When Mortals Play the Divine

I had a very interesting experience this week. An acquaintance of mine who is an artist asked me to pose as his model for Jesus in several scenes he is painting for the interior of a church. My first thought was: I can’t believe this is the first time such a request of me has been made, I mean the similarities are apparent. Ok, so that wasn’t really my first thought. My first thought was: what an intriguing idea. What will it feel like, if anything, for me as an imperfect mortal to pose as deity.

I went to the artist’s studio and posed in various positions while he took pictures. He will then use these pictures of me as a model to place Christ on canvas in the several scenes for which I posed. One pose was especially awkward. He will be painting the moment where Thomas puts his hand into the Resurrected Savior’s side. For this pose I had to open the robe I was wearing to reveal my naked side (part of my stomach and chest). This moment felt very awkward as I bared, obviously a small portion of my body, portraying a scene from Christ’s life.

I began to wonder about the many models and actors through the ages who have either posed as models for Christ or portrayed him in movies. What impact does such playing have on the psyche of us mortals. I am no psychologist, or anything related there to, but for me it had an interesting effect. It felt at times odd and maybe even blasphemous that I would stand in, even as only a physical model, for the Savior. In fact, I left that night with the feeling of my distance from the Savior more present in my mind than it had been for quite some time. I don’t mean that I felt unworthy or sinful exactly. More, I felt like I was very distant from the figure for which I was modeling.

Do we blaspheme when we as the imperfect depict the perfect? I think it completely depends on the circumstances and in what manner we portray deity. Obviously it can have great impact for good, as in Church films and other more sacred media. At other times it can do great harm, as many felt it did in the film The Last Temptation of Christ. But does it also depend on us? Should we have a certain level of worthiness in order to approach the role of deity? Those involved in Mormon film might have some insights into this. For me, I will continue to feel comfortable just being me and leave the matters of deity to those who are in fact deity.


  1. You’ve been posting a lot lately, intern…

  2. HL Rogers says:

    I just do what I’m told …

  3. D. Fletcher says:

    Hey, HL, you need to post some pictures of yourself!

  4. HL Rogers says:

    I’m afraind everyone would be disappointed. As it turns out I was probably simply the easiest stand in for about the height and weight he wanted.

  5. Well, I’m no artist’s model, but it seems to me that since we, along with Christ, are created in God’s image, it would be quite natural in some respect to act as a physical model for the Savior. We might do well to highlight the similarities, rather than the differences, between us and Jesus.

    Acting, on the other hand, is a different story, at least in my mind.

  6. D. Fletcher says:

    No one would ever choose me as the stand-in for Jesus. Too well-fed, for one thing.

    Now Herod. Or Caiphas. Or maybe John, the Corpulant.

  7. J Watkins says:

    I agree with Bryce in both particulars. I’ve never seen a truly satisfying portrayal of Christ in acting. Maybe we as mortals are lacking something of Christ’s character so much that we can never even come close to portraying his true nature. However, standing in as a body double makes sense since he was physically identical to us (right?). Strange as this may sound, having just said the above, I’ve never been much pleased with the painted portrayals of Christ either. Too Roman usually. Or just plain weird. I wonder why it is that people, like myself, never seem to really connect with portrayals of Christ. Anyone out there feel the same way or have any ideas why that may be?

  8. I want to see the open robe photo.

  9. D. Fletcher says:

    I actually like Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings. Yes, he’s very nice looking. But he also has great dignity and warmth. He represents Jesus very well, I think.

  10. Interesting. Perhaps this is an insight to why I prefer abstract representations of deity. As a model, we are simply acting as a tool in the construction of the art. Much the same way a singer in a choir participates. If well done, the art is likely going to be abstract enough to infuse it with the feelings that a mere photo would not.

    Dramatic representations are much more difficult, because they are bound by realism. It is very difficult to obfuscate through abstraction, the shortcomings of the participants.

    And for the record: Catholic Jesus is way better than Mormon Jesus.

  11. D. Fletcher says:

    Dramatic representations can be abstract, too.

    We’ve got a lot of people here who could be Jesus. I’m thinking Mathew, Rusty, Manahi… sorry Steve.

  12. This reminds of the old Mormon myth about the guy that played the Lucifer role in “My Turn on Earth” and after the show, he ended up leaving the church and turning very, very evil. So maybe, H.L., now you’ll become more pious.

  13. Christian Cardall says:

    Rob has a good point, what about the effect on those who play Satan in the most sacred drama we’re familiar with? One of my brothers-in-law looks a lot like one of them, and my Mother-in-law was furious when my wife and I brought it up to her. She insisted we never mention it to him; I guess she was worried it might have some effect, even if he wasn’t the actor, but only looked like the actor!

  14. I agree with J. Watkins when he (she?) said “… I’ve never been much pleased with the painted portrayals of Christ either. Too Roman usually. Or just plain weird. I wonder why it is that people, like myself, never seem to really connect with portrayals of Christ. Anyone out there feel the same way or have any ideas why that may be?”

    Glad you asked; that is the kind of question no one asks, and few would rarely answer, I think. In the context of this thread, however, I think it’s very relevant. In recent years I’ve come to feel very much that the image of the Savior is such a sacred one, there has to be absolute truth in that image. Any shred of a question on the point of “does Christ really look like this,” takes away from the sheer value of what there is to gain. There have been times when I have felt somewhat uncomfortable looking at a picture, which, in reality, I had no idea if it bears any true resemblance. I realize that this is likely not even the point, however, because it still can serve to encourage me to ponder and contemplate. That said, I believe there is great power in the images we create within our own minds, which serve with yet even greater power to touch our hearts and souls.

    You might compare this to the images you created in your minds as you read the scriptures for yourselves the first time, and the power those images might have had on you as your built your testimony. In this modern day of scriptures-on-video for children, where the stories in our standard works are depicted as caricature in cartoons on the screen, I wonder what pictures these children are creating for themselves. Throughout their youth, in the formative years of testimony building, will the story of Nephi returning to Jerusalem with his brothers to retrieve the Brass Plates belong to them, having originated within their own minds and hearts, or will it have come from without, from images in a cartoon?

    While I understand the need to create the images in the likeness of Christ, because it is in our human nature to want and need something concrete to look to in order to ponder, and historically throughout history, in order to worship, I still have difficulty in the disparity between that, and the need to do so such truth and honesty-that we don’t need an outside image. …Do we really know what the Savior looked like? Does it matter? I return to the power that is within each of us to create our own picture and gain strength from that in our own ponderances and contemplations.

  15. H.L. wonders if we “should have a certain level of worthiness in order to approach the role of deity” which, I think, is the most interesting part of his post.

    At T&S someone recently suggested that Richard Dutcher stop considering Val Kilmer for the role of Joseph Smith and instead find a faithful member of the church. When I read that I thought that I would rather see the actor best able to portray Joseph Smith and I didn’t believe that faitfulness to the gospel would turn an average actor into Peter O’Toole. On the other hand, some actors, Daniel Day-Lewis springs to mind, bring such depth to the characters they play because they have gone to great lengths to understand their character and place them in context. It is debatable how much additional insight someone steeped in the culture, practices and doctrine of the church as they exist today would bring to the role of Joseph, but a fervent testimony of the reality of the restoration might give an actor a deeper sense of the urgency, importance and trepidation Joseph felt about his work. [I note as an aside that Val Kilmer's celebrity might be a hindrance to the portrayal of Joseph although I certainly understand his value to the marketing people. Casting James Caviezel, a relative unknown, in the role of Christ made Gibson's movie a more powerful experience, allowing viewers to focus on the portrayal of Christ and not Tom Cruise's portrayal of Christ].

    It is more difficult to portray diety as opposed to a mere prophet because it is harder to approach anything resembling an understanding of diety. Joseph Smith, for all his greatness, was a man made extraordinary by dint of his calling. Christ was a man and He was a god. He embodied his calling and there was no other that could do His work. He was perfect in every way but understood man’s every imperfection, condescended to live among us and to lay down His life to rid us of our imperfections if we are willing. The enormity of what He did is beyond comprehension. In my mind it follows that an artist who would portray Christ should realize that his best efforts are inadequate, but be inspired rather than deterred by that knowledge. I

    ‘m not sure I have a coherent theory of how “worthiness” fits into that formulation other than to recognize our unworthiness but preserve a sincere desire to be a disciple of Christ. Much of my understanding of love, grief, sorrow, compassion, remorse–what we sometimes self-importantly call “the human condition”–have come about via living an imperfect life. Our offerings can additional depth but still find favor though we draw on knowledge obtained in transgression.

    H.L.s worthiness before God as it relates to his adequacy as a model is probably unimportant in the artist’s portrayal of Christ. I’m guessing he is correct in thinking that the artist was looking to use him more for his dimensions than his ability to radiate Christ-like love and compassion. If H.L. were more actively collaborating or pursuing his own artistic vision, I think his understanding of diety would matter a great deal more. As it stands, it sounds to me that he was more a prop.

  16. Aren’t we supposed to be modeling our life after his?



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