The Meanest Jesus Ever

In her short story “Parker’s Back,” Flannery O’Connor describes the reaction of a tattoo aficionado to an image of Jesus that confounds all of his expectations. The ink lover, one O.E. Parker, employed as a farmhand since his bad-conduct discharge from the U.S. Navy and unhappily married to the dour Sarah Ruth Cates, has taken it into his head to cover his back with an image of the Lord. Accordingly, he appears in the studio of his favorite artist, requests an image of God, and commences flipping through flash designs.

He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book On one of the pages, a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said to him as plainly as if silence were a language: GO BACK.

In O’Connor’s words, what Parker goes back to is “the haloed head of a flat, stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes.” Parker decides it’s for him. Once completed, the tattooed image affects people in the most alarming ways. A single glance, with the help of an angled mirror, is enough to drive Parker himself to the corner for a pint of whiskey. Later, when he shows it off to his old cronies, their laughter drives puts him in a rage, which he expresses with his fists, leading to his ejection from the bar. When she finally gets a look, Sarah Ruth, claiming not to recognize the figure as God, damns Parker for an idolater and thrashes his back with a broom, raising welts on Jesus’ India-ink image and driving Parker out of the house. He ends up “leaning against [a pecan] tree, crying like a baby.”

I am all but convinced that this particular representation of Christ did not come from O’Connor’s imagination. Nor is it a one-off from some crumbling church in the Near East. On the contrary, it is a stock image called a Holy Mandylion, and is very popular among the various Orthodox communions. I admit to arriving at this conclusion by an unscientific route. When I saw my first Holy Mandylion, in Moscow’s Kazanskyi Sobor, I thought it was plain and simply the ghastliest-looking thing ever. Though I did not — slava bogu! — feel any charismatic promptings to have it etched into my skin, it did appear to me in a nightmare, from which I awoke screaming, to the disgust of the guy who shared my room at the hostel. I haven’t seen anything like it since.

There’s a story behind the Holy Mandylion — one not too much less interesting than anything O’Connor herself could have come up with. To offer a composite of the various existing accounts, King Abghar of Edessa, having fallen ill, wrote to Jesus asking him to come and heal him. Jesus, being indisposed, begged off, but sent a disciple to give Abghar a piece of cloth bearing His image. The cloth, having cured Abghar, went into the kingdom’s treasury, and became Christianity’s first icon.

We can debate the historicity of these stories, which tended to become more elaborate over time — always a bad sign. (See: Seuss, Dr., And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street.) The face’s exaggerated eyes, which O’Connor calls “all-demanding,” look like they belong to the 4th or 5th centuries, when artists in the eastern half of the Roman Empire began using them as proverbial windows to the soul. But I, for one, am glad it probably isn’t the real deal. I don’t like having to attach specific physical characteristics to Jesus. No matter what they might be, they’re bound to disappoint me.

O’Connor has Sarah Ruth, Parker’s wife, think in more or less this direction. “He don’t look!” She says of God. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face!” Of her reaction, Caroline Gordon writes: “Miss O’Connor has succeeded where the great Flaubert failed: in the dramatization of that particular heresy which denies Our Lord corporeal substance.” In other words, the uptight little bint is a Gnostic.

Well, I’m certainly no Gnostic. I just happen to be very unforgiving when it comes to rating other people’s appearances. A friend of mine claimed that Jesus would almost certainly have been short and — his word –unattractive. I can’t remember which source he cited, but the gist of the argument went: the historical Jesus was a small-time artisan from Galilee, where people stopped growing early and aged quickly. The image of Jesus as Paul Giamatti or Iggy Pop was enough to drive me off the subject for good.

At the other extreme are the recent, photo-realistic images of Jesus in which He has perfectly symmetrical features, no wrinkles, and the sort of obsessively pruned beard Kenny Loggins sported during his comeback. My visceral reaction to these is the same as my visceral reaction to John Edwards: “Pretty boy! Breck Girl! Pfui!” In one famous study, subjects were shown photos of better- and worse-looking people, and asked to rate the extent to which they posessed various character traits. The good-lookers scored higher on all the positive qualities save one: sincerity. If anyone could scarce afford that kind of handicap it was Jesus of Nazareth. The Bread of Life speech went over badly enough as it was.

Philip Roth wrote that hearing Jesus had been Jewish left him about as cold as hearing Cary Grant had been Jewish: neither seemed believable enough to matter. Roth didn’t elaborate, but I have a feeling he was reacting to the visual evidence; Jesus rarely stares out from pictures with the features of, say, Adam Sandler, Larry Fine, or for that matter, Philip Roth. That’s okay by me. If I may spill a trade secret, many of us children of Israel follow our own version of the “yellow is mellow” aesthetic. When we say to one another, of some celebrity rumored or revealed to belong to the Tribe, “(S)he doesn’t look Jewish!”, we’re expressing admiration, and a touch of envy. Roth himself is far from immune. In the Nordic good looks of Seymour “Swede” Levov, his American Pastoral hero, one catches more than a hint of wish-fulfillment.

But Jesus — at least on canvas, in wood and in marble — has a way of going too far in the other direction. As depicted by artists from northwestern Europe, He often ends up looking like — well, like some guy whose nickname should have been “Swede.” Judging by photographs, a good number of the Messiahs in the Oberammergau Passion Play could have been tenors kidnapped from Bayreuth and bundled into seamless garments before they could say, “Tannhauser.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a certain school of Bible scholarship held that first-century Galileans had been Aryans, and had nothing in common with present-day Jews. The notion found particular traction in a certain Central European nation, with certain well-documented results. Though one wouldn’t wish to try Rembrandt at Nuremberg as an accomplice, one might wish on his conscience an occasional pang.

No, if Jesus must look like anything, then from the Jewish point of view it’s best He look Italian. That way He’s a little cooler than the rest of us, but still a guy from the neighborhood.

In my old parish, the corpus that hung on the wall was no proper corpus at all, but a vaguely humanoid figure made of some greenish plastic material. Projected from the cross at an angle, it seemed to be springing from the thing — presumably an allegorical depiction of the Resurrection. Strictly from an aesthetic point of view, it was an eyesore; yet et it captured the welcoming spirit of the place. In fact, everyone called it “Casper the Friendly Ghost.”

When the parish administration changed hands, Casper vanished. Nobody seems to know where he went. If whatever replaces him will define the parish’s new tone — or, to put it in the language of business, “direction” — then it is naturally a question fraught with Church and parish politics. Me, I’m just glad that whatever shows up on that wall will be an artist’s representation and only that — something to be deconstructed, and perhaps, replaced in its turn. Unlike Parker, we’re not stuck with it.

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I Have Heard You Calling in the Night
A Strange New Rosary

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