The IBM Jesus: What would Jesus wear?

If the truth be known, Pastor Tim had majored in art as a college sophomore. He’d dropped it after a spring break mission trip to Honduras, enthused instead by the idea of preaching the gospel because, for the first time in his life, he’d seen real need. Art, he’d come to think, was at best a leisure-time activity—like sports, something people with money and time could indulge in. He was pretty sure it didn’t have a place on the front lines of the Kingdom. What’s more, he was very much aware of starving artists battling for show space all over. That world seemed to him cut-throat, a place where only the strong survive—so much different than the dynamic love and grace within the family of God.

The truth is, some of what had drawn him toward art early in college never really left him, and when, ten years later, he and his family returned from the mission field, taking a call at Bethany Haven Church because they wanted the kids raised in the States, he’d found himself once again attracted by the art shows advertised in the weekend Entertainment section—even gone to one or two because something in him responded to the questions sculpture and painting could ask. In fact, the older he got, the more he found himself attracted to questions and the less, sometimes guiltily, he found himself taken with the simple answers he’d long dispensed in his preaching.

If you were brought up anywhere close to a Sunday school, I’m sure you’ve seen the picture—we all have. If I were to ask you what you think Christ may have looked like, chances are you’d think of it: a face that’s memorable, heavenly Middle Eastern—long nose and forehead, high cheekbones colored in a swarthy duskiness. A perfect manicured black beard like an inverse crown running along a jaw that’s delicately pointed. A pale glow that surrounds his head entirely as if it were lit from some unseen source, the magical iridescence of a Thomas Kincade, only this radiance comes from within because, if you’d ever harbored any doubt, what you’re looking at is divinity, the King of kings. You know the drawing I’m talking about—Head of Christ. Warner Sallman, circa 1940.

Not long ago, in an art magazine, Pastor Tim had run across a wallet-sized, retouched image of that famous drawing by an artist named Clifford Davis. It had looked a little gimmicky to him at first, but after a minute or two, it became deeply unsettling. For days it haunted him. What Davis had done was take that famous image of Jesus, cut the long hair—that’s right, cut it as short as an IBM exec’s—and put those thin shoulders into a suit and tie, along with a perfectly white shirt with sharp, starched collar. Behind that face he kept the same eternal light glowing. He called it The Conformist. For several days the IBM Jesus just about drove Pastor Tim crazy.

On Wednesday morning, when his sermon wasn’t coming, it struck Pastor Tim that it might be interesting to put that picture up front in church—that’s right, in church. So he did. He scanned it, enlarged it to 8 x 10, dropped it into a fancy metal frame, and looked for a place to put it. Bethany Haven had long ago put the communion table off to the side to make room for the praise team, but there were little tables all over for candles. He grabbed one, removed the barrel-like candle that regularly stood there, and put up this IBM Jesus. Then he shuffled the stand off to his right, far enough forward for just about everyone to see it.

“What on earth is that picture doing there?” his wife said when she came in later to hang a banner made by the committee. “Good night, it looks like a graduation photo.” She stood at the door of his study. “It’s scary.”

“Scary?” he said.

“It gives me the creeps.”

He sort of liked that, and when she left, he didn’t take it down.

That Sunday he didn’t remember anyone staring. In fact, he wondered if people even noticed.

He’d have been the first to admit that his sermon wouldn’t make his own greatest hits CD, but at least the music of the service had been inspiring, he thought. During coffee and cookies afterward, people seemed their usual happy selves.

That was Sunday. On Monday the phones began to ring.

Mark Sawyer, CEO of a fair-to-middlin’ manufacturing business on the south side, one of the church’s most affluent members, called to say that if the congregation was going to take a sharp political turn to the left, a person could find a more joyful fellowship around town—“they’re dime a dozen,” he said.

Honestly, Pastor Tim hadn’t thought of IBM Jesus as a democrat.

Elvira Johnson was saddened—she thought the picture was making fun of her Lord and Savior. “How would you like it if somebody put a big fat nose on your wife’s picture?” she told him.

He hadn’t thought of IBM Jesus as all that ugly either.

On Tuesday, Faynor Ver Beek stopped by to chat and proceeded to stay for a half-hour. “That picture,” he said, “it’s exactly what I mean by all this change going too far.” He wasn’t mad really, just annoyed. “You see it, don’t you?” he said. “There ain’t no rules any more. Now somebody can just come along and plunk down a picture of Jesus Christ as if it was Him. Way back when, we weren’t allowed to picture the Lord—‘make a graven image’—remember that?”

Pastor Tim hadn’t really thought about history.

Mildred Cannoway was angry. “I hated it,” she said. “I just hated it.” She didn’t know why exactly. “It’s like that movie Last Temptation or something,” she told him. “I just can’t take it when people start fooling around with my Jesus,” she said, wiping away a tear. “You don’t fool around with what isn’t yours.”

Pastor Tim wondered who specifically Jesus Christ belonged to.

“I’ve got to apologize,” Chandra Franzen told him by way of e-mail. “I don’t think I heard a word of your sermon because of that picture you had up front there last Sunday. But I just wanted you to know,” she wrote, “that I took one of my daughter’s WWJD bracelets and wore it to work myself because of that picture. Christ in a business suit—it’s really what I think I ought to be at the job.”

WWJD bracelets hadn’t even entered his mind.

Damon Turner e-mailed him too, all the way from Heidelberg College. He said his father had mentioned it during their regular Sunday afternoon phone call, and he wanted a copy. The image was scanned, so it wasn’t hard to send. “Tell me what your father said,” he said in his reply. About an hour later Damon wrote back. “You don’t want to know,” he said. But that picture sounded like the perfect thing for a paper he was doing on images of Christ.

And that’s when Pastor Tim had thought of this other thing. How, six months ago when they’d celebrated heritages in the congregation, he’d set up paintings—all of them scanned off the Internet—an African Christ, a Chinese Christ, a Native American Christ, an Ecuadorian Christ. An even dozen in all. Turned the church into something of a museum. He didn’t remember anyone getting angry then. What was it about this IBM Jesus that got so much attention?

He walked out into the sanctuary to take a look and found it lying face down on the candle table. Obviously, someone didn’t want to look at it. Clearly this thing had made a bigger splash than he’d thought. So he took it back to his office and stood it on his desk.

But he couldn’t write, and he couldn’t think. He couldn’t wade any deeper into his text for the next Sunday as long as that thing stood there. He picked it up with both hands. Looked at that deeply serious gaze and the gentle line of radiance surrounding the face. It was Christ—at least what lots of people figured Christ looked like—but the suit made him part of this world, gave him a role most folks found unsettling.

And that idea made him wonder if maybe his own congregation thought of Christ too much as a creature not of this world. If that were true, then weren’t they wrong—all of them? For Christ was of this world, or else he wasn’t Jesus Christ.

Still, wasn’t there something eerie about it? After all, he’d put IBM Jesus up because he was himself almost immobilized by the idea suggested by the portrait. Did it inspire guilt because it reminded them that they all had accommodated themselves too fully to the world around them? Did it make their very lives uneasy—and if it did, wasn’t it supposed to? Didn’t Christ throw out the rascals who’d made the temple into a corporate office? Didn’t he say himself that he’d come not to bring peace but a sword—the peacemaker?

The new banners, people said, were beautiful and meaningful. Some people said they contributed so much to worship. But IBM Jesus annoyed and angered people, violated something, turned them into complainers. His own wife said she had trouble singing the praise choruses with that scary picture up there.

He opened the bottom drawer of his desk, left side, and put the picture, frame and all, way back with the stuff he didn’t often look at. He didn’t throw it out, but he put it in the back of a drawer he rarely opens. And that was the end of IBM Jesus at Bethany Haven Church.

If anyone at Bethany wants to see The Conformist, he’ll have to ask Pastor Tim, although no one has.

Pastor Tim knows where it is though. He remembers quite often, in fact, that there, at the back of the drawer, lies a puzzle, something ambiguous, something unsettling, something questioning, something artful. Something maybe unsuitable for worship.

The new banners, everyone loves. They’re accents, they’re accoutrements, they’re accessories. They complement worship, they harmonize.

That other thing—it’s just plain unsettling and even dangerous.

But sometimes, when the sermons aren’t coming or the counseling gets too heavy, if the truth be known, Pastor Tim goes back to the back of the drawer he rarely opens and takes out IBM Jesus, not to worship exactly, but to meditate on who he is—on who they both are—and what exactly this Prince of Peace wants from him and all of us.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.