Sexy Jesus, Part II


The final, gruesome period of Jesus’s life—from his visit to Jerusalem to his execution—is called the Passion, though the word can refer to the suffering of any Christian martyr. It’s interesting terminology, to say the least. In common usage passion most often connotes romance, sex, love. Is there a connection between this kind of passion and Jesus? I’ve already taken a look at modern movie Jesuses played by hunky men, but bending Jesus to fit the traits a society finds desirable is hardly new. Over the centuries artists have continually altered the messiah’s image to fit their own needs. But when did Jesus get so buff?

Early Christians didn’t even attempt to depict Jesus—they took the proscription against making “graven images” quite seriously. But eventually artists began champing at the bit to paint their savior. Soon Jesus went from innocent baby to smooth-cheeked young man to bearded long-hair. The Bible contains no description of his physical qualities, aside from the “light from heaven” said to have temporarily blinded the apostle Paul. But that hasn’t stopped folks from debating what Jesus may or may not have looked like.

For me, part of Jesus’s mystery is that he embodies not just masculine qualities but feminine ones. Such motherly deeds as feeding the people loaves and fishes and calling the little children to him render Jesus a pretty gentle dude. Jesus also advised “turning the other cheek” to be slapped rather than fighting back against an aggressor. He’s both active (flipping over tables in the market, walking on water, rising from the dead) and passive (allowing himself to be betrayed and crucified). He’s supposedly perfect, but exhibits weakness on the cross when he asks, “God, why have you forsaken me?” In many ways, then, Jesus is a symbol of our own conflicting nature. Jesus: He’s just like us!

The Muscular Christianity movement, however, was established in the late 19th century in England and America to banish Jesus’s more feminine qualities. Its leaders sought instead to associate Christ with physical fitness, sport and masculinity. Such well-known groups as Athletes in Action, Campus Crusade for Christ and Promise Keepers, as well as the idolization of virginal football player Tim Tebow, are results of this “masculinization” of Christianity. Another interesting example is the artist Stephen Sawyer, whose muscle-bound Christ drawings have more of a “Chuck Norris in sandals” vibe than good shepherd.

Such depictions tell us more about ourselves than they do about Jesus. Take, for yet another example, the upcoming depictions of biblical heroes Noah (played in the eponymous film by the ever-beefy Russell Crowe) and Moses, portrayed by my beautiful Christian Bale in next December’s Exodus. To me, this band of biblical beefcakes suggests not that we’re seeking guidance in the spiritual realm, but rather that we’ve made the Bible conform to our own, modern-day beliefs—beauty and brawn top humility and charity, both at the box office and in everyday life. Maybe it’s time to stop asking “what did Jesus look like?” and, since all things ’90s are cool again anyway, return to a different question: “What would Jesus do?”

Photo courtesy of Flickr