Restoring Jesus

I’ve felt like there was some analogy or parable to be made from the recent case of a parishioner trying to do an amateur restoration of a famous painting, with this result:

Perhaps the best or at least the most relevant analogy for the sorts of subjects that I deal with is this: The figure of Jesus, like anyone and anything from the past, gets lost from view as a result of the passing of time. But an expert can often detect traces where an amateur’s eye will not, and make use of scholarly tools in order to carry out a restoration. It won’t bring Jesus as he originally was back into view, but it is the best that we human beings can accomplish.

When an amateur tries to do it, the result will most likely be a terrible distortion of the original, one that may not even look like a realistic human being, much less like the specific one whose image they were trying to “restore.” (There is a Tumblr dedicated to the woman’s “restoration” which is being referred to as “Beast Jesus.”)

Even experts can botch things. But amateurs are far more likely to do so, and when it comes to those without any relevant training and merely strong feelings and desire, the result will almost certainly be a disaster.

And so I think there is a lesson in all this, about the need for trained historians in any attempt to answer historical questions, just in the way trained artists are needed to address restoration of the past in art. And if you have a view of Jesus – whether positive or negative, that he doesn’t exist or looks like a second grader’s attempt to depict a hairy monkey – and are quite certain that you don’t need to rely on historians to tell you about him, then would you please consider that the Jesus that you love or hate or ignore, whom you are sure doesn’t exist or whom you have asked into your heart, may be “Beast Jesus” and not the historical figure Jesus of Nazareth?

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  • Historians and linguists are good for telling us what the Scriptures say, for such documents are ancient. For most of us these texts come from a different place, and for all of us they come from a different time. Academics also help us by giving us historical and semantic contexts for these documents so that our appreciation of what was being communicated in them is enhanced, and protected from inappropriate modern inferences.

    Acknowledging this debt to scholarship, however, does not mean that a true portrait of Jesus derives solely from their work. A true understanding of Jesus can only come from listening to who he was and what he said…and reacting appropriately. This results in a spiritual, not an academic understanding. To reach this dimension of understanding, even the historian must put down his pencil, for in this realm we are all amateurs. That is to say, we must pursue the subject solely because of our love of it. Or, in this case, him (Him).

    • arcseconds

      That’s an important point, and I wonder whether James has a comment on the danger of scholars becoming a new kind of priesthood.

  • arcseconds

    I actually quite like the image that resulted from the ‘restoration’. Well, perhaps ‘like’ isn’t right, I think it’s horrific and bizarre, but therefore interesting. It’s got an Edvard Much-like quality to it.

    If this had been done by a well-known 20th or 21st century painter and entitled ‘Rex Iudeaorum’ or something it’d inspire all sorts of commentary about the meaning of the work. And since we no longer believe the intentions of the artist are binding on interpretation, there’s no reason not to have that discussion!

    I’m uncomfortable with the jokes being made at Gimenez’s expense, though, such as the art course image. It seems to me that she’s not entirely mentally hale, and we shouldn’t mock.

    • Well, I didn’t intend to suggest that I thought that I could do a better job of restoration. If I had tried, I am quite sure mine would be at least as bad and quite possibly worse. My point in all this was simply that even a decent amateur artist could botch a restoration of someone else’s very skilled work of art. I do not think that someone is mentally deficient simply because they are not a great artist. And if someone does think that, I will say right now that I do not get placed in the great artist category, but in the other one.

      • arcseconds

        Yes, but you appear to know your limitations, and wouldn’t take it upon yourself to restore a fresco.

        It’s not the output that makes me think she’s not dealing from a full deck!

        It’s that she decided to do it at all, and her subsequent response. She seems to think the priest knew about it and gave her permission (or that saying he did is a plausible way out for her).

        Also, I don’t really have much issue with you using it as an example to illustrate your point, which is a serious one. It’s the tumblr images I find a bit tasteless, to say the least.