When Christians argue that Jesus Christ has no religious significance

An Ohio public school superintendent is defending the ginormous reproduction of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” that hangs in a Jackson City school building. He says the iconic portrayal of a white Gentile Jesus does not privilege or establish religion, but merely reflects “the culture of our community.”

You can use a lot of words to describe a larger-than-life reproduction of this particular painting, but I’m not sure “culture” should be one of them. (OK, yes, fine — everything is culture. But still.)

Hemant Mehta says the portrait is a clear endorsement and privileging of sectarian religious and that it has no place in a public school. He’s absolutely right.

This is not Sallman’s “Head of Christ.” This is Hunstein’s Head of Cash. I like this better.

It’s not just that this is an illegal establishment of religion, but that it’s just plain not fair to privilege one particular sect over everyone else. Instead of plastering pictures of Jesus in our public spaces, forcing non-Christians to see that our team outnumbers their team, Christians should try to think about what Jesus told us. He said we should be fair. He said “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Hemant doesn’t quote that verse from the Gospel of Luke, but he cites the idea of it in another post about yet another public school where a teacher has turned her classroom into a sectarian shrine, covering the walls of the room with Bible verses. Hemant writes: “Can you imagine what the response would have been like if [the teacher] were Muslim, with Koran verses lining her walls? Or an atheist, with quotations from Christopher Hitchens greeting students each day?”

The Jackson City Sallman’s “Head” print was a gift to the school in 1947 from a student YMCA club. The YMCA had distributed pocket-sized versions of the picture to GIs during World War II.

After the war, interestingly:

Groups in Oklahoma and Indiana conducted campaigns to distribute the image into private and public spaces. One Lutheran organizer in Illinois “said that there ought to be ‘card-carrying Christians’ to counter the effect of ‘card-carrying Communists.”

So there’s quite a history of using this particular image as a tribal totem for culture warriors.

In other words, this isn’t about “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” This is just about pissing on trees to mark our tribal territory.

On the positive side, though, at least the Jackson City school just has the painting hanging in a stairwell. It could be worse — they could be using it in art classes.

Sallman’s “Head of Christ” can be found in almost every evangelical church in America. It is a popular, iconic, beloved image of Jesus for millions of American Christians. Yet defenders of having the painting in a public school argue that this devotional icon of Jesus Christ has no sectarian meaning.

This is why the separation of church and state is vitally important for Christians. When Christians are standing around arguing that Jesus Christ  has no particular religious significance to us, then something has gone horribly wrong.

For a good history of Warner Sallman’s ubiquitous image, see Victoria Emily Jones on “Sallman’s Pretty Jesus.”

 

  • P J Evans

     I’ve seen a lot of people wearing rosaries as necklaces, but I don’t think they were necessarily Catholics.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I know several people who wear cross necklaces who aren’t Christian. They aren’t unaware that the cross is a Christian symbol though; they just don’t think that it precludes them from wearing one if they like the look of it.

    —–

    I wear a cross necklace myself–the cross is small and wooden, with no adornments, and the necklace part is a thin strip of leather. It usually sits under my shirt. It’s beautifully simple and my dad made it for me so it has enormous personal value.

    I’ve been wearing it for 15 years, and in that time I’ve been given a fancy gold “pretty” cross necklace by different (non-religious) friends on three separate occasions. I appreciate that they’re being generous in giving me a gift, but it’s hard not to hear “I see that you like cross necklaces, so here’s a ‘nice’ one”. I’ve never worn them, because they lack of the things I value in the one I do wear.

  • arcseconds

    I’ve just finished watching The Power of Art, and I’ve completely fallen in love with Caravaggio.  Such fantastic use of light! And ‘The Incredulity of St. Thomas’ is supremely icky.

    I was also going to mention that Sallman’s painting seems to be a bit of a precursor to Kinkaid’s light-porn.

    Other things that are pretty awful about ‘Head of Christ’:

    *) Jesus is looking pretty emaciated there.  Eating disorder?
    *) Victoria Emily Jones already points out that his raised eyes make it difficult to interact with him.
    *) it looks like he could be crosseyed
    *) Presumably he’s supposed to be communing with his Father, but he just looks kind of vacant to me.  Stunned, maybe, or possibly stoned? he doesn’t look compassionate, stern, or much of anything, really.
    *) does he pluck his eyebrows?
    *) so much brown.  why?  Brown can be effective, but here it just seems kind of pointless, and gloomy, without actually being interesting.

    I think what’s really troubling me about this is that not only does Christ seem to have a rack of hair products in his bathroom, but the lack of anything resembling personality about him presumably allows the viewer to project whatever they like on him, which is one strong respect that this painting is kitsch (and may help to explain the painting’s popularity).

    If you don’t project, you just end up with a shallow Christ with no personality.  This just seems… wrong.  Whatever we think of Christ, he surely couldn’t have been vapid and ordinary.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     My $0.02; far from definitive.

    But what do I do when a Christian student is trying to use my faith to argue against abortion in a debate class?

    I would say it depends.

    Are they making demonstrably false claims (e.g. “All Christians agree that blah blah blah” when you, a Christian, don’t agree to that)? If so, treat it like any other case of making a demonstrably false claim in debate class.

    Are they making claims that your religious tradition objects to or rejects? If so, treat it the same way you would want a different religious tradition to treat claims you endorse. (For example, the way you’d want another teacher to react when a Christian student tries to use your faith to argue in favor of legalizing abortion.)

    Is it really inappropriate for me to talk to them privately to explain where there are sectarian as well as secular flaws in their argument?

    Not necessarily, no. If you happen to have a relationship with this student that makes sectarian instruction appropriate — for example, if they are also in your church’s religious instruction class on Sundays — then great, go for it. But being their public school teacher is not such a relationship, and for you to presume to offer sectarian instruction without such a relationship is at best presumptuous.

    What about the student who is tearfully wondering why other people just don’t love Jesus like she does?

    Again, it’s probably presumptuous and inappropriate for you to give her sectarian instruction, but you can certainly counsel her, much as a Buddhist or atheist teacher could. If you can’t distinguish between sectarian instruction and personal counsel, then you should leave that task to someone who is better qualified to provide personal counsel.

    What about the student who is passionately interested in proving to his conservative parents that homophobia is wrong and unBiblical?

    Again, you can certainly counsel him, much as a Buddhist or atheist teacher could. If his conservative parents happen to belong to your sect you can even provide him with useful facts about that sect, much as you could a Buddhist students if you happened to know a lot about Buddhism.

    Then there are the students who have experienced spiritual abuse at the hands of Christians, to whom I wish to apologize on behalf of the conscience-bearing members of my faith.

    In general I distrust such “apologies,” which are often veiled demands, but assuming it’s an appropriate apology in general I wouldn’t say being a teacher bars you from making it.

  • http://vovinyl.blogspot.com/ FangsFirst

    I’ve seen a lot of people wearing rosaries as necklaces, but I don’t think they were necessarily Catholics.

    I know several people who wear cross necklaces who aren’t Christian. They aren’t unaware that the cross is a Christian symbol though; they just don’t think that it precludes them from wearing one if they like the look of it.

    That I find absolutely believable–and I’d be inclined to believe it would be somewhat difficult to go so far as a rosary without knowing something, but people are rather strange.

    Then again, I live in the southeastern US, and have spent half the time here in more rural areas, wherein the assumption of Christianity is only recently becoming less accurate, it feels like…

  • Mary

    I see celebs wear crosses all the time, who are not Christians at all. It is difficult to know exactly what they believe. This started in the 8O’s with Madonna. She stated that she likes crucifixes because “they have a naked man on them”

    I don’t assume that everyone who wears a cross is a Christian, anymore than I assume that someone who wears an ahnk (a cross-like symbol from ancient Egypt) subscribes to ancient Egyptian ideology.  Wearing religious symbols are a fad for some people.

    Actually my sister, who is a devout conservative Christian, hates crosses because to her they are a symbol of death and cruelty. As far as I know, this isn’t a part of her church’s teaching. It is just her personal preference.  So even among Christians, crosses have different meanings to different people. 

  • http://vovinyl.blogspot.com/ FangsFirst

    I see celebs wear crosses all the time, who are not Christians at all. It is difficult to know exactly what they believe. 

    I should clarify, I suppose: I am most disbelieving of the notion that there is any significant group that does it completely unaware of the meaning, or at least origin (I believe Madonna was raised Catholic, for instance?), and that even those who do it knowingly are near as significant as the group that wears them as religiously representative.

    But, of course, the entire discussion started from the idea of a character in a film or television wearing one, which I usually see implying faith. Which may be an inaccurate sample, considering how little (and selective a set of) television I’ve watched for the past decade.

  • Mary

    I understand that the cross you wear has a special meaning for you, but I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that your friends mean anything by giving you “nicer” ones. They may just assume that you like crosses. A relative of mine was given a turtle figurine and when she displayed it in her home people assumed that she had a special fondness for them. Before long everyone was giving her turtle figurines and when she died she had a collection of hundreds of them. Now don’t get me wrong, she liked them, but it was kind of a family joke because she really wasn’t a collector at all.

  • The Guest Who Posts

    Since headscarves aren’t actually mandated in the Koran, you could argue that they’re cultural symbols, not religious ones.

    It may be arguing in bad faith, since I don’t know how many Arabic/Middle Eastern women wear them without subscribing to Islamic beliefs. Even so, I think you’d be on firmer ground there than claiming that a painting of Jesus isn’t religious.

  • vsm

    Well, it’s not like the Bible mandates anyone to wear a torture device pendant around their neck or to own images of Jesus. Religion is a lot, lot more than what is said in the holy books. Some religions don’t even have such things.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    What about the student who is tearfully wondering why other people just don’t love Jesus like she does?

    Again, it’s probably presumptuous and inappropriate for you to give her sectarian instruction, but you can certainly counsel her, much as a Buddhist or atheist teacher could. If you can’t distinguish between sectarian instruction and personal counsel, then you should leave that task to someone who is better qualified to provide personal counsel.

    This actually seems to me the easiest of all the questions to answer from a secular point of view–surely children of school age are old enough to begin to learn the simple but profound lesson that not everyone in the world thinks alike.

    The interesting part is that this kid felt free to open up to a teacher about her love of Jesus.  I hate to overuse the word “privilege,” but wow–I would never have felt comfortable expressing my lack of faith to any of my teachers. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    the easiest of all the questions to answer from a secular point of view [..] not everyone in the world thinks alike

    Sure, but that answer only goes so far.

    If an atheist student is tearfully wondering why other people just don’t value truth like she does, I can certainly start by pointing out that different people don’t necessarily think alike.

    But I would probably also try to move her further into an understanding of what kinds of goals different people try to accomplish with their beliefs, and that different ways of thinking are better suited for accomplishing different kinds of goals.

    I would never have felt comfortable expressing my lack of faith to any of my teachers

    I had some relationships with teachers I would have felt comfortable discussing it with, but they were rare. (Several of those teachers I still talk to, thirty years later.)

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Well, going “only so far” is sometimes all you need (or should do).  Whether the student is tearfully asking about Christianity or skepticism, the teacher is neither obligated nor (probably) qualified to deliver an answer on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

    I wouldn’t want a teacher explaining to my kid the goals and better-suitedness of “spirituality,” so I can only assume that a Christian parent would like it no better were an atheist teacher to speak on the goals and better-suitedness of skepticism.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    To use your examples: there are goals for which expressing skepticism is well-suited, and there may be  goals for which “spirituality” (whatever you mean by that) is well-suited.

    How important each goal is to me is a value choice, and it’s not appropriate for a public school teacher to explain to me why “spirituality”‘s goals are better than skepticism’s goals or vice-versa. I agree.

    What strategies work most reliably for achieving each goal is a fact about the world, and I don’t have a problem with qualified public school teachers explaining that. You seem to disagree, but I can’t tell whether that’s because you’re not separating “what goal Dave should have” from “how Dave can best achieve Dave’s goals”, or whether you believe both of those are (independently) inappropriate things to teach in school.

  • Kirala

     I’d feel a certain way as a parent… but I recall, as a high school student, being very grateful that my biology teacher told me that he had no problems with the theory of evolution as a Sunday School teacher, which made it much, much easier for me to feel okay about the conclusions I was already reaching independently. And high schoolers are in a very precarious zone between being under authority and having autonomy. I’d hope, as a parent, I’d be able to allow my child some autonomy in asking and choosing their own religious/philosophical authorities. As a student, I always preferred teachers who were willing to be honest when asked. So the question about what I should do if all players feel like me is straightforward. There is, however, a rather crucial conditional in that sentence that doesn’t apply to real life and complicates my decision-making.

  • The_L1985

    We totally don’t notice these things until they’re gone!!  So please leave them here because they’re an important part of our cultural heritage!

    Wait, what?

  • The_L1985

     I always thought of that painting as ordinary, though.  When I first read the article, my thought was, “Wait, the cheap Jesus print from Grandma’s dining room?  They’re arguing over that?

    It just seems like such a silly thing to put in a school, simply because it has a veneer of Redneck that I can’t really get past.

  • The_L1985

    A lot of areas with little to no Catholic population will have people wearing rosaries as jewelry because they don’t know it’s a rosary–it’s beaded, it has a cross on it, it’s about the right size to be a necklace, so it must be a necklace, right?

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    I think a teacher who constantly pays attention will end up doing far more harm than good. It’s impossible to remove the core beliefs from the person entirely. But treat your students fairly, don’t privilege one group over another, etc. There are some beliefs that I want teachers to use in their classrooms: feminism, for instance, especially if you’re a science or math teacher. And my own life was immensely helped after school hours by a certain French teacher who was the only adult to ask me if I needed any help when my parents got divorced.

    As an atheist and as a woman living in this society, I desperately want — no, need — decent Christians like yourself to speak up. I get slut-shamed by loud Christians for being female on a college campus, and no Christian says to them, “stop”, no Christian says to me, “that was wrong and they were wrong, and this is why, as a Christian, I am opposing them.” Please stop being so quiet. It’s not all or nothing. Making quietly known that you are Christian is not going to lead to you imposing your beliefs on others. Instead, it will give less weight to those Christians who do impose their beliefs — their misogynistic, homophobic, violent beliefs — on others.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Cross necklaces are merely necklaces. I even have one.  (My grandparents bought it for me when I was still Christian and lamenting that evil wingnut Christians had taken over the conversation, and Christian had become synonymous with evil wingnut.) They are unimportant except as tribal and personal markers. Turbans are very important to Sikhs. Mandatory for men, in fact. Telling people they may not wear turbans, on their own bodies, is trampling on their religious autonomy, and it is not okay. A turban draws attention? Good! Maybe some students will ask about it and learn something.

  • http://vovinyl.blogspot.com/ FangsFirst

    Well, good point.

    I would think (possibly wrongly, of course) that this would tend to show in people thinking “Ah, a cross necklace!” who just don’t understand what it specifically is, but apparently I’ve been living in and moving between bubbles of people who either don’t wear many crosses, or accompany them with accoutrements primarily indicating religious intention seemingly without exception.

    Certainly, the last rosaries I saw were with a Catholic I knew very well…and the handful of people praying in front of Planned Parenthood, who were fingering the beads in such a fashion as to obviously be using it as an actual rosary.

    Whom I asked if they were familiar with Matthew Chapter 6 in a bout of frustration. They at least admitted they weren’t.(Not the brightest of moments on my part, but I was extra annoyed in general, this was the millionth time I saw it, and the very same Catholic I mention above really, really didn’t like people doing this from her own church–for the same reason, and for the shaming involved. Especially as she knew firsthand they do plenty more anyway. Though, to be fair, this was a Sunday and there was no one there anyway. Which kind of makes me wonder what the object was at all…)

    I do have one myself, but then I also have a Bible. I just use neither, as they were simply inevitable gifts as a result of being a preacher’s kid. Mostly tended to make me uncomfortable for accepting them knowing I had no use for them myself (and if I really wanted to read a Bible, I could borrow my mom’s. Any of them. Nevermind my dad’s.)

  • banancat

     I think Christianity is unique in its deference to one particular holy text.  All other religions that I know of that have holy books only consider them one aspect of the religion and not the entirety of it.  The holy texts don’t necessarily trump everything else in Judaism or Islam.  Even within Christianity, there are denominations that don’t idolize the Bible as much as other groups do.  It seems to be a conservative, fundamentalist idea that the Bible is complete and perfect and if you just hand someone a Bible they will have all the information they could ever need to perfectly understand RTC Christianity.

  • DorothyD

    Since headscarves aren’t actually mandated in the Koran, you
    could argue that they’re cultural symbols, not religious ones.

    Cultural symbols that for a lot of Muslim women are as a good as
    mandatory. So telling them they can’t wear a headscarf is a good as
    telling them they can’t be a teacher. I seriously doubt there’s any
    Christian teacher whose family will tell her she’ll have to quit
    teaching if can’t wear a cross.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    [Crosses] are unimportant except as tribal and personal markers. Turbans are very important to Sikhs.

    What’s with the difference?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I think Christianity is unique in its deference to one particular holy text. All other religions that I know of that have holy books only consider them one aspect of the religion and not the entirety of it. The holy texts don’t necessarily trump everything else in Judaism or Islam. Even within Christianity, there are denominations that don’t idolize the Bible as much as other groups do.

    Yeah, instead of “Christianity” you should have said “Protestantism”.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    How about everyone wears what they want to wear and, unless it’s obscene, dangerous or outright abusive of others, no one has to choose between their job and some deeply meaningful personal symbol?

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    If they were Catholic they’d know a rosary isn’t a necklace.

  • Dan Audy

    Well, as a general rule, Christians don’t believe that wearing a cross is a religious requirement – their religious obligations involve prayers, baptism, and taking communion along with a variety of others based on the particular denomination.  

    Sikh’s on the other hand are commanded to prayer and to wear at all time 5 articles of faith as a symbol of their devotion.  As a sign of respect to the perfection that God created them with, Sikhs do not cut their hair.  After they comb their hair twice a day with a Kanga (another article of faith that they must wear) it is tied in a knot and wrapped in a turban because it grows so long that it would otherwise interfere with their obligation to be prepared to fight injustice at a moments notice (what the remaining 3 articles symbolize).  You will also see (mostly older) Sikh men wear a ‘beard net’ to keep their facial hair tidy.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I understand all that. I’m just not crazy about people being told by someone else that a religious symbol is unimportant because it’s not codified in the laws of their religion. I think people should get to decide for themselves if a symbol is important, not have it dismissed as just a tribal marker (usually a negative connotation, especially around here).

  • DorothyD

    How about everyone wears what they want to wear and, unless it’s obscene, dangerous or outright abusive of others, no one has to choose between their job and some deeply meaningful personal symbol?

    Yeah. Then we can just debate over how exactly to define “outright abusive of others”.  Should keep us busy for a while. 

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     If we get bored, we can switch to debating what is and isn’t obscene.

  • DorothyD

    Heh. And once we’ve exhausted that, we’ll move on to dangerous.

       Gimli said, “But you speak of him as if he were a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.”
        “Dangerous!” cried Gandalf. “And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Gloin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     For what it’s worth: tribal markers are often important.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sara.servalis Sara Servalis

     
    Jesus, Hymens & Aliens  
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qc7GRZ_4t-U

  • P J Evans

     They might be, and still wear it. (Hard to believe they wouldn’t know: it’s California.)

  • JayemGriffin

    Anyone wearing a rosary as a necklace is almost certainly not Catholic. I was always taught that it’s for prayer only, and wearing it as jewelry is extremely disrespectful.

  • The_L1985

     Not all Catholics got taught that, though.  Remember, Ordinary Catholics who go to CCD/PSR for several years in a row are the exception, not the norm.

  • DorothyD

    I don’t remember ever being taught not to wear a rosary, it was just something that most definitely Is Not Done. The only people who wore rosaries visibly were members of religious orders, and then it’s usually attached to a waist belt.  

  • Tricksterson

    But if you dont wear your rasary, what will you use in case of vampire or demon attack?

  • http://www.facebook.com/allpowerful.nateboi All Powerful Nateboi

    This may be old news, Mr. Clark, but I chose to talk about this topic on my own radio show today. While doing some research, I’ve come across something odd.

    …I can’t find a single bit of evidence that the face book page the news report mentions ever existed. No sign of it on facebook, no google cache in case it was deleted, not even a single report that gives a dead link.

    I’m certainly not claiming these news reports are lying when they say the page existed and got 11K likes in three days, but…I can’t find any evidence that it ever existed.

  • Maryanna

    Are these really questions you need answers to? It’s pretty simple, all lined out by the notion of separation of church and state that America was really excellent at prior to Reagan.

    She’s a private citizen at home. She can have her crosses and pentacles and altars at home. There’s no point in having that stuff on the wall of her classroom. If she’s that insecure about her faith, she should become a pastor instead of a teacher.

     No religions should be represented; that’s why church is church and school is school. Your walls should be covered with the periodic table and historical timelines, not Bible/Torah/Koran/Bhagavad Gita verses. Public spaces should be kept free of religious iconography unless it’s a specific culture day where anyone who wants to gets a turn. Every other day of the year, school is for learning, not for expanding faith.

  • Maryanna

    Not trying to be snide, but this isn’t a complicated issue at all. I’m a Doctor Who fan; I wouldn’t (or shouldn’t!) be allowed to plaster pictures of TARDISes and William Hartnell all over my classroom instead of things relevant to schooling.


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