The first time I watched “Bruce Almighty,” I asked my mom and dad why the man playing God was black. After all, God’s not black…is he? In every image of God I saw, in television, books, and paintings, God was white. As a child, I was susceptible (as most children are) to taking the images I saw as truth. After all, why would they lie? Looking back now, I cringe at my childhood ignorance. However, even more I cringe for society. I cringe at the way our society portrays God to be solely white and only male.
There is no passage in the Bible that says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in utter whiteness and maleness.” Instead, it says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27). This reaffirms God’s lack of gender. Furthermore, scientists have found the first human fossils not in Europe, but in central Africa—Ethiopia to be precise. That would make the first humans black, not white.
If it’s been established that the Genesis passage refers to neither whiteness nor maleness, why is the only image of God a white male with a long bushy beard? These images stem from both subtle and blatant racism and sexism. As white Europeans took control of the Christian church, they shaped God to their likeness. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is only one example of the many portrayals of God as a wizened white male. However, Biblical passages repeatedly warn us to stay away from this image of God.
God cannot be described with any physical aspect of humanity. Numbers 23:19 reminds us, “God is not a man.” He resembles no human form, but is wholly other. He is above comprehension and unable to be put into words.
“And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne.” (Revelation 4:3)
Revelation paints a much more accurate picture of God in the verse above. And yet, why does society compartmentalize God into this white masculine box? Why do we glorify this image of God that is far from true and may, in fact, be harmful to what we believe him to be capable of?
We do this because it allows us to picture God more fully. It’s much easier to picture God using physical characteristics rather than intangible hypotheticals. In our lazy cognitive process, visualizing God as the dominant human group makes sense, since God is power and control.
However, the act of diminishing God to human form cheapens our faith. These characteristics diminish the versatility of God and lead to self-glorification. In making God look human, it makes his otherness less significant and authoritative. It also alienates certain groups of people from experiencing God, feeling as though they cannot connect to this God of European males. An American Presbyterian minister in the 1880s discussed this predicament to his congregation, claiming:
“If He were particularised and localised—if, for example, He were made a man with a pale face—then the man of the ebony face would feel that there was a greater distance between Christ and him than between Christ and his white brother.’ Instead, because the Bible refused to describe Jesus in terms of racial features, his gospel could appeal to all. Only in this way could the Church be a place where the ‘Caucasian and Mongolian and African sit together at the Lord’s table, and we all think alike of Jesus, and we all feel that He is alike our brother’.”
This same reflection can be extrapolated to gender as well. The great classic “The Color Purple” is written from the perspective of a black woman struggling with her faith. As she learns more about life, love, and her faith, the protagonist moves away from the ‘white-washed God,’ in favor of a colorless and sexless God.
“God ain’t a he or a she, but a It. But what do it look like? I ask. Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you cam feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.”
While we, as a society, are slowly moving toward a more representative depiction of God, we aren’t there yet. Movies such as “Bruce Almighty” help to start the conversation on God as more than white and male. It is necessary to continue this discussion and production of non-male/non-white images to finally reach a point of revealing the full otherness of God. Next time you think of God, don’t picture a white male. Picture love instead.