Saturday, November 28, 2009

Jesus never looked like Peter Frampton

In preparing for this particular blog post, I bit the bullet, went to Lala.com and listened to Peter Frampton's interminable Frampton Comes Alive! At the tender age of 25, I was obviously not around to witness this album top the Billboard 200 album charts for something like 10 jillion years, or see any videos of Frampton sucking on the microphonic component of that talk-box guitar effect he popularized (which is unfortunate, since the talk-box is possibly the worst thing to happen in the history of guitar effects -- if you need further proof, look to Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora). But I had obviously heard the mega-hits "Show Me the Way" and "Baby I Love Your Way" ad nauseam on our lite-rock radio station when I worked as a journalist for nearly three years, and needless to say, Frampton Comes Alive! is just about what I'd expected it to be: Expertly performed but utterly toothless, painfully unmemorable guitar-rock interspersed with Frampton's moronic stage banter about how this particular number is a "rocker" and that other one is "a bit funky." Hmmm, good to know ... still all sounds like crap to me.

But for the sake of this post, I want to focus on the album cover: A nearly iconic (OK, maybe just notorious) photo of Frampton himself, the neck of his Gibson Les Paul and two bright lights behind him playing second fiddle to his pasty white complexion, golden locks, seemingly stoned gaze and failure to button his shirt. I am drawn to this image because it bears a striking resemblance to most popular depictions of Jesus Christ our Lord. If that doesn't piss you off, it should.

It seems that somewhere down the line, people have forgotten or simply refuse to acknowledge that Jesus was Jewish by ancestry. With this in mind, it is very likely the Messiah had fairly dark skin, dark hair and brown eyes. He may have fulfilled the Jewish stereotype of possessing a relatively lengthy nose, and was probably about average height if not shorter (which had as much to do with people's general stature in the first century A.D. as the Jews' common physical traits). In addition, he probably rarely washed his clothes or cut his fingernails, and let's not even get started on whether or not the man even brushed his teeth. Ew. Our Awesome God's "spitting image" may have turned out to be a fairly nasty sight, and frankly, I'm totally comfortable with that. The Messiah is still the Messiah, whether or not he was much to look at.

Of course, an innumerable amount of medieval artists got all antsy about this notion and had to go and screw everything up. It's because of them (probably with the encouragement of more than a few northern European churches) that we now have the Nordic, Peter Frampton lookalike Jesus: Blonde, blue-eyed, tall, cleanly and so white we gotta wear shades just to look at any of these erroneous paintings. It seems that these Christians overlooked the Scriptural fact that God visited Earth in human form to save ONE people -- the Israelites, Awesome God's chosen noisemakers. Throughout The Holy Bible's four aural reviews of The Jesus Jam's tour throughout the Mediterranean, journalists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John make note of numerous lyrics that explain how the Jews have to hear the good tunes first, and none of this music will even apply to the Gentiles (i.e. everyone who isn't Jewish) until after The Jesus Jam, um, get run out of town. In other words, it's because of The Jesus Jam that European mutts like me are even allowed to join Awesome God's symphony.

But these stupid medieval artists just couldn't stomach that theological fact, portraying Jesus as an unmistakable Gentile and thereby setting in motion the still-prevalent image of Jesus as a white guy. There have been some notable exceptions, such as the Aramaic-speaking, very Jewish-looking Jesus in The Passion of the Christ (ironically portrayed by the U.S.-born James Caviezel), but in my experience most portrayals of Jesus still look like that from the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which a blonde, pearly white Jesus plays opposite a black Judas -- and here we are almost unanimously calling Song of the South racist! To be fair, though, northern European white folks aren't the only ones who have seemingly tried to "rescue" Jesus from his Palestinian heritage. Numerous African artists have recast the Son of God as a black man, and I wouldn't be surprised if numerous Asian or Latin American artists have committed similar historical revisions. Heck, if someone asked me to paint a picture of the Jesus Jam, who knows if I wouldn't be tempted to portray them as a ragtag bunch of awkward, bespectacled nerds like myself?

Besides being historically inaccurate, though, I think these attempts to portray Jesus as anything but Jewish has only helped to further feelings of anti-Semitism among Christians. Anti-Semitism certainly didn't originate with all of this misleading medieval art, and its roots in Christianity can be arguably traced back to The Holy Bible itself. For example, Matthew's review of The Jesus Jam's seminal tour was probably written by a Jew but didn't do much to help the Jews' image, particularly because Matthew routinely, shamelessly bashed the Stereophonic Pharisees and did a disturbingly good job of depicting the Jewish crowd that advocated for The Jesus Jam to pack up their instruments and never play in their neck of the woods again, so to speak. Since then, general tension between Jews and Christians increased over the following centuries, and it all culminated -- to put it politely -- with the Holocaust, during which at least one German bishop went through The Holy Bible and omitted any lyrics that linked The Jesus Jam back to their Jewish origins.

I hear about stories like this and I just want to cry. Especially as a Lutheran, it was depressing for me to not only learn that Martin Luther published treatises like On the Jews and Their Lies, but that such hateful sentiments were common in Europe during the 16th century. And it's even more distressing to see devout Christians like Mel Gibson and Rev. Jeremiah Wright still generate 15-minute media fodder with ill-advised anti-Semitic comments. If Christians continue to do this, all we amount to in my mind are teenagers badmouthing our parents just because we arbitrarily can't bear the thought of being associated with our roots -- we're rebelling against our religious ancestors just because we can.

And yes, folks, the Jews are our religious ancestors; if it wasn't for Judaism, Christianity wouldn't exist. Far too many Christians still commit one of the greatest heresies possible by only listening to the second, "newer" part of The Holy Bible box set, because they think the tunes contained in that portion are the only ones that apply to Christian listeners. The songs in the first, "older" section are often deemed too lengthy and challenging for Christians to listen to comfortably, especially those verses that mention circumcision, food laws, burnt offerings and holidays we never even observe. And while it is true some sections of The Holy Bible's "older" part aren't directly incorporated into most Christian renditions of "The Word," it is still necessary for us to listen to in order for the compilation's "newer" part to make sense. It isn't a matter of choosing between one section or the other -- they represent two distinct but complementary phases in Awesome God's ongoing musical career, and like any superb "greatest hits" collection, the compilers intended for Christians to listen actively to every song contained therein. It's called the Judeo-Christian tradition for a reason; "their" history is part of "our" history, too.

Several months ago, I heard one of my friends say that the only difference between Jews and Christians is whether or not one believes The Jesus Jam's rendition of "The Word" was the best that ever was and ever will be. And fundamentally, that's it -- according to most Jews, Go Down Moses' version of Awesome God's symphony still stands as the best. In that aforementioned "older" section of The Holy Bible, there are lyrical clues that the Israelites were expecting some revolutionary rocker to come blaring a version of "The Word" that would save them from the unbearably awful sounds that had polluted their once-mellifluous world. Some Jews thought The Jesus Jam instigated that revolution, and consequently those Jews became Christians. Other Jews think the revolution has yet to take place, and considered The Jesus Jam nothing more than a bunch of overrated opportunists who deserved to get run out of town. To put it another way, Jews think The Jesus Jam were The Sex Pistols, while Christians think they were The Clash.

Obviously, this fundamental disagreement is pretty huge, and probably provides more than enough justification for Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity to eventually split into two different religions after The Jesus Jam's demise on this Earth. But I see no reason that we can't agree to disagree -- at the end of the day, we still believe that "The Word" is the greatest piece of music ever written, regardless of who played it the best. Failing to treat someone with dignity simply because they possess different religious beliefs than you is like refusing to be someone's friend just because they listen to music you despise. It ultimately comes down to personal preference, and I would hope we can freely, respectfully express our differences in opinion without wanting to wring each other's necks. After we die, I guess we'll see which of us was "right," if there's even a "right" religion at all.

More importantly, though, we've treated our ancestors poorly enough throughout history that I think we owe them an apology of sorts. So, to all my Jewish friends who may or may not be reading this, we Christians are sorry you as a people got blamed for running The Jesus Jam out of town when, in reality, we Gentiles would have been down there shouting "Crucify him!" with you. We're sorry Martin Luther said so many horrible things about you after he had a stroke. We're sorry people like Mel Gibson, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a whole bunch of other Christians I can't think of right now still say pretty nasty things about you. While we're not directly responsible for the Holocaust (Adolf Hitler actually denounced Christianity as the invention of a Jew), humanity in general should be sorry for allowing six million-plus to die, more or less behind our backs. And of course, we're sorry it's gotten to the point where some people still think Jesus looked like Peter Frampton.

And really, fellow Jesus Jam fans, we should be ashamed of ourselves for letting it get to that point, too. I mean, Peter Frampton? To quote High Fidelity, PETER EFFING FRAMPTON!!?!!?!??? One of the most embarrassingly cheesy musicians in the history of rock & roll? Come on now, Jesus always has and always will deserve a better likeness than that.

6 comments:

  1. Okay, blog-boy, now you've done it, you messed with Peter Frampton! Frampton Comes alive is one of a handful of albums that puts me right back in college. The others were "Can't Buy a Thrill" by Steely Dan (in quadraphonic) "They Only Come Out at Night" Edgar Winter Group and "Dark Side of the Moon" Pink Floyd - I'm not putting them on equal footing, just saying they were important. They were all from the last glorious days of Rock before the dark ages of Disco. So don't mess with Frampton and his voice synthesizer - even though it might be one of those thing that you had to be there - I am learning to be an anachronism. And by the way, I never saw the messianic image in the album cover, it just made us all want to have curly hair because the poster hung in just about every girl's dorm room.
    As for ethnocentrism in artistic representations of the divine, yes there are danger associated with cultural representations, but I think that in itself makes a strong statement. That which can be useful can also be turned into a weapon - which is why every tyrant needs to get control of public expression and institutions of learning. The unintended and serendipitous consequence of painting Jesus as someone like me is that it also makes a statement about the nature of "God with us." Check out the hymn "Some Children See Him." And don't you dare go after Pete Seeger.

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  2. Hahahahahahaha, thanks for reading, Pastor Steve!

    I'm not familiar with Edgar Winter, enjoy the relatively little I've heard from Steely Dan and agree that Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" is an amazing, important record. But I cannot get down to Peter Frampton. I dislike his music for the same reason I dislike Dave Matthews Band -- good musicianship but, as far as I'm concerned, lackluster music. But I think even the most jaded music nerds love at least some really terrible music out of sheer sentimental value, and what person with half a heart can argue with that?

    Oh, and I think those "dark ages" you're talking about actually produced some excellent music (in addition to some really awful music, like any genre).

    I will check out that hymn, and I understand where you're coming from. I'm certainly not against the idea of portraying Jesus like he is "one of us" -- truth be told, I once painted a picture on a Tirosh apron of the Messiah playing an electric guitar and flashing a peace sign, even though I'm pretty certain he didn't do the former and would be surprised if he did the latter. But personal expression notwithstanding, I am opposed to the idea of portraying Jesus like any other ethnicity but Jewish. I don't think the image of the Nordic Jesus is directly responsible for anti-Semitism, but it certainly doesn't help, especially when shoved down our throats by various media or -- even worse -- other white people. Forgive me for thinking it was more than a little off for Martin Luther King Jr. to preach the Word of God as filtered through a black church that still had a white Jesus.

    Goodness gracious, I don't dare go after Pete Seeger ... God bless that soft-spoken eternal radical.

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  3. I am speaking on behalf of the Heil Talk Box... It's awesome. It's too bad Peter Frampton had to f*** up its reputation as a guitar effect with his lite-rock. So far my favorite use of the talk box is on the song "Jambi" by Tool.

    ...Do you feel like I do?

    --Greenwood

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  4. HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! Thanks for reading and commenting, Nick! You have no idea how enlightening it is to have a consummate gearhead chime in on stuff like this. And yes, that's a compliment.

    I listened to "Jambi," and Adam Jones' use of the talk box is actually pretty cool, but frankly I wasn't a huge fan of the song itself. I tend to put Tool into the same opinion realm as Korn: Very important bands with compelling, original sounds, but neither band's sound has progressed a whole lot in the span of their careers.

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  5. I went through a pretty solid Tool phase... And have since come out of it. You're right about their sound not really progressing from its original great quality.

    Consummate gearhead compliment taken.

    --Greenwood

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  6. Where the hell are you coming from? Frampton put out some good music. Maybe not that innovative but solid stuff. You sound like a fucking prude, denigrating his music as you have. What's the point? Just trying to draw attention to yourself? Make yourself feel important?

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