I recently listened to an interview with Greg Olsen, the Mormon painter famous for his depictions of Jesus Christ, on the podcast A Thoughtful Faith. He talked about the struggle of painting a figure that is at once both universally recognizable and incredibly personal to so many Christians. He said he felt constrained to conform to archetypes of how Jesus is usually depicted so people recognize who it is. To some extent, Christian art must always put Jesus into a box of visual interpretations. Deviations from archetypes in depictions of the Savior can make people uncomfortable, and are even sometimes met with hostility. But why do we insist on knowing exactly what God looks like? Jesus was probably not a tall European American with blonde hair and blue eyes, but we sometimes depict him that way.
After listening to this interview with Greg Olsen, I realized that many of us put God into boxes of our own in our attempts to feel better about our beliefs. How is this possibly holding us back from knowing who God is? These questions could be vital to salvation, because, as the Savior himself said, “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
The Artist’s Depiction of Christ
Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Greg Olsen that I think is informative to the state of mind we should aim for:
“I’ve painted Jesus with blue eyes and brown eyes just to leave the door open for all those possibilities… That’s true in so many things. I mean, not just art. In our spiritual beliefs, I think as soon as we think we know something for sure, that we have the complete story, we just shut the door on anything new coming.”
This kind of open mindset has a scriptural foundation: “Thou fool, that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible… Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word?” (2 Nephi 29:6,8). Within the Church, we usually use this scripture to describe people who are content with the Bible and have no interest in more scripture such as the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants, but we can be just as guilty of being closed off to additional light and knowledge, and assume we have the whole story. It would be a mistake to assume we know and understand everything, or put boundaries on what God will say. In one way or another, whether it’s assuming Jesus was a tall white guy or assuming the Bible is the only valid source of scripture, many of us are guilty of putting God into boxes of our own design.
Certainty vs Faith
The assumption that we know and understand everything can be comforting in a world of doubts. Believing we have all the answers is always tempting. There is a false sense of security in certainty that we often seek, sometimes unknowingly. There is danger, however, in certainty. It puts us at odds with truths yet unknown—no matter the source—and it puts us at odds with those who have truths that sound unfamiliar to ours. God has ways of enlightening people of any faith or background, and it’s possible that if we are too certain about the truths we have, we could close ourselves off to the truths of others or even start conflicts with them, because the certainty that we are always right must mean everyone else is wrong.
Conversely, acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers can be scary. But this is what it means to have faith. It is taking a step in the dark and trusting we will find our footing. It is choosing to believe in something we don’t always understand. Like the artist painting God in a slightly different way every time, we come closer to understanding the truth of the unknowable by acknowledging just how much we don’t know. When we let God outside of a box, we free ourselves.