Tag Archives: The Color of Christ

The Vagrant Messiah- A Sculpture Worth a Thousand Words

In Davidson, North Carolina, a homeless man has stirred up more of a commotion than a typical bum. Resolute and unmoving, the figure lays, almost entirely obscured by a blanket, on a 7-foot park bench just outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. One resident driving by the man has called the police after seeing him- afraid for the safety of the neighborhood. But he does not answer questions or demands. He does not move to show his face. And he certainly doesn’t do anything about the gaping crucifixion wounds on his feet.

Already rejected by two well-established Catholic cathedrals in Toronto and New York, Timothy Schmalz’ “Jesus the Homeless” statue has recently found a permanent home in the fairly wealthy North Carolina neighborhood. Residents and church patrons have had mixed reactions to the installation of the artwork, viewing the statue as either inspirational or inappropriate. Rev. David E. Buck, rector at St. Alban’s, speaks strongly in favor of the statue, saying, “We’re reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness.” Other residents have commented that the affluence of the surrounding neighborhood has blinded residents to the  problem of homelessness. The statue has been blessed by an enthusiastic Pope Francis.

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Cindy Castano Swannack, the woman who recently reported the statue to the police, is not so enthusiastic. Swannack asserts that the message of the sculpture is inappropriate, arguing that Jesus should be standing over a homeless man as a protector- not a vagrant. “Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help,” she said, “We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.” The statue has also been described as creepy, ugly, and uncomfortably similar to the Grim Reaper. Unfortunately for Swannack, Biblically-described Jesus described himself (at least rhetorically) as homeless. Whether or not Jesus was literally homeless is less certain, but Jesus is described as a servant, personified in the downtrodden, and ultimately executed as a criminal. It is certain that Jesus’ role is more complex than that of a protector- he repeatedly describes himself as one of the lowly and destitute.

Could it be that dissenters are uncomfortable with an actual visual of these beliefs? Is it easier to accept pictures of an appealing #hotjesus rather than an inconvenient homeless Jesus? It’s unlikely that Swannack has similar disagreements with the Bible verses that describe Jesus as a needy outsider. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” An actualizing aspect of images of Jesus is either far less pronounced or absent in written descriptions or discussions about the Christ. To create an image that explicitly shows a representation of Christ as one of of the downtrodden makes the underlying social issues too real and difficult to abstract.

The white Jesus on the cover of the illustrated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853).

The white Jesus on the cover of the illustrated edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853).

A resistance towards physical depictions of an oppressed Messiah is nothing new. Blum and Harvey, in The Color of Christ, describe the religious arguments between pro-abolition and pro-slavery advocates. They argue that while the pro-slavery side won the battle of the Bible, the pro-abolition side won the “joust for Jesus.” It was easy to prove that Christ was an opponent of slavery. It was also easy to align Jesus with slaves themselves. Slaves became Christ-like figures, most famously in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the similarities between Christ and African slaves shown in literature were not seen as appropriate and fitting to abolitionists, visual depictions of a black slave Christ are notably absent from the historical narrative. Even illustrations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin show a distinctly pale white Jesus disapproving of slave beatings. Jesus could be a slave symbolically, he could be described as colored, but even in reference to slavery he was always visually depicted as a physically removed white man.

Time and cultural shifts have made Christians more open to a visually colored Christ. But it still seems that words are more acceptable than images. Words can be (mis)interpreted. Words are seen as less absolute, more theoretical and symbolic. It is harder to misinterpret or ignore the implications of a direct portrait of Christ. Even widespread iconoclastic Protestantism gave way to the raw, captivating power behind an image of Christ that simply isn’t present in a lengthy theologically-dense sermon. It is true that words can be a more precise tool for describing complex ideas- but Christian resistance to difficult images of Christ prove the undeniable superiority of a picture to make uncomfortable comparisons real and relevant.

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Focus on the “Feel Good”

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When Candace Chellew-Hodge, the author of “Millenials Invent New Religion: No Hell, No Priests, No Punishment”, asked her students to create a new religion as a class project, she was perplexed by their creations. Still, she was more even more intrigued by what they did not create. Most student groups included meditation as a practice of their religions but used it as a way to get in touch with themselves rather than a god. Prayer was used in a similar way for students to make personal gain rather than talk to a higher being. Additionally, all the student groups left out spiritual leaders and religious group meetings while not even mentioning the idea of a hell. These students were driven away from modeling their made-up religions after prominent religions in America because of the hypocrisy they have witnessed in those religions. The students do not want spiritual leaders to tell them what they should and should not be doing, because they believe those leaders are contradicting their own advice. Furthermore, the students see religions such as Christianity as too judgmental and restrictive. With all of the current controversy on whether acts like homosexuality and abortion are acceptable by the Bible’s rules, the students sought a religion where people could do as they please. That freedom includes leaving a religious practice, joining another, and returning to the previous religion later. Candace Chellew-Hodge makes the point that without the threat of consequences and without any real discipline, followers of these made-up religions will not know what it is like to suffer for their belief system. She says that without suffering, people will not only become distant from the higher being they worship but also from one another. Her argument made me think of the slaves’ religion described in The Color of Christ. The slaves were whipped and beaten by their owners, yet they somehow held onto their faith. They related to a Christ who suffered that same beating and died so that they could one day be free. The students’ religions allow them a freedom in this life that would not cause them to look forward and strive for that freedom in the next life that the slaves longed for. Although, the students are in a much more privileged position than the slaves were. Since they have not encountered the same type of suffering as the slaves, the students might not even be able to comprehend that type of hardship. The students live out their extremely carefree lives on Earth, so how could they expect the afterlife to be any different? On the other hand, the slaves knew the realities of true misery, and that allowed them to believe in an eternal hell for sinners.

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When I was searching for an image for this post, I found this quote by Abraham Lincoln, and it also made me think of some things that Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum mention in the The Color of Christ. For instance, “Like so many leaders of the American Revolution and in the early Republic, Lincoln wanted to acknowledge the divine without being trapped by the particulars of Jesus” (128). Although Lincoln might have kept from stating his specific ideas about Christ and religion to avoid stepping on the toes of people in a fragile nation, it is also possible that Lincoln had the same “feel good” ideals that the students in Candace Chellew-Hodge’s class had come up with for their religions. Lincoln’s religion was possibly one of self discovery and fulfillment like the students’ hypothetical religions, and freeing the slaves could have been an example of his “doing good to feel good” as a part of that religion.

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White Jesus, is that you?

It was opening night of the 2013 Yeezus tour, and rapper Kanye West surprised fans with a dramatic intro to his set. Etherial classical music filled the stadium while a man stood on stage wearing a jeweled black mask. Suddenly, a tall, white, barefoot, bearded man in a long white robe made his way across the stage. As this man approached, the lights around brightened and the image of Jesus was revealed. The masked man removed his disguise, and the crowd cheered on none other than Kanye West. In awe of Jesus, Kanye asked, “White Jesus, is that you?” Jesus then engaged in dialogue with Kanye, revealed that he is there to “show people the light- the light of truth in you [Kanye]”, and slowly exited the stage. Then, Kanye fell to his knees as the beat to his hit single “Jesus Walks” stirred the crowd.

Fans were both surprised and confused as to why Kanye would employ a Jesus impersonator to perform on tour with him. In his interview with San Francisco’s Wild 94.9 JV Show, Kanye stated that bringing Jesus on stage was just another example of the artistry similar to Michelangelo painting Jesus in the Sistine chapel, a sculptor crafting a masterpiece, or an actor performing in a play. Kanye emphasized in this interview that what makes Christianity special and important to him is that he (and other followers) are freely allowed to portray and create images of holy figures. Although there has been controversy around the incident, West ensured fans that he believed his heart was in the right place, and that God knew that his intentions were good. 

Kanye’s Roman Catholic upbringing reinforces his idea that an actor playing Jesus isn’t something that should be seen as controversial.  Like the Jesuits in early America, discussed in “The Color of Christ” by Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum, West puts emphasis on the power of the physical images of Christ. Not only does he hire a man to play Jesus on stage, but he also wears jeweled interpretations of Jesus’s face and incorporates symbols like light, crosses, halos, and fire into his music video for “Jesus Walks”. These “icons” serve as a symbol of faith for Kanye, and they make the idea of Jesus more tangible and relatable. Unlike the Puritans in early America, West has created physical representations of Jesus which support his belief that people can easily talk to Jesus, walk with Jesus, and have a relationship with him. For Kanye, these physical symbols create an emotional connection and a feeling of closeness to Jesus. West also has similar theological ideas as the Native Americans influenced by the French Jesuits. These Native Americans took the image of Jesus (a “man-god”) that the Jesuits had and combined that image with their own concept of a great hunter that they bargained and exchanged with. Similarly, Kanye creates an image of Jesus that resembles a regular man that can be talked to, walked with, and befriended. The goal, for Kanye, is to create an image and idea of Jesus that reflects the closeness felt by friends or family (a “Jesus is my homeboy” idea) because that’s the image he feels most comfortable relating to. This could be seen as a way to reach out to those who normally wouldn’t experience Jesus in everyday life (like some of the groups addressed in “Jesus Walks”) or to provide a new face to a religion that can be seen as intolerant, hateful, and exclusive toward the groups of people that primarily listen to Kanye West’s music.

The interesting aspects of West’s opening performance were not only that the Jesus was white, but that Kanye specifically called him “White Jesus”. Why employ a white male to represent Jesus when in the music video for “Jesus Walks” the people persecuting the African Americans are white? Other groups of people are mentioned in the lyrics and varying races shown in the music video, but they all represent the different types of typical sinners like hustlers, drug dealers, and strippers. These groups of people are encouraged to walk with Jesus and listen to his words. The main race relation in question is that between the Whites and the African Americans. White security guards with large guns beat and pat down the chained, African American men while another white man cuts down wood to create a cross to burn (in the video, he is eventually revealed to be wear KKK-like garb). This image of race relations created by Kanye is similar to the image in “The Color of Christ” from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the image, two African American slaves are beating another African American slave. Jesus and the slaveowner are present but on the sides of the scene (Jesus on the left and the slaveowner on the right). Both Jesus and the slaveowner are white in color, but the slaveowner has a more open, dominant role in the picture seen by the face that he is facing forward, exposing more of his body. Through this own style of art (music videos and concert tours), Kanye West creates this same picture which forces us to ask questions about race relations and religion despite the amount of progress people believe has been made.

In the case of “Jesus Walks”, the slaveowner is represented by the men with guns in the video, Jesus is represented by the barefoot, bearded actor used on tour, and the beaten slave (other Jesus-like character) would be represented by West. When the Jesus character on West’s tour enters the stage, he promises that the audience will be shown the light and truth which lies within Kanye. Therefore, Kanye is the truth and the light, and is god-like in the way that he can lead others to walk with this White Jesus. What is it that makes him personify Jesus as white? Is it his Catholic upbringing which would have shown him pictures of a white Jesus? West makes the point in “Jesus Walks” that topics like sex, drugs, and alcohol cover the media and music, but he received doubt and criticism for mentioning Jesus. Therefore, this White Jesus could represent an image easily accepted by the media, a white male, combined with the more chaotic rap music components. There are many controversies surrounding Kanye West’s work, but it can’t be denied that he forces us to take a step back and analyze the relationship between the seemingly opposite worlds of religion and rap.

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The Growing Diversity of African-American Faith

As a class, since we began reading The Color of Christ by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, we have spent a good amount of time talking about African-American faith. Typically, when talking about this subject most of the information we read covers African-American Christianity from slavery on, but a recent article from The Huffington Post and a follow up interview from NPR hosted by Mitchel Martin show that more African-Americans than ever are now choosing the create their own paths and explore the many faiths that are practiced in America. Many African-Americans, even those that were raised Christian, are now seeking new religions experiences for numerous different reasons. The article above touches on the diverse group of religions African-Americans now practice, but it does not and could not possibly on every different faith that is now practiced by the entire population of black Americans.

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In the Huffington Post article, the author states, “Considerable attention has already been given to the role of Christianity and Islam as religious influences, but the diversity of religious traditions practiced within the African-American community extends beyond those two traditions.” The author then backs up this statement by giving us nine examples of African-Americans that practice different religions. Hearing from African-Americans that are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Atheist, Hindu, Christian, and Pagan allows us to believe that the the effects from the christianizing of Blacks that occurred in during the times of slavery in America may have begun to wear off. One example provided is the story behind Black, Jewish, and Homosexual rapper Yitz Jordan (above). In his life, Jordan faced discrimination for sexual preference, skin color, and religious background, but despite the negativity, the Jewish community accepted Jordan into their religion in 2004. Jordan, like fellow black, Jewish rapper Drake, embraces everything that he is and is as proud to a part of the Black community as he is to be part of the LGBT community and the Jewish community. Jordan can be seen talking about his religion, his rapping, and his life below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_ITmHdTgOQ

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African American Religious Association

The vast diversity of African-American faith is highlighted by the story of Timothy Conley who practices Baha’i religion. Growing up, Conley, just like a large amount of African-American children was a Christian that worshipped at an all black church. The way he grew up ultimately led Conley to seek a more diverse place to worship, “That’s what’s great about the Baha’i tradition, the promotion of this diversity. And being a part of a religion that promotes humanity and not such a focus on race, it is refreshing.” (Huffington Post). As you can see in the chart to the left, African-Americans truly are branching out when it comes to religious preference. Yes, Christianity is still the preference for most, but it is no longer the preference of an overwhelmingly large amount of African-Americans like it once was. As time goes on America is becoming more and more diverse. This growing diversity can be seen through: the acceptance of other races, the acceptance of the LBGT community, and now the acceptance of countless religions.

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(De)Facing Jesus: Reconstructing Religion (and God) in the Battle for Social Change

From 2003-2004, a little-known dramatic comedy from creator Brian Fuller aired on Showtime. Called Dead Like Me, the show followed a small group of grim reapers as they struggled with everyday life, like finding and keeping jobs, relationships, etc.; it also showed how they struggled to help reaped souls cross over. While mostly flippant and fanciful, the show also dealt with deeper subjects of loss, grief, and sometimes, prejudice. One episode in particular called “The Shallow End” dealt with a would-be transsexual named Stan, who was killed in the waiting room for his sex-change consultation. In a particularly powerful clip, Stan posthumously confronts his grief not with how he was died, but how he was forced to live, and takes it out on Jesus.

At first glance it may seem as though the clip has little to do with what I have dubbed the “Defacing” and “Reconstructing” of the image of God and religion in society. That is, until around the 1:28 mark. At that point, Stan says that he wants to forgive God for having made him live life as a man instead of a woman, but that God must “tell [Stan] he’s sorry first,” and suddenly the stain-glass Jesus above him shatters because of children throwing rocks outside.

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Look familiar? It should.

     

Above is perhaps one of the most striking images of September 15, 1963, the day four little African American girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. The world never forgot the events of that day, and the image itself lived on in popular imagination, even opening Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s acclaimed book, The Color of Christ. While I do not mean to suggest that kids throwing rocks in a TV show and white Christian men actually bombing a church and killing children in real life are similar, the image of the shattered icon clearly still holds meaning today as a symbol of social tension, minority oppression, and (hopefully) change.

First, the image evokes social tension if for nothing else than the sheer violence of the acts. The face of Jesus was defaced because of a bomb in ’63 afterall, and though the image from Dead Like Me is only marginally violent, the violence faced for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender/Transsexual) individuals is indeed great today. Huffington Post’s executive religion editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbusch points out worldwide violence and discrimination, as well as the church’s role in the violence  in a recent article. In Nigeria, for example, homosexual unions are now considered crimes, and a group of men were beaten by a mob there this past weekend. In Kansas, a law has been proposed to make workplace discrimination based on sexual preference legal.

Secondly, as Blum and Harvey suggest, many in 1963 found the battered image emblematic of Christ (and Christianity)’s powerlessness or worse, the church’s oppression. When it comes to social injustice, both images come from places of pain and recall the effects of minority violence. The idea that a black church should be shepherded by a white Jesus in the first place seems a bit ludicrous and oppressive to many like Anne Moore after the bombing. If Jesus was white like the bombers and oppressors, if he did nothing to stop it, then how could African Americans feel wholly or comfortable in their church again anyway? Similarly, Raushenbusch suggests that Christians are partly to blame for worldwide LGBT oppression if for nothing else than the church’s own “complicity.” He goes on to cite many discriminatory and church-sanctioned laws around the world and within the USA.  Ignatius Kaigama, an Archbishop, agrees with the laws in Nigeria for example, and the laws of Kansas are being pushed for “under the banner of ‘religious freedom.'”

That said, however, Blum and Harvey also cite how, in the wake of the bombing, the ever-eloquent James Baldwin saw the shattered Christ as an opportunity as Baldwin states:

“The absence of the face is something of an achievement [and…] If Christ has no face, then perhaps it is time that we … give him a new face.”

In the same vein, despite the violence and hatred that inspired his article, Raushenbush clearly still believes there is hope, pointing out that others like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, have taken this opportunity to reconfigure who Christ is and those things for which he stands today with quotes like, “‘anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people…are not just homophobic…they are Godophobic.’” Still others like Archbishop Desmond Tutu say that, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic.” Heck, Raushenbush himself is an ordained minister and outspoken voice for equal rights. In other words, these men — like Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. before them — are changing their views of God and humanity coming out of the violence that happening around the world today.

To end, I would like to end with an image which Blum and Harvey describe in Color’s prologue, but never actually show, that of the 16th Street Baptist Church’s reconstructed Jesus.

It may seem silly to think of now, but the shattered Jesus was indeed reconstructed in such a way that would have made Baldwin proud. Firstly, his air seems at once stronger, and secondly – being on a cross – more engaged with the suffering of his congregation, more relatable. The image also gives a certain hope for how perceptions of Jesus and Christianity can change and adapt today. While these reconfigured images are incomplete and may not seem like much, they are. While these problems may seem far from over or insurmountable, they are not.

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The Changing Faces of Marvel and America

ImageEarlier this month, Marvel released the first issue of Ms. Marvel starring Kamala Khan, a Muslim-American teenager. Khan is the first Muslim-American superhero to star in a Marvel comic, though Marvel has featured other Muslim-American characters in the past. The former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, has been rebranded as Captain Marvel, a member of the Avengers, leaving the role of Ms. Marvel to be filled by Khan. 

The series is written by G. Willow Wilson, an American convert to Islam. In an interview with NPR this January, Wilson says she initially, “wasn’t sure that the world was kind of ready for a character like this,” but that she has tried to create an authentic character. In creating Kamala’s character, Wilson worked closely with editors Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker. Amanat revealed in a video for the Washington Post that the inspiration for a Muslim-American lead character actually came from a conversation between herself and Wacker, about her experience growing up as a Muslim-American. Wilson said the three “spent a lot of time before [they] actually sat down to script the series working on background issues so that she felt like a real human being. “

Ms. Marvel

Wilson said readers can expect the typical action of a comic book, combined with new challenges unique to Kamala’s immigrant family background. Her family members range from more traditional Muslims, like Kamala’s brother, to more “relaxed” Muslims, like Kamala. But the overarching storyline is one of changing identity, both of Ms. Marvel’s change from white, blonde Carol Danvers to Muslim-American Kamala Khan, and Kamala Khan’s change from normal teenager to superhero.

Marvel’s decision to have a Muslim-American girl star in her own comic will face criticism from some parties for being “un-American,” but perhaps these critics are wrong. If we look at the changing face of superheroes like we look at the changing face of Jesus, we can see a pattern of change of identity central to American religion. Just as the portrayal of Jesus changes as the face of American religion and culture changes, so does the portrayal of other “superhuman” figures.

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In their book The Color of Christ, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey discuss how differences in Jesus’s appearance over time reflect the view of Jesus Americans held at that moment in time. During the early colonial period in New England, where many Puritans immigrated seeking religious freedom, visual representations of Jesus could not be found, because the Puritans believed that to look to an image of Jesus would constitute breaking the second commandment. However, in Catholic areas, Jesus was often depicted as bloody, and to many Native Americans in French-settled areas, Jesus was portrayed as a “Manitou,” or powerful hunter spirit. Visions of Jesus were changed by every group of people who came into contact with him, and his image came to reflect the views of these groups of people. Eventually, Jesus came to be known as the white man depicted in Warner Salman’s famous Head of Christ (shown above) in 1941. To Blum and Harvey, this showed that, “by wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face,” and you’ll notice that this depiction came to the forefront of the American depiction of Jesus just before the civil rights movement began. 

Though they are in no way recognized as a part of any organized religion I know of, superheroes are still seen as important, prominent, though fictional, figures in American culture, just as Jesus is. Can’t they represent the changing landscape of religion in America, just as images of Jesus represents the view of Christians in America? Perhaps Marvel’s choice better reflects the landscape of America today than past comic series have. As people continue to immigrate to the United States, bringing with them their own religions and traditions, it becomes impossible to ignore the growing number of non-white, non-christians in America, and the need for our superheroes to represent that changing face of American religion. 

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Clothing Optional… In Church?

white tailThe Huffington Post uploaded a video and article about a nudist church in the small town of Ivor, Virginia. This congregation is under the leadership of Pastor Allen Parker, and meets in White Tail Chapel within the “family nudist community” know as White Tail Resort. These nudists, like many other groups before them, provide an intriguing look into how culture and religion can mix and impact each other according to what the community deems important or significant. In this case, there is an interesting (yet disturbing) interaction between their cultural identity/practice as nudists and their religious affiliation as Christians. Their label and identity as a nudist community leads to an interesting interpretation of the Bible tailored to reinforce their cultural practices. Pastor Allen Parker justifies the practice of attending church nude by stating that the events crucial to Christianity all occurred while Jesus was nude (his birth, his crucifixion, and his resurrection). This idea that believers are more connected and “open to hearing the word of God” when they are in a physical state similar to Jesus parallels the practices and thoughts of the early American Jewish immigrants. Catherine L. Albanese discusses in Chapter 2 of America: Religions and Religion how the Jewish religion uses festivals and rituals in order to reenact history and connect with God. Because they [the Jews] believe that God was actively involved in the creation of history, rituals and festival cycles connect the people to those events of the past through reenactment while also creating a deeper spiritual connection.

White Tail Resort

Although the thought process provided by the nudists is similar, the practice of attending church naked illustrates how the interpretation of one aspect of Jesus’s life (his moments of nakedness) is used to justify cultural and religious practices. This specific depiction of Jesus is similar to an idea brought up in The Color of Christ, written by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. It is stated that “by giving Jesus particular body forms, clothing styles, and physical postures, Americans drew the Son of God into discussions not only of manliness and femininity but also of various approaches to sexuality” (pg. 15-16). In the case of the nudist colony, they have created and cling to a projection of Jesus that is similar to and accessible to them while also making a bold statement that sexuality, specifically that nudity should not be something shameful but equalizing (which is easy to say when church members are all around the same age, race, and body size). Practices by the congregation are justified by pointing out that people come into this world naked and emphasizing that nudist believers are unashamed, able to avoid tension caused by material possessions (which they believe occurs predominately in traditional churches), and “free of social judgments”.  Feeling comfortable and accepting one’s own body, searching for inner peace, and equality are emphasized by this group. Their shared beliefs about nudity have created a great family atmosphere and sense of community among the congregation, and community. The nudists of White Tail Chapel are one more example of how many groups of people of varying races, sexual orientations, and ethnicities with this same sense of community have used the Bible to support social acceptance and change. Let’s hope that this trend, for the sake of our eyes, does not venture too far from the small town of Ivor.

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