided in Isaiah 53:2, and which was restated in that famous song by Janice Kapp Perry. The verse that speaks of a Being who appears without “comeliness” and has "no apparent beauty that man should him desire.”
That's kind of the tack that I took in my own novel. What it probably means, is that Jesus kept his hair short, like most Jews, especially a Jew who wanted to be respected as a Rabbi or teacher. He would have let his beard grow long, as well as his sideburns. There were very strict proscriptions against trimming either of these. He might very well have worn a small box containing the Talmud, or first five books of Moses on His forehead as well as his wrist, and no Gospel writer would have felt the need to mention this because it would have been the exact same custom as every other Rabbi or Jewish teacher of the day. For some this image of long-bearded Jesus with hanging sideburns and a Talmud on His forehead might seem jarring, especially to those who have grown so used to the sentimental Lentulus-style images of paintings of every great artist for the last seven or eight hundred years. At least we've gotten rid of the perpetual halo around His forehead in every older painting. And hey, the idea of an attractive Savior seems far preferable to the rather repellent perspective making the rounds in the second century AD, when Christian apologists like Justin Martyr and Origen seemed to concede the point to critics who described Jesus Christ as physically ugly. To me, this description doesn't quite work either. It would have the same tendency to undermine the impact of the Savior’s ministry as declaring him uncommonly beautiful. Turn him into a male model or the image of your favorite movie star and some would certainly be inclined to worship Him for that reason alone. Make him ugly, and some of us shallow souls might His message for equally superficial reasons. Average. Unremarkable. That seems to the most likely description of His mortal physical appearance. I know that concept is hard for some to wrap their heads around. But it may be the best explanation for why none of Jesus's contemporaries felt inclined offer even a hint of a physical description. There was nothing in Jewish law that prevented them from writing about someone's physical appearance. They just couldn't paint it. Or draw it. Or sculpt. Which tends to make me think there was really nothing particularly noteworthy to describe. But don't go taking an axe to all your paintings of the Savior hanging in your homes. Mortal image. Immortal image. The two seem to coalesce, don't they? They intermix, and comingle in our minds, and I think that's perfectly healthy. It's also healthy to know the origins of our images and icons.
The fact is, any image we might make of the Savior in mortality does nothing to diminish descriptions of the Savior in His eternal, perfected state. As far as I've been able to ascertain, His physical appearance as a resurrected being is beyond any mortal turn of phrase. In his First Vision, Joseph Smith confirms this when he declares, “When the light rested upon me I saw two beings, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air.”
Even more striking is the description in D&C Section 110, where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery write: “We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters . . .”
Now that's stunning. I'd give my right arm to write prose like that, and yet it really doesn't aid the mortal mind in grasping any particulars. The description is simply beyond our imagination.
In other podcasts we'll talk about other interesting conundrums associated with Christian tradition, but for now that'll do. In the end, information, if it's accurate, always sustains faith. Never diminishes. At least that's always been my experience.
Next week, an interview. No promises, but that's my goal. My intent. In the meantime, I got a novel to write. Until then, stay close to the Lord. Hold to the rod. Remain steadfast, go out of your way to make the life of someone a little better this Christmas season. I struggle like any other family to remind my kids that this season is not about them. It's about Him. And because it's about Him, it's about everyone else around us. The least of those among us. Find them. Serve them. And make a difference. Have a glorious day. This is Chris Heimerdinger, signing off.