The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Jesus is More Unknown the Immediately Recognizable

Is Jesus more unknown God than immediately recognizable Cultural Jesus?

by Russell Rathbun

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31

For Sunday, May 29 , 2011: Year A – Easter 6

House of Mercy, the church my friends and I started, has always worshiped in other congregations’ sanctuaries. About two years ago we moved into a new space. At the front of the sanctuary, elevated behind the altar is a three-quarter scale stone statue of Jesus. I recognized him immediately the first time I saw it, not just because of where he was standing, but because I know what Jesus looks like.

I Recognize Jesus

I have seen images of Jesus all my life, in picture books, paintings, statues, carvings—sometimes he has a beard, sometimes he is clean shaven, sometimes his hair is cut above the shoulders other times, well below. Sometimes his arms are down, palms open and other times his arms are raised in a gesture of blessing or a “What-are-you-gonna-do?” shrug—it is hard to tell. Sometimes he is playing hockey, but he is always recognizable. For some reason the robe seems to be a constant. So, yes, I recognize Jesus. I would recognize him on the street; I could pick him out on a crowded dance floor.

But, of course, that really isn’t what Jesus looks like. That Jesus that I recognize—that I am pretty sure we all would recognize—is our Cultural Jesus—Instantly Recognizable Cultural Jesus.

144 Bathers

Before House of Mercy held it’s first worship service in that space, we commissioned our de facto Liturgical Artist in Residence, Jim Larson, to make a large painting that would cover the statue of Cultural Jesus. What Jim created was a five by eight foot triptych called 144 Bathers. It presents multiple images of Jesus and symbolic representations of God. It is made up of images that are held in tension—there is darkness and light, pain and joy, the gaze of shame, the gaze of desire and the gaze of mercy.

We mean no disrespect when we cover the statue of Immediately Recognizable Cultural Jesus with 144 Bathers. House of Mercy has always hoped to explore an image of God in Christ that is complex, baffling, challenging, but always full of love and mercy. As I know many churches do.

The Unknown God

We want to be reminded that the Jesus that is easily recognized—or that we assume we readily know, might be more of a cultural projection than blessed assurance. When Paul stood in Athens and pointed to the statue to the “Unknown God” and declared that he knew who that was, he was making a very powerful claim. This act could be seen as religious/cultural appropriation, or acquiescence, or a very interesting assertion that this Jewish Jesus also is contained in the “Unknown God” of the Greeks. Perhaps we need a little more of the prophetic word that moves us to confront the stature of Cultural Jesus, to point to it and say, “Now that—that’s the ‘Unknown God’.”

The Hardest Question

Is Jesus more Unknown God than Immediately Recognizable Cultural Jesus?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Christian says:

    Ok…this post got me thinking about the brouhaha over the St. Nicolas statue(s) in Demre, Turkey a few years back! Check it out: &

    Sorry if this is off topic, but it’s another illustration of the power of something that’s an Immediately Recognizable Cultural thing to obscure of reality and significance. The mysterious nature of the “unkown” has more value than any overtly graphic “known.” At least “known” in the sense of foolishly apprehended. As if the readers of THQ needed any more reminders of this…

    …I apologize if I’m being overly obvious.

  2. Marianne P says:

    Christian! great link! You use the word obvious like its a bad thing…thanks so much. Marianne

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