Almost exactly one year ago, the University of North Carolina Press published Edward Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, a sweeping and provocative analysis of the ways in which Americans from various walks of life over the last four hundred (!) years have imagined Jesus. Among the many contributions the book makes, and of particular interest to JI readers, is the authors’ situating Mormons as important players in the larger story of race and religion they narrate so masterfully. In fact, one paragraph in particular has garnered more attention than nearly any other part of the book—a brief discussion in chapter 9 of the large, white marble Christus statue instantly recognizable to Mormons the world over. In the latest issue of the Journal of Mormon History, Noel Carmack authored a 21 page review of The Color of Christ, focusing on their treatment of Mormonism and paying particular attention to their discussion of the Christus. Professors Blum and Harvey generously accepted our invitation to respond here, as part of both our ongoing Responses series and as an appropriate contribution to our look at Mormon material culture this month.
We are grateful for Noel Carmack’s strongly argued and wonderfully researched review essay “Thorvaldsen’s White-Marbled Christus Reconsidered,” which addresses both the whole of our book The Color of Christ as well as the specific issue of images of race within LDS art. More specifically, as the title suggests, Professor Carmack focuses his attention on one short (but, obviously, provocative) paragraph in the book that mentions the 11-foot high Christus (or, more formally, Christus Consolator) that peers down on visitors from the Visitor’s Center in Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
Had we the benefit of this outstanding piece of research, we certainly would have written a much different paragraph – or extended this to several paragraphs – about the Christus. The origins and meaning of this widely disseminated artistic piece deserved more and better discussion than the cursory one that it received in our book, and Carmack’s copiously footnoted article fleshes the story out more expertly than art history amateurs such as ourselves could do so.
Perhaps the real issue here, however, is what we could have focused on more to advance the central premises of the book. At this point, our paragraph about the Christus has received more devoted attention than any single other aspect of this book, even though (to our misfortune) we spent less time researching or thinking about this topic than the numerous other ones covered in the book, whether it be the meaning of Moravian blood-and-wounds theology in the eighteenth century, or the appearance of a white-skinned, hair-parted-in-the-middle Jesus to black slaves, or to how and why Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ became the most dominant Jesus image of American history.
As it happened – by accident, not by intent – our book appeared at the beginning of the 2012 election season, featuring (if you may recall) the nation’s first Mormon presidential candidate. Seizing on that fact, interviewers queried us closely about the “Mormon” parts of the book, asked us to elaborate on the particular Mormon history of denying the priesthood to black men, and generally wanted a “story” that fit the election news cycle. For better or worse – probably some of both – we obliged, in part because we sought to publicize our work to a more general readership. The result, however, is that something like our cursory paragraph on Christus, or brief arguments in the book about the relationship of whiteness and Mormonism, have occupied a disproportionate share of attention given to the work. Indeed, Carmack’s review is one of the few to even mention the fact that the book discusses groups such as the Moravians and the Jesuits – each of which comprises about as many words in the text as the discussion of Mormons.
But if we are allowed a mulligan and a redo here, here is what we might have focused on more intently: we missed an opportunity to make a point about the centrality of Jesus by contrasting The First Vision with the Christus. The former is about God introducing his son Jesus to Joseph Smith. In artistic depictions from the late nineteenth century and from the more recent Mormon popular artist Del Parson, Joseph is shown blinded by brightness but addressing questions to God. Christus, by contrast, is about Jesus only; and Parson’s centrally iconic works such as Christ in Red Robe and a series of paintings depicting Jesus’s birth, life, and resurrection from the tomb portray the Christocentric conceptions of contemporary Mormonism. Regardless of whether we are right in our contention about the inevitably racialized meaning of choosing Christus as an artistic representation just at the height of the civil rights movement, we are certainly in agreement with Carmack (and others) that the presentation of Mormonism as a Christian tradition based on the gospel of Jesus Christ is a central part of the story here. Persistent (and false) rumors that Parson had to redo his image according to the demands of Church authorities (allegedly to make his Christ look more like the real Jesus) suggest the ambiguity of contemporary artistic representations of a white Jesus, intended to be symbolic rather than representational, and yet nonetheless representational of the unconscious, encoded, racialization of American Christianity – “white without words,” as we call it in the book.
Finally, when writing The Color of Christ, we were struck not simply by the racialized aspects of Mormon approaches to Jesus, but also by the fluidity and complexity of Jesus at the foundations of the establishment of the church in the 1830s. When recording and revising his first vision, Joseph Smith took great pains to make textual what he saw and what he heard. At no point did he refer to God or Jesus as white, and we thought the movement from experience to text to art was an important aspect of Mormon history, one we wanted to bring out for further excavation, what Noel Carmack does so well in his article.