Faith Works 4-6-13
Pictures worth a thousand words, or Word
Have you ever heard of Harry Anderson?
No, not the magician/comedian who used to be on "Night Court" (loved that show), but the artist.
You may not know the name, but if you attend church you probably know his work. Not as well-known as Warner Sallman, the painter of "Head of Christ" (1941) which is so common your church almost certainly has one hanging somewhere, he was inspired by Sallman's example and took it a step further.
In 1945, Anderson painted "What happened to your hand?" which shows a group of modern-day children sitting with Jesus in a garden. The boy down on the grass is holding an airplane toy, just to make sure that you get the contemporary setting along with their 1945 kids' clothes.
And on the knee of Jesus, who's wearing a robe of timeless vintage, a little girl is holding his open-palmed hand and looking up quizzically at him. The caption is not on the painting, nor does it need to be. It's quite clear, and I think quite affecting.
Oddly enough today, the controversy both within Anderson's own Seventh-Day Adventist community, and more generally, was whether it was appropriate to show Christ in a contemporary setting. The controversy didn't hurt Anderson's career, and he continued working for decades, doing religious art for the Latter Day Saints' display at the New York World Fair, and for a variety of Protestant venues.
If you've not seen "What happened to your hand?" (but look around in your Sunday school rooms, it's probably somewhere), you may have seen where Anderson made Christ 500 feet tall, so to speak, and shows him knocking on the United Nations' building in New York as if it were a door.
I'm partial to another painting of his which ought to show up in a Mad Men episode, where Anderson puts a robed Jesus in a 1960s living room, earnestly speaking to a man with his back to the viewer, looking out the picture window across the lawn. From behind, you could swear it was Don Draper. (I'll post a link on Twitter to a page where you can see all these.)
Visual depictions of the Bible and of Jesus himself have a long history, with murals and mosaics and stained glass helping tell the old, old story in an era before literacy and printing. Illuminated manuscripts even in medieval times added images to the verbiage, with stock representations making small pictures understandable to anyone (the beard on Jesus, the wild hair on John the Baptist, a bald and short Paul, etc.).
Harry Anderson more than Warner Sallman opened the door to pictures of Jesus and tales of faith in a new context, even as movies in the 50s & 60s were emphasizing a sort of authenticity that was more a stock image than a historical study. Sunday school and VBS material has tended to stick with the safer approach, with a visual palette that isn't much different from those medieval manuscripts or the German Romantic era paintings that inspired most of our 20th century American stained glass.
So it was with delight that I've learned about how the platform of the graphic novel as been used recently to re-tell that old, old story with some current insight. I'll admit to a small flinch when I first heard about the "Manga Bible," using the Japanese form of animation best known in the Pokemon or Speed Racer worlds, but Tyndale's "Manga Messiah" of the Gospels and "Manga Metamorphosis" of Acts are a surprisingly complete telling of the text. There are three Old Testament volumes I've not yet seen.
"The Action Bible" from David C. Cook comes as the full Scriptures, or just a New Testament version, but is a good read for middle school and high school students not exactly loving a text-based experience (but there's much of the text right there in the margins and speech balloons). And I am truly in awe of Zondervan's "The Book of Revelation." It's that last book of the Bible, all the text present and fully accounted for and brilliantly realized; I couldn't have imagined this approach until I saw this work, but entirely rooted in the words as they are present. You will be moved, and moved to reflect deeply on Revelation through this graphic novel.
I'm a reader myself, but I will be recommending these formats for reading and envisioning the Bible for years to come. They are missionary efforts of their own type, reaching out in new ways with the timeless Story of Stories.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him your preferred translation or rendition of the Bible at email@example.com, or @Knapsack on Twitter.