The sound of red in your head

When you read those red letter words in your Bible, the ones Jesus spoke, what sort of inflection and emotion do you hear speaking those words to you as you “listen” to the red in your head? In your soul? What tone of voice do you imagine Jesus is using in any given situation?

I daresay many of us imagine that his tone is calm, nearly flatline, like an FM broadcaster at 3:00 a.m., whether he is speaking to a single outcast woman at midday, or a herd of angry religious experts. In some sort of weird, ironic mash-up, we add our own North American filter that renders the words as if Richard Gere was reading them to us in his best “calm Buddhist” voice.

I’ve come to believe that our hearing issues flow out of popular visual images we use to depict Jesus:

In a recent Huffington Post piece about the issue of Jesus and race in America, Dr. Wallace Best wrote about the impact a white Jesus has on African-American culture, noting that the white images of Jesus leave African-Americans always on the outside looking in. “For African-American Christians, Jesus was and remains ‘distinct’…Given the entrenchment of the notion of a ‘white Jesus’ in American culture, is it ever really possible to transcend the idea?”

Dr. Best references a recently-released book about this issue that suggests “race has been spiritualized, and human difference has been sanctified to exalt ‘whiteness.’” Best asks his readers to respond to this spiritualization by de-iconizing Jesus: “I would support a return to the iconoclasm of the Puritans where Jesus was ‘physically absent’…A productive way forward would be to consider Jesus, not in our image or anyone’s image, but in a manner of abstractions that personify all that Jesus meant. Let’s ask ourselves, what does love look like? Justice? Mercy? Forgiveness? Let that represent Jesus. Maybe that is the way to a universal Christ beyond ‘color.'”

This “embody love, justice, mercy and forgiveness” idea can be supported by Scripture. We are his body, after all, empowered by his Spirit to do his works and speak his words to the world he loves. But the thrust of Best’s argument cuts Jesus off from who he is in a way that is oddly similar to that eerily calm vocal filter to which we default when we read.

Our culture-bound images of Jesus as a boyishly good-looking dishwater blonde of northern European descent – and even, as Dr. Best noted, the attempts of minority communities to create different ethnic depictions of Christ that reflect their culture – both miss the point. Jesus was an Israeli Jew.

Yeshua? Is that you?*

I’ll admit that this portrait is quite jarring. The eyes seem vacant, perhaps because a forensic artist created the image. I don’t like the image at all, but it is worth a look for purposes of contrast to the other images above.**

Even with my Jewish heritage, I’ll admit that I “heard” the voice of Jesus spoken to me as I read those red letters in Scripture in that eerily calm voice, except perhaps a couple of notches louder when he overturned the merchant tables in the Temple. It took a trip to Israel to wipe that Richard Gere narrator out of my head, replacing it with the soundtrack of a culture where people express their thoughts with frankness, passion and far fewer careful filters than we in the West tend to use.

I appreciated some aspects of Dr. Best’s HuffPo piece, because he is asking his readers to question their culture-bound assumptions, in the same way that I am here by asking you to think about the tone of voice your sanctified imagination may use to listen to those words in red when you read.

It is a gift to God – and to ourselves, those selves longing to be in relationship with him – to become comfortable questioning the norms and assumptions passed on to us by our culture. As we do, we grow in our ability to recognize the real Way, Truth and Life.

Have you discovered some way in which your image of Jesus came to you from somewhere else than Scripture – or that the filter you used to read Scripture distorted the voice of God in some way? 


*From This unfamiliar portrait of Jesus was made specially for a BBC programme broadcast during Easter 2001, called Son of God. The head of Jesus was created by a production team which took into consideration medical, archaeological, geographical and artistic evidence from the time of Jesus.

**The only reason I am using images at all is for the purposes of this conversation. In a devotional setting, they typically lean a little too close to this commandment for my conscience.   



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  • I was always puzzled by the paintings and portraits of Jesus. The main things I wondered about since I was a child, was why didn’t Jesus have any smudges of dirt on him after putting mud on a blind man, picking up children, touching lepers and going out on a fishing boat. I don’t think they had Pantene shampoo and conditioner, or blow-dryers. I also wondered why he looked so well dressed and why he sat so stiffly at the table, when his disciples reclined as they ate, and one even laid his head on his chest. Also, why did he have a halo. Jesus came down as a humble servant and picked up a towel and washed feet. I see Jesus on people faces, the ones who know him – his servants.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Annette – I love your question about why Jesus is always depicted as so clean, haloed and blow-dried. It is something to consider that the dirt God made at creation, the dirt from which he made us, and which Jesus inhabited in which he became flesh, is missing from his garments. Your childhood questions are quite profound!

      Like you, I see Jesus in the actions of his servants. Thanks for writing!

  • Tim

    Love this discussion, Michelle. Those Bible movies from the sixties really did a disservice to those trying to understand the person Jesus’ followers interacted with.

    And about those red letters: back in law school I once sat down for a Bible study with a couple friends, young women undergrads. My neighbor, another law student and Jewish, poked his head in so we invited him to join us. He accepted the invitation, mostly because both of these young women were awfully cute I think. We handed him a Bible and he read along with us, even taking his turn for reading aloud. He balked at reading the red type, saying he didn’t want to read Jesus’ own words out loud. Interesting, to say the least.


    P.S. Speaking of words, today I reviewed KSP’s Booked on my blog. Have you read her memoir?

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Tim, just peeked at the review. Wonderful! I’m halfway through the book and will post my own review as soon as I finish. I’m loving it thus far.

      I wonder what’s ever happened to that young man reticent to read those red letters…

  • Such a thought-provoking post, especially in this season of waiting for the incarnation.
    The thing about the Word becoming flesh is that it becomes limited: one hair color, one eye color, one set of facial features.
    But for me, what strikes me most about the red letter words are the words themselves. They are radical, disturbing, often uncomforting and uncomfortable–not always but enough to remind me that I can’t put Jesus into a box of any kind.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      And you’ve set my mind’s meditation on a new direction with your words, Annie. One of my favorite “Christmas” verses is Philippians 2: 5-7: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” He chose to be limited by time and space and culture and flesh and bone to pursue each and every person he’d created. Mind-boggling. Humbling.

      And you’re right. The words themselves (and all the ones in black font, too!) discomfort and undo. May they continue to work this way in us until we draw our last breath. Blessings!

  • Tammy D

    I’ve yet to see any “Jesus” movie that had a Jesus I’d want to follow, or think anyone would want to follow. We seem to forget that Jesus was a radical, so radical it got him killed. The movies and paintings almost always seem to show him as very happy, very dreamy, very sensitive, and very white.

    While many of us say we know that this probably isn’t how he really looked, we often fail to grasp how much those images have influenced our vision of him because it surely has. Marketing has become more a part of our religion than we care to consider as few would buy a portrait of a chubby Jesus, or craggy Jesus with big ears, or on and on. I guess the assumption is that since Jesus was perfect, he must have looked like the perfect, handsome, well-groomed man. This vision has wormed it’s way into our psyche more than we know.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      When I see those surfer dude, ruggedly handsome Northern European model images of Jesus, I wrestle with how those images square with Isaiah 53:2-3: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”

      You’re right about how those images of physical perfection (and white robes!) have wormed their way into our psyches.

      How do you counter the effects of those too-familiar images? As you can tell by my post, I’m wrestling with that question myself.