Why Trashing Jesus Is the Right Thing to Do

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By Derek Penwell

[Since apparently trashing Jesus is now officially a thing, I thought I’d offer my two cents. An earlier version of this article appeared on this blog in 2012.]


Social Media Rorschach Test

I took part in a social media Rorschach Test yesterday.

Before you get your knickers irremediably twisted, you need to pay attention to what’s at stake, because it would be altogether too easy (and not particularly profitable) to get sidetracked on the Jesus trashing.

Yesterday, as we cleaned out an antebellum mansion the church owns, preparing it for renovation—through a H.U.D. grant—to low cost senior housing, we came across a giant reproduction of Warner Sallman’s iconic, Head of Christ. In the process of trying to break the habit of saving-everything-because-you-never-know-when-Sunday-School-curriculum-from-the 1940s-might-be-useful-again, we threw out a bunch of stuff.

Hence this picture of me tossing out a faded, but much beloved, Protestant icon.

What’s interesting, however, is not that we threw out a picture that many people consider something like sacred—we threw out some torn study bibles from the 1930s, too, which made some people duck for fear of lightning—but that it got photographed and posted to social media, where people reacted to it.

That’s what I want to explore … the reaction.

Thesis: How you read this picture reveals as much about your understanding of the church, and where it’s headed, as it says about insensitive lunkheads like me.

I realize that Sallman’s Head of Christ holds a special place for many people, and that throwing it away (or posting a picture of someone throwing it away) strikes some of those people as akin to burning the flag. The “offendedness”of some and the lack of it by others, is part of what I think deserves analysis.

The Reaction

The reaction to the picture on social media falls along two separate lines: 1) disgust, or 2) celebration.

In the first case, people saw a picture that showed a sketchy looking character carelessly tossing out an icon of the faith. I say “icon” because Sallman’s Head of Christ occupies an unparalleled place in the visual vocabulary of American Protestantism over the last seventy years. The picture has been reproduced over 500 million times since its release in the 1940s. In fact, part of it’s purpose—unlike, say Van Gogh or Picasso—was mass mechanical reproduction. That is to say, Warner Sallman, an illustrator, didn’t set out to produce something to hang in an art gallery, but something for the publishing house, Kreibel and Bates, that could be put into books as an illustration.

Head of Christ

The Head of Christ was therefore originally conceived, not as a work of art, but as a teaching tool—it’s purposes not aesthetic but didactic. I realize that sounds overly fancy, but the point is an important one. If the picture is meant to inform rather than to delight, we probably ought to ask what it seeks to convey.

Sallman desired to counteract the victorian iconography of a feminized Jesus, producing a masculine image of Christ.[1] This was a Jesus who was to project the manly virility that a muscular Christianity desired—what George Babbit called “He-man Christianity,” full of “pep and punch.”

Sallman’s works intended to restore the stability of the traditional Christian home in which the man was the head. Even in the 1940s Sallman’s paintings traded on the nostalgia of “the good old days” of a rural (never urban) America, where men were “real men,” women didn’t work outside the home, and children were unfailingly obedient. And in the middle of this pastoral landscape sat the Protestant church with a white steeple, reassuring in its wholesomeness and, more importantly, its ubiquity.

He Careth For You

Not coincidentally, this vision of Christ overseeing the American Protestant church as a dominant cultural force in the 1940s and 50s, I want to argue, is just as much the thing many people react to when they see a picture of the Head of Christ being tossed into a dumpster. For what it represents is not just the desecration of art—since it’s not art, properly speaking, anyway, but a kind of religious propaganda—but the desecration of a symbol of the hegemonic Christianity of the post-World War II era, when the church starred on the cultural stage.

Enough fancy talk for the moment. Many people who are reacting negatively to the trashing of Jesus in the photograph, I suspect, see it somehow as an indictment of a time in history that they value, a time when the church was growing, an unchallenged cultural leader of a simpler, more stable and virtuous time—a time when traditional families looked like the Cleavers, and the church meant something.

This nostalgic vision of the past, however, is precisely what many people celebrate when seeing the Head of Christ cartwheeling unceremoniously toward the dumpster.

Fertilizing the Future with the Wisdom of the Past

The photograph is iconoclastic, at least inasmuch as it seeks to deconstruct the assumptions that go into much of the appraisal of Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ.

What do I mean? Where for many Sallman’s work stands as an easy portal to a better, simpler time, when traditional marriage reigned and Main Street felt like a welcoming place that reinforced, rather than challenged, prevailing cultural values, for others this “simpler time” includes the oppression of just about everyone who doesn’t look like the Jesus portrayed in the pictures. And what’s worse this oppression happens with the approval of the American Protestant church. Whether this ecclesiastical approval is explicit or tacit matters very little to the people who have been told that their place in the hierarchy is always beneath the “manly and virile” white guy.

In other words, people who celebrate the photograph depicting the trashing of the Sallman’s Head of Christ are celebrating the deconstruction of a Protestant mythology, the beneficiaries of which, are not the last, the least, and the lost, but the first, the most, and the owners of the map. In their estimation there are no “good old days” to which we might return, since those days were never that great if you happened to be something other than a Protestant Christian, if you were LGBTQ, or a woman with an eye toward working outside the home, or any variety of American other than Caucasian-American. In their estimation, what we were doing wasn’t defiling Christ, but destroying idols—since it wasn’t really Christ anyway, but a largely self-affirming image of what some American Protestants have taken to be the golden age of American Christianity.

Hence, the Rorschach Test: Profaning the sacred or cleansing the temple?

Your disgust notwithstanding, if you find this photograph offensive, my telling you not to be offended is both presumptuous and pointless. However, let me suggest that you probably ought to hear in the voices of those who laud the trashing of this picture a cry not just of rebellion, but of relief that a form of Christianity that gave aid and comfort to an oppressive system is crumbling, that a system that, to many, always came across as just a bit too self-congratulatory is running out of cultural steam.  As one young adult observed: “This picture almost inspires me to return to Sunday services (almost).”

As far as I can tell, one of the messages of Emergence Christianity is that the once stable structure that supported American Protestant faith during its reign of dominance is giving way to new ways of following Jesus that aren’t indebted to a system that defines itself by who gets to win and who has to lose in order to preserve that stability. Whether you agree that the talismanic Head of Christ has become an idol, if you care about where the church is headed, you should be aware what the symbol represents to many of the people you hope will come behind you to preserve the institution for which the Head of Christ stands as an icon. My telling them not feel relief at the iconoclasm is just as presumptuous and pointless.

Is it unnecessarily inflammatory? Perhaps. Annoying people for the sake of annoying them, however, isn’t my point.

Here’s my point, by way of analogy:

Tony Campolo famously said something like: “Last night while you were sleeping, 30,000 children died of starvation … and you don’t give a shit. The reason I know that is because you’re now more concerned that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 children died because they didn’t have adequate food.”

  1. David Morgan, “Imaging Protestant Piety: The Icons of Warner Sallman,” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), 36.  ↩

4 thoughts on “Why Trashing Jesus Is the Right Thing to Do

  1. Pingback: Trashing Jesus: A Social Media Rorschach Test | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. What if it’s neither “profaning the sacred nor cleansing the temple?” What’s with the button pushing? What If it isn’t a test and it’s not about measuring peoples’ reactions but about possibility? I might like to hear more about how you managed to get the HUD grant to transform a space and peoples’ lives…

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