Essay / Art

Biola’s Jesus Mural: How “The Word” Dwells Among Us

One of the first things you’ll notice if you visit Biola University’s campus is our Jesus Mural, “The Word.” It’s iconic for us, our evangelical counterpart to Notre Dame’s “Touchdown Jesus.” It’s huge–27 feet tall–and all the more significant as it stands in the middle of a campus with few works of public art. Furthermore, it was a gift, given to Biola by Kent Twitchell, a muralist of international renown whose murals dot the landscape of Southern California. Artists have come a long way at Biola, and evangelicals have grown dramatically in their appreciation and patronage of the arts. But an artist among evangelicals can still feel like the odd one out, like possibly she doesn’t belong. Trouble is, she’s not quite sure she belongs with her artist friends, either. All of which to say, this kind of public art means a lot.

Thing is, there’s another group of people at Biola who are similarly unsure whether they belong. Southern California is one of the most diverse regions around, and it’s known for being a place of inclusion and acceptance. But all that is easier proclaimed than practiced. Biola has from its founding sought to welcome all. Scriptorium’s own Fred Sanders describes an early scene:

At the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone of the 13-story building downtown, Lyman Stewart pledged that the Institute in all its teaching would be “intolerant of error, but have a love for the souls of men as wide as the world. It will fellowship with, and bid Godspeed to all who love the truth as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.” He described the school’s position in these words: “For the teaching of the truths for which the Institute stands, its doors are to be open every day in the year, and all people, without reference to race, color, class, creed [denomination], or previous condition, will ever be welcome to its privileges.” These were visionary words at the beginning of the 20th century, and they continue to guide the school in this opening decade of the 21st.

Biola has sought to welcome all, even at times to go out of its way in intentionally seeking out under-represented groups of people. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty white campus. And this very tall, photorealistic image of Jesus casts a long shadow. To many people of color–students, faculty, staff, visitors–it has been one more reminder that the Word who took on flesh can at times resemble one group of people more than another. It can be a deeply alienating experience, as people seek to reckon with the Jesus they know in light of the one painted on the science building.

A few years ago, controversy erupted as the mural needed a touch-up. Wounds re-opened, and we sought to find a way to listen to one another in the midst of anger, confusion, and considerable difficulty. Papers were given, conversations conducted, and finally a decision was made. Biola’s president, Barry Corey, decided to restore the mural. He embedded that decision in a comprehensive commitment to expand Biola’s commitment to the arts, and in a call to consider “The Word” as “a teaching place for all of us.”

In that spirit, Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture, has just published a symposium on the Jesus mural, as a case study at the intersection of art, ethnicity, and theology. The symposium includes a letter from concerned alumni, who criticize the mural for its portrayal of a white Jesus who is “a negative, unapproachable authority figure” and who, moreover, can be alienating to those outside the faith. Longtime Biola art professor (and now head of our Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts), Barry Krammes, tells the story of Twitchell’s gift and situates it in context. I then sketch a theology of images of Jesus with the help of John Calvin and John of Damascus, followed by Brad Christerson’s argument that images of a European-looking Jesus are positively harmful. Here’s Christerson:

If Biola aims to be a “global center for Christian thought,” it needs to be aware of world history and sensitive to how the oppressive aspects of the history of European Christianity are viewed by non-Western peoples. Having such a large image of a European-looking Jesus in the center of our campus sends the message that we are unaware of this history at best or supportive of its harmful legacy at worst.

Nor is this just a troubling image for people of color. It’s bad for white people, too. (Have you read Jamie and Andrew Campbell’s recent posts, by the way?)

While seeing God as “one of us” has its positive benefits, in the racial context of our culture, it has the potential to lead white people to an unhealthy sense of superiority and closeness to the divine. In the research that I have done on race and religion, I have found that white Americans are the most likely of any group to un-self-consciously associate many aspects of their culture with what is godly, pure, and biblical in the absence of any biblical support.

Even granting Christerson’s argument, even granting that it applies to “The Word,” what do we do with a mural that’s already in place? Jonathan Anderson argues against destroying the mural, precisely because such a move would compromise–perhaps ironically–the grace and welcome that Biola seeks to foster. Instead, so Anderson, make more art.

In his decision to restore the mural, President Corey committed Biola to do just that–make, and display, more public art. Still, a few years after the fact, and despite an original set of decisions marked by long listening, one can detect more than a little sadness in Dr. Corey’s account of what it has meant to live with the decision he made. “I look at the Jesus mural differently now,” he writes to the Biola community, in the final piece in the symposium.

We hope this will be an excellent case study in the theology of culture and will, indeed, locate the Jesus mural as a place from which to teach. The articles can be found here. While they are behind a paywall, most who have any affiliation with a college, university, or seminary should be able to access them through their library. Perhaps you’ll consider using this in a class?

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