What you need to know:
- He has dominated all genres of art in the last 2,000 years, having featured in films, books, artworks and comics and, most recently, an avalanche of memes.
- There’s virtually no dimension of popular culture that’s untouched by him; understandably so, as he’s the most famous man believed to have ever walked on Earth.
If he were alive today, Jesus Christ would perhaps be the highest-grossing celebrity in the world, dwarfing such Hollywood bigwigs as Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock and Will Smith, and personalities such as Kylie Jenner, Cristiano Ronaldo and Barack Obama.
Few characters in the history of humanity have been portrayed in as many roles as Jesus of Nazareth — from a royal to a superhuman, a talk-show host, nerdy priest, fashion icon and tech whizz.
He has dominated all genres of art in the last 2,000 years, having featured in films, books, artworks and comics and, most recently, an avalanche of memes.
There’s virtually no dimension of popular culture that’s untouched by him; understandably so, as he’s the most famous man believed to have ever walked on Earth.
Unlike other characters who fall into disuse after decades of appearances in art, creators’ fascination with the Son of Man appears to be whetted every decade. He’s the equivalent of today’s Hollywood actor that every director wants to feature in their work.
The image of Jesus is recognisable all over the world, and few, if any, names have been mentioned more times. It is, therefore, easy to understand why he has been called “Pop Christ”, with a following around the world of nearly cultic proportions — among both Christians and non-Christians.
The Da Vinci Code, Passion of Christ and the Bible all tell the story of this man. Walt Disney’s Simba story draws exciting parallels with experiences of Jesus and his troubles during his short life on Earth. According to producer Don Hahn, Simba was “framed for [a] terrible murder which wasn’t his fault”, the same way Jesus was betrayed and crucified for sins he did not commit.
In music, Jesus features in Kanye West’s 2004 album The College Dropout in a song titled ‘Jesus Walks’. There’s even a genre of music called Jesus music, believed to have originated from the United States as part of the Jesus movement.
In the 1960s and ’70s, hundreds of hippies and street musicians converted to the Christian doctrine, taking with them their heavy metal style of music across the divide, but with lyrics infused with messages from the Bible.
Larry Norman, Randy Stonehill and Randy Matthews are some of the popular artistes associated with this genre that’s today commonly known as “gospel music”.
In fashion, the Jesus factor has been a regular since the 1950s. His image has been printed on different types of jewellery and clothing, from sweatshirts to caps, wrist bands and even underwear, some bearing side-splitting memes such as “Jesus is Watching”, “Are you there, Dad?” and, in reference to his teetotal life, “I’ll just take a water, thanks”.
In 2004, for example, American clothing line Urban Outfitters released to the market — and to startling success — a series of Jesus-themed apparel. Among these were T-shirts named “Jesus is my Homeboy”, which were publicised by Kanye.
But it’s the rosary, complete with the crucifix, that is perhaps the most recognisable object bearing the image of Jesus. Whereas it is considered a sacred symbol of prayer by Roman Catholics, it has also been worn as a fashion statement by billions of people around the world — royals and rogues, saints and sinners — for hundreds of years.
In matatus in Kenya, Jesus’ image is common, with popular quotes such as “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” and “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”
Sometimes, though, creators have taken the story of Jesus a little too far, often depicting him in hilarious and outright unlikely situations. One popular meme depicts Jesus hosting his disciples for dinner during the Last Supper, where he asks each of them to foot part of the bill.
In a far more scandalous rendering, Jesus is seen sharing a joint (roll of marijuana) with Peter and John after prayers in the mountains.
“Damnit! You got my weed wet,” another says, referring to the incident where Jesus saved Peter from drowning when the latter attempted to walk on water.
So, what makes this man so popular among creatives more than two millennia later? Scholars argue that it’s the compelling nature of the life and times of Jesus that makes him so popular.
According to the folklore of the New Testament, a baby was born in what was a middle-class, ordinary Jewish family and raised like other ordinary children of the time. He grew up to become a leader of the Jews, performing miracles and other wonders amid fierce opposition from Jewish religious leaders. After living a life of popularity and divisiveness, Jesus died “to save mankind from sin” and to bring them closer to God. Two millennia later, this storyline still fits the bill of a script for an epic movie.
Jesus was a revolutionary. His gospel focused on forgiveness of sin and love, and sometimes defiance of authority, which put him at cross-purposes with teachers of law, but endeared him to the masses.
Indeed, Austrian author on Christian faith Kurt Malhburg describes Jesus as “the middle-class moralist, the enlightened guru, the hellfire preacher, the social justice warrior”.
To understand Jesus, you have to look no farther than Superman. Jesus, while born of Mary on earth, is the Son of God (a member of the Holy Trinity), and came from heaven. Superman came from Krypton, an outer world. Both are raised by “lesser” families, with Jesus’ father, Joseph, having been a carpenter from the unremarkable town of Nazareth. Upon landing on earth, Superman is raised by an ordinary and humble family in a small town in Illinois.
Both go by a number of names, with Jesus assuming titles such as Saviour, Messiah, Son of Man and Emmanuel. Superman is known as Man of Steel, The Last Son of Krypton and The Man of Tomorrow.
Both are dedicated to fighting for truth and justice and against evils in the world, causes which they stick to in a doggedness never seen on earth before. Jesus proclaims himself “the way, the truth, and the life”, Superman’s relentless mantra is defence of “truth, justice, and the American way.”
Pop culture pundits argue that Jesus must have been a nerd — or that all Christians are, at least. He stuck to values of love and compassion nearly as geekily as he believed in his mission to bring redemption to humanity. More than 2,000 years later, Jesus’ influence grows stronger.
As Christians around the world celebrate Christmas today, the man who they believe brought redemption to them will certainly feature in one or other form of art.