It is helpful to think of the gospels as theological portraits rather than historical photographs of the life and teachings of Jesus.
This lesson was learned from working with students in introductory courses in biblical literature over the years.
This enabled us to see in them not only the subject (Jesus) but also the perspective and experience of the “artists” (the developing faith of the early Christian community).
While such portraits may not give us the kind of factual precision we might like to have (as a photograph would do), they offer a special kind of “more” in that we see not only the likeness of the subject but also the relationship of the artist to the subject.
And it is that relationship that the gospels invite us to embrace.
This distinction has come to mind as the current drama on the political stage has unfolded before us.
We have before us candidates and policy proposals that are vying for our attention and our affirmation, and the contest is gearing up toward a kind of “November Madness” between the “final two.”
There is nothing really new about the process itself; this is the way we have selected our national leaders for many generations.
What seems to be evolving with increasing intensity is a kind of “dueling portraits” scenario, where carefully crafted portrayals of candidates and policy positions are presented with the assumption that we will embrace whichever portrait best fits the thoughts, uncertainties, anxieties and opinions we already have.
Campaigns naturally present the most positive picture possible, with varying degrees of factual accuracy, in a hope to “sell” the candidate to the target public.
On the other hand, opposing media outlets and pundits of all stripes present a “demonized” portrait in an effort to cultivate a negative impression that will outweigh whatever positive assessment might be warranted.
Again, factual accuracy and broader perception seem to take a back seat to the more important mission of image manipulation.
As with the gospels, these portraits reveal to us at least as much about the “artists” and image-makers as they do about the subjects; careful discernment is needed to distill what kind of “truth” we hope to find beneath their surface.
But there is a key difference.
The gospels’ portraits are the substance of the faith experience of those whose lives were transformed by God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ.
By contrast, these dueling portraits seek to obscure the “real” person in an effort to control both thought and behavior in support of particular ideologies and policies – all for votes and the consequent power they make available to serve the artists’ purposes.
I am troubled by the assumption that I will embrace whatever portrait appeals best to my fears and prejudices (maybe I should be more troubled by how accurate that assumption might be).
I hope that I will respond to an appeal that calls for a higher level of thought and commitment to what will best serve the needs of our tremendously diverse and complex society and its place in the world.
In an effort to get to the “truth behind the portrait,” I wonder if there is a way to clarify the “persons” (and policy proposals) as distinct from the “portraits” that are speaking with increasing volume.
Maybe the faithfulness of a portrait to the person who is its subject can be evaluated by the adage from the Sermon on the Mount, “By their fruits you shall know them.” (Matthew 7:15-20)
Because we recognize that there is a difference between the portraits we see and the person who is their subject, perhaps we can discern whether to embrace a portrait by looking at the fruit it produces.
Does it draw out the best of who we are as individuals and as a people, or does it encourage and embolden our “lesser selves” to assert our voices in ways that work against the kind of community that is necessary for us to thrive as a people?
The gospel portraits cultivated an early Christian community and produced fruit that led church father Tertullian to observe that the Romans were struck by their lifestyle: “Behold, how they love one another!”
Another church father, Justin Martyr, observed, “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refuse to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”
Paul’s earlier clear contrast between the “fruits of the spirit” (Galatians 5:16-25) and their opposites is a good reminder that “discerning the spirits” (1 John 4:1) was a challenge even for the earliest Christians.
Maybe there is some practical value in “judging the fruit” as a way of making decisions on which portrait to embrace and respond to. The “fruit” is certainly out there for us to see and examine.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).