What Did Jesus Look Like?

In the Zoe-Life exploration-course which is “Gleanings from the Life of Jesus,”
I meld insights from my work with Dr. Jim Fleming in the Holy Lands (in the 90’s) with spiritual formation lessons accrued over the last few decades.

Early on (as a way of describing Jim’s approach to the Scriptures and the life of Jesus), I playfully raise the question of “what did Jesus look like?”

We start out acknowledging our inclination as humans to shape life and the things of life – including God – in our own image, according to our own narrow constructs. Here, I employ the following [closing] clip from the 2-hour documentary, The Face: Jesus in Art (2001) as a way of conveying the myriad ways that Jesus has been portrayed – depending on the cultural lens through which he was viewed:


From there, we visit a Popular Mechanics article (yes, you read that right) by, Richard Neave, entitled “The Real Face of Jesus.” (You can download a copy by clicking here.)  Neave, a forensics anthropologist, is renown for his reconstruction of individuals from across the span of history (as, e.g., Charlemagne and Philip II [the father of Alexander the Great]) – based on the engagement of a variety of scientific and cultural sources. (His work was collected and published a few years ago in a book, Making Faces [Texas a & M University Anthropology Series, 1997].)

On the basis of his work (scouring the archaeological and anthropological and cultural records from Jesus’ day), Neave suggests that Jesus (in keeping with typical males of his place and time) was most likely…

  • neaves' jesus5 feet, 1 inches tall (weighing around 110 lbs),
  • short-haired (in keeping with Paul’s words about long hair being a “disgrace” for a man),
  • bearded,
  • more muscular and physically fit (than is often portrayed),
  • having dark skin (that was undoubtedly weathered).

Ultimately, he suggests this portrait of Jesus, right.

Of course, skeptics will rail – and rightly so. There is absolutely no way we can take a few skulls and bones from a given time period and reconstruct the exact appearance of a particular individual from that period. No, I will agree, this is not a picture of Jesus!

However, there is a point not to be lost here: that, without a doubt, Jesus looked a whole lot more like this than he does the majority of ways that he’s been portrayed across time! Yes, we can raise legitimate questions about Neave’s portrait. But, the moment we tender those suspicions, we have to open the door to even more serious and legitimate questions about the majority of ways that Jesus has been portrayed in art and media across time.

As suggested, I’ll use all this as a way of capturing Jim Fleming’s approach to the Scriptures – and the ways it has enriched me through the years: that, like Neave, Fleming resorts to a wide spectrum of sciences and historical-cultural studies to portray Jesus of Nazareth as a first-century Jew in Palestine. Only as he is regarded in this context do his teachings and actions make full sense.

Does Fleming have Jesus “nailed”? (Maybe that’s not the best way to put it!) Absolutely not! However, for myself and so many others, his “rendition” is so much more compelling and relevant and true to the sources that it bears strong consideration and prayer.

Other examples [of the ways that Jesus and the Gospels are filtered through cultural lenses] could be added – to strengthen my argument about the value and importance of what Fleming and others like him bring to the table. (Speaking of “table,” I’ve written elsewhere about Fleming’s discussion of the Last Supper and how it was probably eaten at a u-shaped “triclinium” [three-sided reclining table] – as opposed to the typical straight-line table with chairs and Jesus centered [ala DaVince] that we are typically handed. Jim will go on to speak of the real implications of this setting, together with other Biblical mealtime customs, as we unpack the meaning of eating together at the Lord’s table.)

Eventually, though, in such coursework, we move to some sense of “implications” for our spiritual formation. (God forbid that we should just be about a head trip in the Gospels – apart from a real engagement of heart and soul and strength.)

In our discussion here, the implications – the insights for our spiritual formation — are clear. Whether it’s the question of what Jesus looked like (or what the Upper Room looked like… or any other number of things): we come to the table with all sorts of biases and preconceptions. Some we might be aware of, but most are unconscious and subconscious. Some are “safe” (perhaps) while others [like the Anglo Jesus] are blatantly and unmistakably destructive. Most of them are products of our upbringing and the sub-cultures we inhabit.

Spiritual formation work – i.e., the work of returning home to God and true self and true neighbor – advances with an awareness of these kind of biases, these defaults of mind and heart and soul. Matters of spirit and “truth” need to be held with a healthy balance of respect and suspicion. Yes, there can be no “throwing the baby out with the bath water.” But, at the same time, we need to acknowledge the ways that baby and water can get thoroughly mixed up.

“What did Jesus look like [physically]?” may hardly be a question for many—who consider it a trivial pursuit. For my part, though, it’s a question worth taking on. For on the other side of really engaging that question, we might be in a much better position to confess and to repent of the distorting filters we possess and maintain. And, in doing so, we find ourselves better beholding Him as he really and fully was… and is.

I could (and probably should) leave it here. But, those who know me well (and my quirky sense of humor) will agree that it’s hard for me not to throw out a movie or video clip. Entertaining (at least for me) and relevant to the tenor of this article, then, is this clip from the BBC show Famalam, entitled “There is No White Jesus.” (Here, by the way, I have bleeped out one word – out of respect for those more sensitive to such language.)


Defining Spiritual Formation, Ver 3.0

In several courses I facilitate, first efforts see participants tendering initial definitions of key words and concepts — as, for example, “spiritual formation,” “Biblical faith,” “teaching,” “the spiritual disciplines,” etc.  Such work and ensuing conversations are at the core of the learning-teaching process.

Can’t help but recall here the times I’ve discussed the number of words the Greeks had for what we flatly render “life” and “love” and the number of words Eskimos have for what we Texans call “snow.”1  The more you live with a reality, the better you are at understanding and modifying it.  Has me wondering about our culture’s overindulgence in with some words.  Too, it has me wondering about our relative inability to speak to the things that matter most – like spiritual formation.

Over the course of the last few years, I have taken several stabs at defining “spiritual formation.”

  • Early on in my work here with Zoe-Life, I acknowledged the ways that discipleship could and should be synonymous with spiritual formation.  That is, if it were not for the lamentable ways that too many in church circles have reduced discipleship to a set of programs and outcomes which make for better church members but not for fully transformed lives and living.

    All this had me opting for another definition which avoided the “discipleship” word altogether: “spiritual formation is our graceful pilgrimage to wholehearted life and living.” (cf., the August 8, 2018 post, What is “Spiritual Formation”?)
  • In time, I found myself migrating to another definition – more focused on and centered in the dynamic of our “true self” (“our original shimmering selves,” as Buechner has put it).  In our workshops on the Enneagram and Crafting a Rule of Life, we increasingly found ourselves speaking of spiritual formation as a return journey to our “true selves” in Christ (i.e., the original image of God in which we were and are created).  Here, Merton gave (and gives) some sense of support and foundation: “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
  • spritual formation defMost recently, though, I have found myself gravitating toward another definition.  In a new course developed for BeADisciple (Exploring Spiritual Formation: Mapping Our Journeys Back Home to God), I have come to see the ways that the ancients of our Faith referred to “Union with God” as the clearly affirmed destination of the spiritual journey in and with Christ.  While “true self” can include and assume and subsume this “Union” with God and neighbor, it can (especially on its own) be dangerous and misleading.  In a world too inclined to narcissism, returning to our “true selves” can sound too narrow, too self-serving.  Here, “Union with God/Christ” speaks more clearly and fully of a destination that is good for all – God, neighbor and self.  “True Self” is still there but now situated among other pillars which give it fuller meaning.

And so, I have come to this definition of spiritual formation, version 3:
“Christian spiritual formation
is the Graceful journey
of our coming back home
to God and God’s Kindom.” 
(yes, without the “g”)2 

1Elsewhere, I have written: “Depending on which study or article you turn to, Eskimos have anywhere from 4 to 7 to 50… even up to 100 words (according to a New York Times editorial of a few years ago) for our one word, ‘snow.’ (Anthropologist Franz Boas, for example, mentions four separate Eskimo words for snow: aput (‘snow on the ground’), gana (‘falling snow’), piqsirpoq (‘drifting snow’), and qimuqsuq (‘snowdrift’). While the number fluctuates and debates rage, there is nonetheless a fundamental premise which is rather clear and obvious: language reflects culture, culture impacts language.  Eskimos lives are ‘snow-driven,’ one might argue: a variety of words to define snow (however many that really is) is relevant and necessary for their life and living.  Could it be that our failure to have more than one word for love or time or life (vis-à-vis the Greeks) reflects our culture’s thoughtlessness on these issues?  And could it be that the multiple words we have in our language to modify music styles or body parts has something to say about who we and what we are (or are not)?”

2I first heard this reference to “Kindom” from Rev. Trent Williams of Friends United Church of Christ in College Station, Texas. I appreciate this variation on the traditional “Kingdom”: 1) for the ways it “dances” or plays with that more traditional word, 2) addresses themes of dominance (perhaps oppression?) and sexism embedded/implied in the older terminology, and 3) accentuates the relational/communal qualities of our destination in God.


Preaching with Ken Medema: “Wholeness Beyond Our Brokenness”

With Ken Medema, Feb 2009Among the thrills and highlights of my pastoral (and preaching) ministry was not just getting to meet and visit with Ken Medema, but having him engage one of my messages in song.

For those who don’t know Ken, his is the amazing gift (among many) of hearing a message or a story and then being able to compose (on the spot) a musical response — kind of the Wayne Brady thing (from “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” fame). But, in Medema’s case, there’s an amazing instrumental composition… and very profound spirituality and theology.

And so, mine was the joy of not only getting to meet Ken (someone I first encountered at a World Council of Churches event in 1988) but also getting to collaborate with him— there, in the winter of 2009, when I was serving as Senior Pastor of Strawbridge UMC in Kingwood, Texas.  (That will help you understand Ken’s use of the term “Kingwoodians” in his composition.)

You can engage Ken’s message in music directly in this recording – going to the 28:00 mark:

Background to his composition is found in…

  • the title and text of that morning’s message:
    “Do You Want to Get Well?” (John 5:1-15)
  • a video that I prepared for that service
    (focused on an excerpt from the Velveteen Rabbit):

  • my message proper
    (which starts in the recording, above at the 4:40 mark)

I consider the message (and especially Ken’s composition)
to be most relevant to the days we are now encountering and navigating.
His is an Easter message we need to hear over and over again:
that our brokenness
and the pain of disorientation
and the mess of it all:
these are real, yes.
But, hold on, Friends!
A time of wholeness
and reconciliation
(with God, neighbor, and true selves)
is coming!

Considering the feedback of parishoners back then
(i.e., that Ken’s “second sermon” was, by far, the best),
there’s certainly the message, too:
that on the other side of all our frail constructions,
Grace is there to round things out
and take us home!

My/Our Life in Film: A “Sacred Romance” Montage

SR coverIn retrospect,      I see the ways that my passion for spiritual formation particularly ignited with a reading of Brent Curtis & John Eldredge’s The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God, back in 2001.  No, it’s not real academic in nature.  But, it themes resonated deeply in my heart then – echoing strongly still to this day.

Looking back now, I can see how several of our “explorations” have their roots here (and in attending workbooks and conference audios).  And, then there’s a host of great quotes from others that they share [as, e.g., Buechner’s words about our “original shimmering selves getting buried so deeply”]–nuggets that find themselves playing in a wide variety of our discussions.  They (Eldredge and Curtis) most certainly sent me onto a host of books to read, movies to watch, and listening playlists.

Two explorations especially come to mind as I think of The Sacred Romance:

  • Curtis & Eldredge’s incorporation of cinema and contemporary music in their presentations is clearly the basis of what has become “Reel Theology: Focused Discussions at the Intersection of Hollywood and Divine.”  A basis of the movies we review and discuss in this offering is found in Eldrege’s words:

I believe we need to hold the creeds in one hand and our favorite forms of art in the other. These are films, books, poems, songs, and paintings I return to again and again for some deep reason in my heart. Taking a closer look, I see that they all tell me about some part of the Sacred Romance. They help wake me to a deeper remembrance. As Don Hudson has said, “Are is, in the final analysis, a window on heaven.”  (Eldredge, The Sacred Romance, p. 204)

Act One: God’s Eternal Heart (for Us),

Act Two: God’s Heart/Love Betrayed,

Act Three: God’s Heart on Trial
(with “scenes” of haunting, arrows, and pursuit), and

Act Four: Heaven…

Are these not, in fact, the acts and scenes every man and woman’s journey back home to God?

Let's Go to the Movies (no border).jpgThese two threads came together a few years ago – when I melded some of my favorite movie scenes into a “Sacred Romance” montage.  Admittedly, it’s a bit choppy and jumpy…  Not real polished.  But still, it “works.”

There’s a movement in the progression of the clips (for those who care to follow).  Maybe you can see (or feel) the sequence as you watch:

from first suggestions of the power of story and metanarrative
to our original, innocent beginnings
to a sense of disorientation and alienation and disharmony… being stuck
to a sense of wakening (or the promise of such)
to a sense of finally “stepping out”—journeying, fighting the fight
to a sense that, behind it all, there’s a Love and Truth pursuing
to a sense of triumph and victory and freedom [now and coming]
to a sense of final consummation and coming home

[Click here if you’d like to see a more detailed storyboard for this montage.]

So grab a cup of your favorite beverage.
Kick up your feet.
Enjoy, yes.  (I hope.)
But, more deeply, prayerfully ponder your place in the Sacred Romance.

As you have reactions or impressions, I’d love to hear from you via comments, here below!

Join Me in an Exploration of Spiritual Formation: “Mapping Our Journeys Back Home to God”

In the coming month, I will be launching my newest online course via BeADisciple.com.

ifd238 graphic2.jpg“Exploring Spiritual Formation: Mapping Our Journeys Back Home to God” is a four-week, self-paced course which invites individuals to timeline their faith stories and, then, to compare these timelines with maps and models crafted from a variety of sources, spanning the history of the Church.

The “flow” and foci of the course might be summarized as follows:

Week #



Introductions, Foundational Considerations,
& “An Initial Mapping/Time-Lining of Our Stories”


Establishing a First Map of the Spiritual Journey
* “Awakening, Middle Chapters, and Union” (cf., Wu & Demerest)
* Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds Feet on High Places


Adding More Layers to Our Map
* the “threefold way” (cf., St. Bonaventure et al)
* “stages of faith” (cf, Teresa of Avila & Janet Hagberg)
* “order of salvation” (cf., John Wesley)


Next Steps:
Processing Practical Implications for Our Ongoing Journeys

The goal in all of this is not just to know where we’ve been and where we are, but to have some sense of what’s next… and what we might do to cooperate with the ongoing flow of God and Grace in our lives.

(A fuller course description
as well as a registration/enrollment link
are available by clicking here.)

As is true in so many subjects, analysis has its limits. It’s among the concluding points I make (in the video sample from the course, here below): that data and discussions thereof can be useful, but they are no substitute for experience. Having a map of our “journeys back home to God” can be helpful, but it counts for nothing if there’s no real progress and participation in the pilgrimage and the homecoming.

My hopes, my prayers in and surrounding this course, then,
are that it would go well beyond
a mere feeding of thoughts about the journey.
But, more — oh, so much more:

that it would provide practical wisdom
that facilitates movement and progress
in this “critical journey”

(i.e., Janet Hagberg’s label for this journey of spiritual formation)
–promoting, in each and all,
a desire to step out
more boldly
and joyfully.

As you have a question or or a comment,
feel free to leave one here, below.
Or, feel free to drop me a line at