Missing the Obama-Jesus story

obama as jesusDid you hear that Barack Obama looks a lot like Jesus in a sculpture at the The Art Institute of Chicago? Oh wait, he is supposed to be Jesus in the sculpture. Quick, someone inform Slate’s Timothy Noah, who has been dutifully chronicling the “Obama Messiah Watch.”

In all seriousness, the first news report I saw on this item was frightfully poor. A.J. Sterling of Fox News Chicago states glibly that “some may be offended by the suggestion that Christ is black, or that the United States could have a black president, but they don’t seem to be at the exhibit this night.” I guess the Grand Kleagle of the closest Klan had a previous engagement.

Where does Sterling come from? Sure, some don’t realize that Jesus probably looked a lot like your average Palestinian and are surprised when they see their blond-haired and blue-eyed image of Jesus shattered. But why is it necessary to suggest that this might offend some people? And why is the absence of the imagined offended people part of the news story?

Nathaniel Hernandez, an Associated Press writer, had a much more balanced and thorough report Tuesday that has a response from the Obama camp:

“While we respect First Amendment rights and don’t think the artist was trying to be offensive, Senator Obama, as a rule, isn’t a fan of art that offends religious sensibilities,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Cordero said the school had fielded plenty of calls about his work, “some of them from angry people.” He also said he had heard from a few potential buyers.

Bruce Jenkins, dean of the art school’s undergraduate program, said response to the piece — part of a student exhibition — has been mostly positive. He said people should take a close look at the sculpture and the context it was created in before judging it.

“When you see it, when you spend time with it, you understand that it’s not a provocative work at all,” Jenkins said. “It opens a set of questions.”

I’d like to see someone try to gather exactly what “religious sensibilities” are being offended in this piece of art. What are the “angry people” saying? Who are the potential buyers?

I’m no expert art critic, but looking at the questions that this piece of art raises — is Obama perceived as a savior (by the media)? — seems to be a great way of covering the story rather than focusing on the fact that a handful of people may be upset over a depiction of a black Jesus.

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  • http://www.simplegloss.com Marc

    My religious sensibilities are offended by–that is, I am displeased by–an artist who creates a work of art that uses the person of Our Lord to do some political propaganda: it doesn’t have anything at all to do with the fact that the artist has also involved Mr Obama; it would be just as offensive if the artist used Mr Giuliani or Mr Romney.

  • Jerry

    Much of the time people in the US are looking for a secular savior and idolizing people with clay feet. Senator Obama is just one example of that phenomenon. So I found the statue to be a perfect representation of that phenomenon.

    I’m just grateful to live in a country where such commentary and spinoff spoofs like http://www.thespoof.com/news/spoof.cfm?headline=s2i16917 are not the cause of death threats and even murders.

  • http://tjic.com TJIC

    Jenkins said. “It opens a set of questions.”

    I, for one, am deeply sick of artists copping out with “Hey, it just asks questions”. Really, it does?

    “OK”, I usually want to ask, “what sort of deep and probing philosophical questions does this particular piece of art ask?”.

    In this case, what question is raised by Obama as Jesus? “Is Obama actually God?” ?
    “Will Obama save me from my sins” ?

    In fact, the vast majority of art that is hailed as “asking questions” does no such thing. The reality is that the more likely art is to be praised as being complicated and asking questions, the more likely it is to actually be entirely unsubtle and propagandistic.

  • http://www.stpaulannarbor.org Don Neuendorf

    Sterling displays that stereotyped view of faith that assumes anyone who is offended by such “art” is motivated by racism. At least, that’s how he sets it up with his remark about those who are offended at the idea of a black Jesus or a black president. Perhaps if he had spoken to someone… anyone… with an alternative point of view he might have avoided making a fool of himself.

    Pretty slick response from the Obama campaign though. With one short sentence they cut the Gordian Knot, positioning their candidate as the reasonable adult who is displeased but patient with the antics of these artists. Perhaps those religion consultants are paying off?

  • Dennis Colby

    I still say if it weren’t explicitly named as Obama, nobody would make the connection. That statue doesn’t look anything like him!

    As for Sterling’s report, I think he was just falling into the old script that some media outlets use whenever covering “controversial art.” Not that there seems to be any controversy over this, except for a few angry phone calls.

  • Rick the Texan

    I find comparative analogies helpful, so I offer this:

    Imagine a dramatized depiction of a scene that was immediately recognizable as a spin on Dr. King’s famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Now, imagine that instead of Dr. King, the speaker was some contemporary personage who tends to be galvanizing. Let’s say, the President. And let’s have him saying (in a cadence similar to Dr. King’s) “I have a dream: a dream of a world free of terrorism…”

    How would the black community respond, esp. those who recognize Dr. King’s contributions to civil rights? Would this offend them? Why or why not?

    Or imagine that the scene looks like a presidential inauguration, and an actor with a vague resemblance to JFK said “Ask not what the war on terrorism can do for you; ask what you can do for the war on terrorism”.

    Would this be offensive to those who hold the memory of JFK and his ideals dear? Why or why not?

    Personally I don’t find the sculpture in question offensive; I think it’s in poor taste and it reveals a fairly serious insensitivity to people who honor Christ. And it is not because it is Obama; and it is not because it is a black man. It is because the person of Christ is held in honor and not something to use recklessly to make political, racial, sexual or other kinds of points.

    I’m the wrong person to define what “the angry people” are saying. I’ve articulated my feelings in the preceding parapgraph. I’d rather not see the reporter look up some angry people and get their views, because I think there is a lunatic fringe to any population, and the stray people who show up in most secular media pieces as representatives of Christianity are from that fringe. Most people I know within the category of Christians look at this story and others like it; register a response of disdain for their beliefs and values on the part of the wider culture; but rather than getting angry, they move on with their lives, more persuaded than before that the media and the culture are at least, clueless about what really drives and motivates Christians, or worse, are looking to incite and offend.

  • Rick the Texan

    Forgot to add: I’d rather the reporter not look up the angry people; but unless s/he actually looks them up and quotes them, s/he should not make an unsubstantiated reference to them a la “some of them from angry people.”

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    The main problem is that modern “Art” is becoming like modern “poetry”: merely propaganda to “shock” people.

    Art used to be about seeing the beauty of God’s world and trying to portray that beauty in your art.

  • http://mrc.org Tim Graham

    I think it’s quite wrong to assume that critics of this piece are offended by a black Jesus or a black president. If this piece is meant to suggest Obama is Christlike, then what’s ridiculous is to suggest that Obama has a program in complete sync with the God of the Bible, including his support for abortion on demand and his support for the promotion of homosexuality as just another lifestyle choice.

  • rw

    Don, Dennis, Rick: Sterling is a chick.

    Honorable menition goes to Rick the Texan, who employed the vaguely violent “she-slash-he” construction in his comment. This allowed him to avoid clicking on the video link to see the story he was commenting on, and therefore gender of the reporter.

  • dpulliam

    Thanks RW for clarifying for all of us. When I first wrote the post I almost stumbled into the same mistake.


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