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Special Report

How Jesus 2000 grew wings, keeps on flying


Last summer, as we prepared to launch NCR’s art search for Jesus 2000, I speculated one pessimistic morning that we might get all of seven entries. I was wrong, as certain people have not allowed me to forget. What threw me off was the unpredictability of the human imagination. And the refusal of God, despite all the prophets of doom, to die.

Jesus 2000 has by now become a household word in a good many households. The winning entry, Janet McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People,” has been on TV and the Web and in hundreds of newspapers across the country and far beyond. But behind that image was an odyssey, a seat-of-the-pants process, we searchers making it up as we went, like pilgrims with latter-day Canterbury tales, with a few key players and a motley supporting cast that got into the spirit of the thing, and together we all turned Y2K into J2K.

Welcome, then, behind the scenes.

How the search began

It started with an abrupt dawning of awareness that in the transition from one millennium to another there was scarcely a mention of Jesus Christ outside official church circles. So the project in the first place was a test of public opinion, or rather private opinion. Behind the silence did anyone care?

Our reporters could have resorted to the phone and called the usual suspects for comment. Instead, the art contest presented itself. Even the most abstract thinkers rely largely on visual art for their concept of the divine. If no one had ever invented art, perhaps we would know transcendence through our sense of smell or through direct intuition. As it turned out, pictorial art and Jesus have gone hand in hand for centuries. Someone once said that art is the research and development aspect of a culture. If there were no artistic response, this would tell its own tale about Jesus’ prospects for the road ahead.

Fr. Michael Coleman of Kansas City, Mo., put the project in perspective: “It is not often -- I can’t think of anything similar -- that the religious imagination of the people is explored and documented at a given historical moment, and specifically regarding the person who lies at the heart of the Christian movement.”

We invented rules, making it up. We were prepared to put modest money into what now seemed an adventure, until advisers said we should charge an entry fee without which serious artists would not take us seriously. Some begrudgers have accused us of making a bundle -- the word scam was mentioned -- but I’m sorry to tell them that when all was said and done and paid for, it’s a modest bundle.

Girded with news releases, we wondered where to send them. We drew up a list of college art departments, but in August all sensible art students are off on golden beaches. We sent stuff to the top 100 papers, but most art editors dropped the artistic ball, except for a few inspired exceptions, especially Christopher Hume of Canada’s Toronto Star. The feature included a traditional painting of Jesus, which leaped out from the page in an odd way, presumably because we are unaccustomed to seeing Jesus on Page One.

Other Canadian media followed suit. I spent hours on radio talk shows explaining and defending and figuring it out. But this excitement was slow to trickle south into the United States.

Then, as she made the salad one evening, my wife casually suggested we get Sr. Wendy Beckett, the art historian celebrated for her several BBC series and elegant art books, to judge the contest. It was an inspired idea. Finding the otherwise reclusive Sr. Wendy became a saga. That she agreed to do it seemed little short of a miracle. “This is the only sensible millennium idea I’ve yet heard,” she wrote (she has the most illegible handwriting imaginable, but the entire newsroom went to work on her letter until we figured it out). I tried to make the task easier for her by asking only that she look at the top 10 slides -- never mind that, at the time, we had no slides at all.

Within a few days, USA Today was carrying a picture of Sr. Wendy, twice in one day, and the story of an international search, no less -- I was telling people in the media that NCR has subscribers in 93 countries until Marketing Director Jessica Ovel assured me it was 96. An Associated Press story and a segment on NBC’s “Today Show” stirred up interest until it was nearly out of control. NCR staff stalwarts Therese Johnson and Jean Blake spent more time working the phones, faxes and computers than John McCain’s volunteers.

The first question was being answered: Jesus was alive and well. It remained to be seen what he now would look like.

“Who do people say that I am?” he had once asked, and the contest was still asking the same question. I began to refer to the venture, rather grandly, as our going down into the marketplace to see who he was. We talked to artists and journalists all day, checking out the marketplace. In a fit of hubris I decided I would go on any program however thematically removed from art or, for that matter, Jesus. I went on a -- I think he’s what they call a shock-jock, name of Mancow, on the radio. It didn’t last long. After allowing me bare seconds to tell the airwaves about Jesus 2000, this fellow launched an attack on the church for its stand on divorce and such, then click, he hung up. It was like a slap. He seemed to have two helpers whose job it was to giggle along at his jokes. I felt sorry for them for having to stoop so low for a salary.

Now I was having second thoughts about the marketplace. A nice young man invited me on “The Daily Show,” which is on Comedy Central, which, bereft of cable TV in my personal life, I knew nothing about. Opinion Editor John Allen recorded an episode. Either Jesus or I would have taken a beating, I could soon see, so I made the decision for both of us to pass.

The art pours in

Then the first entry came in. The contest was official. Artist Nicholas J. Riddell had depicted Jesus, not handsome but under stress and beaten-up, the way he once was. We were all excited and passed the slide around, and though it didn’t win, it will always be etched in my memory.

Finally there were 1,678 entries from 1,004 artists in 19 countries on seven continents. I soon learned those statistics and could recite them like a poem, which in a way they were.

There was a spectacular variety. Three judges, Sherry Lynn Best, Pattie Wigand Sporrong and Cory Stafford, convened in Kansas City for an intense October weekend and chose the top 100 and then the top 10 to send Sr. Wendy, who, at that very moment, was in Los Angeles making another TV series. I was very nervous that the 10 precious slides, having survived the three judges, might not survive the trip to L.A. I volunteered to fly out with them, but Wendy would have none of it -- no, I never did meet her.

Ever so stealthily, the names of the winners came back. The next problem was to keep them secret until Christmas, and we did.

Reams have been written about the winner, “Jesus of the People.” It was, at least, controversial, as was the original Jesus. A black face, a portrait based on a female model, a hint in the background of other cultures -- Lord, was he still stirring it up! In the argot of the marketplace it was a damn good story.

An interesting dimension of the coverage was that it came almost entirely from the secular media, while the Catholic media scarcely seemed to notice. At a time when accusations of anti-Catholic sentiment abound, the respect and seriousness with which the mainline press treated the Jesus 2000 story was striking. I saw most of the hundreds of newspapers that carried the story, and I feel obliged to mention that the only negative, mocking account of the event, as far as I could see, came from a Catholic paper, a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor, in what seemed to be its news section. This sad little aside, however trite, is still part of the story of Jesus at 2000.

As the media picked up the image, the resulting early letters could be divided into angry and furious.

Now we were back in the marketplace.

“Why in the world would you print such venom?” one began. “Are you that hard up for news?”

“I’m concerned about the Jesus 2000 picture,” another began politely enough, then went on, “Where do you get off putting a black Jesus on the cover of your God depraved magazine? … One day you will stand before the Lord Jesus Christ and he will be a Jew.” This one ended, “May God have mercy on your sole” -- I’m not sure if the spelling was intentional.

Many angry letters nevertheless called on God to have mercy on us. Several ripsnorters were signed by “A devout Christian” or someone similar. There was constant reference to the alleged “politically correct” aspect of the picture, always with disapproval. One critic announced his membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

“You have been duped into categorizing the Lord of all creation into some ‘religious figure,’ ” another wrote. “You have no idea whatsoever who the creator is.”

There were dozens such letters. Our first question was being answered forcefully. People care. There is an odd but crucial ambiguity here. Those angry writers were saying, in effect, “Don’t mess with my Jesus.” The Jesus they grew up with, their Jesus, was a given. It was given on holy cards and calendars and in frames on living room walls. This was the Jesus of their devotion, and art never entered the picture. They never asked where the image came from or what artist had the audacity, once, to make it new when previously there had been a different image.

Art has always been a minority interest. It has had to be subtle and patient to gain entry and assent, taking individuals and populations by stealth. Each new style or movement was at first resisted, if not reviled, until gradually people let it out of the gallery and into the house and eventually it became state of the art.

The ancient Romans called them lares et penates, their household gods. Throughout Christian history we have had a series of them: our God the Father with a beard, for example, and our various manifestations of Jesus.

Only time will tell what the next enduring manifestation will be, but McKenzie’s image is staking its claim. After that initial flurry of angry reaction, there has been a surge of admiration and recognition -- not necessarily that it’s the Jesus, which no picture ever is, but that it’s a candidate through which many people can see a hint of their divinity. The big numbers of requests for the NCR supplement and for prints of “Jesus of the People” suggest that this work may be on its way to the kind of domestication and veneration that popular icons acquire with time.

Sr. Wendy, to whom we had of course sent copies of the supplement, wrote to confirm, from the relaxed atmosphere of home in England, “The more I look at the images, the more sure I feel that the right choice was made.”

Art and meaning

Behind all the reactions, pro and con, lurk various questions about what is art, what is religious art and anyway does it matter?

What mattered to Judith Neuwissen of New York was the dead seriousness of so many entries: “Do you really think Jesus never smiled? Never cracked a joke? Could this Jesus get me out of my doldrums?” Her issue was the content of the work.

In faraway Australia, on the other hand, Marisa Loren was preoccupied with the form. She cited her diary entry for Aug. 21, 1999: “6 p.m. vigil Mass at St. John the Baptist, Plympton. Fr. Nader mentioned the NCR art adventure. … During the prayers leading to the consecration I had an inspiration. The image people were searching for was the Consecrated Host. I cannot stop thinking about it.”

J. David Kammer from Florida suggests another way of looking at it: “I can’t believe how practically all those who wrote letters on the subject of Jesus 2000 … have failed to see the spiritual.”

There is another ambiguity about religious art that has never been fully resolved. In six months of interviews and talk-show discussions, one of the most common stumbling blocks I encountered was the Old Testament prohibition against graven images, a prohibition deeply engraved on the psyches of the startlingly high number of fundamentalist Christians who rush to attack, some civilly, some fiercely, any and all icons.

This is nothing new. In the early Christian centuries, the iconoclasts, devoted to destroying all religious imagery, caused many a headache. This old wound has lingered to such a degree that Pope John Paul II, in his April 1999 “Letter to Artists,” felt obliged to address it: “The council held in Nicaea in 787, which decreed the legitimacy of images and their veneration, was a historic event not just for the faith but for culture itself. The decisive argument to which the bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the incarnation: If the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities -- his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible -- then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery. The icon is venerated not for its own sake, but points beyond to the subject which it represents.”

That still begs the question, what makes a work religious -- or sacred or spiritual?

Marshall Arisman, an artist of international stature and a participant in the Jesus 2000 search (supplement, page 29), executed a remarkable series titled “Sacred Monkeys,” exhibited, among other places, in China. The very idea may recall the controversy surrounding a certain painting of the Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum last year. It’s a pity how we raise our obscurantist eyebrows at what others consider sacred while we burn the bridges that art should be building.

Arisman, though, has a tantalizing hypothesis that puts the monkeys and ourselves in perspective: “We can only speculate on the reasons why monkeys were singled out [in the East] for divinity. If we, as human beings, identify with their decidedly human characteristics, their oddly human forms, we also envy their freedom to be who they are without all the restrictions of our complicated social conventions. Genetic studies conducted since 1990 show that chimpanzees share over 98 percent of our human genetic program. Perhaps what is sacred to us about monkeys lies in the 2 percent difference between us.”

Perhaps if the answers were easy, they would be less worthwhile -- and all the entries for Jesus 2000 would be clones of each other instead of the spectacular diversity that actually took place.

I was asked many times what we were looking for in an image. The question, for starters, misconstrued the whole purpose of the search: to find out, not what we at NCR fancied but what artists imagined. Still, eager to stir up the debate, I occasionally pontificated on how the overall thrust of the art of the receding 20th century had been from the less abstract to the more abstract, on how there had been a paring away of nonessentials, and thus a more abstract representation might be a fitting culmination of the century and even millennium. The only thing wrong with my thesis was that our search was not to sum up the old century but to create a new vision for times to come. For the most part, the entries show, artists were less inspired by abstract visions and more by the incarnational aspect of which the pope had written.

The search goes on

The adventure continues. A series of exhibitions of selected works begins in New York May 1 and continues in other venues at least until the end of the year.

“Do not depend on the hope of results,” Thomas Merton warned in his “Letter to a Young Artist.” Out of all the entrants there were only about four sore losers. Most were and are delightful participants in a sprawling conversation that refuses to stop.

James D. Callahan of Cincinnati sent in a book on how to make the perfect picture frame based on the Golden Section theorems of Pythagoras. One man wrote to ask if Sr. Wendy had an older brother who was stationed in England in 1943.

One of the most moving was submitted by Robert H. Kelly of San Ysidro, Calif.: a folder full of creativity, poems and songs, written and even sung, and pictures galore in glorious color. Wrote Kelly: “I dedicate this humble work to my wife Virginia, for her many years of devotion to me, our children and to the cause of Jesus. Eleven of our children and grandchildren helped draw, color and sing. Of these, three are deaf and one is mute, so I beg your patience as your interest we recruit” (rhyme was lying in wait on every page). The artists were Anastacia, Angie, Cynthia, Janeth, Jehoshuah, Maria, Philip, Priscilla, Selina, Tanya and Victor.

“It’s amazing what kind of passion this art has evoked,” another wrote. And another: “The contest clarified for me regarding my own inner thoughts related to my personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ over this last 12 months as I have been dealing with cancer.” Several mentioned, apologetically or otherwise, that they were not Catholic. “I hope you do not mind an old Protestant guy entering,” wrote Charlie Moore. We did not mind a bit, Charlie. Several attributed supernatural provenance to their entries. There were pictures of Jesus appearing in trees or in the heavens. Some of these fulfilled the qualifications for entry and some did not. “Because of the photograph’s special nature it would be inappropriate for me to accept a prize,” one wrote. We took him at his word. One sent a picture of the pastor of her childhood church, whom she described as the “perfect servant” of Jesus, and who, back then, “floated across the ceiling of the church.”

“This morning for the first time in perhaps 20 years, thanks to your offer, I pulled out my drawing pads and paints,” wrote Juanita Perry. “I am sure I will not receive the $2,000, but I have received the prize.”

Ubiquitous author Sr. Joan Chittister dropped a line as follows: “Rollo May says that when you don’t know what’s going on in a society, there are two categories of people you should ask: one, the artists, because they are sensitive enough to foresee it; and, two, the mentally ill, because they can’t stand it and break down under it long before anyone else even knows it’s happening.”

Sr. Margaret Broderick from the diocese of Brownsville, Texas, said word of the search for Jesus reminded her of poet Carl Sandburg’s Remembrance Rock, in which the author introduces an artist trying to carve a Christ head out of oak: “When finished it would float and gleam, cry and laugh, with every other face born human. And how can you crowd all the tragic and comic faces of mankind into one face? … Then in my dream I saw too that the face of Christ must have in it the essence and mystery of the sea and the sky, the valleys and the mountains overlooked by sun, moon, stars and the heavy darkness where men grope and stumble. For the face of Christ would hold what every man sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes. And it would be very old and very young.”

Jesus had a habit of turning the argument back on people -- but who do you say that I am? Robert Tilka of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., tried a little of that: “The picture on the cover of your magazine should be a large mirror, with the caption: the face of Jesus Christ. Take a look in the mirror. He is all of us.”

Becky Johnson got even more personal in an e-mail: “May God save this man Michael Farrell. May he reveal his self to him personally. How would he like it if a prize were offered to give him a new look?”

As a matter of fact, Becky, I could use one.

Sandburg’s artist muses on: “Before my Christ head comes alive out of oak, my heart must be sunk deeper and get closer interwoven with the hearts of all other men, the good who have some bad in them and the bad who have some good in them, none being utterly good, none being utterly bad. I must be shameless dust of earth, and roots singing underground till they become blossoms of harvest triumphant in the sunlight above. I must know the sorrow of endless tears and the deeper sorrow that has forgotten how to weep.

“I must come near the miracle of those who can give and go on giving when it is a mystery where they get what it is they give and never fail in the having to give. I must be silent often and break my silence only with prayer. I must believe in many deeds beyond my doing in the hope that one or two such unbelievable deeds may come from my hands.”

“This is a work in progress,” writes Robert H. Kline of Richmond, Va., claiming the Artist had “impeccable credentials.” Kline actually submitted a mirror.

The mirror, old tabula rasa, stares blankly, unless one looks it in the eye -- and sees the work still in progress.

Michael Farrell is editor of NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000