Contemplations on the Jesus Mural Decision

I look at the Jesus mural differently now.

Nearly six years ago I walked Biola’s campus in daylight for the first time. How could a Bardwell passerby not notice that a thirty-foot Jesus adorned the height of a two-story wall, top to bottom, head to toe? When I encountered the Jesus mural that day, it didn’t stop me dead in my tracks. I knew nothing of the painter. No sense of artistic beauty overwhelmed me. I was oblivious to any symbolic association of Jesus’ presence on a facility dedicated to the study of science. I didn’t even know that was a science building. That day, still a candidate in Biola’s search process, I was unaware Jesus stood alone as the sole piece of public art on campus.

Neither did I see Jesus as European in countenance. I simply saw a prominent mural of Jesus holding out a Bible.

Within my first year, a proposal came across my desk to restore the mural, then fading and flat. Though this was a decision I could make, I knew enough by then it wasn’t a decision I should make. I deferred indefinitely any approval of its restoration, realizing we still had a lot to talk about as a community before any steps would be taken on what to do with the Jesus mural. A bigger conversation was needed about the role of theology, race, art and community. This would take some time.

And we took the time, over two years. We had chapels and panels, papers and articles, impromptu discussions and formal forums. I listened. I prayed the whole community would also listen. And then I made a decision, sharing it with the Biola community in September 2010. Among all the components of the decision I articulated that day, most people wanted to know what I would do with the Jesus mural. My decision was to restore it to its original 1992 quality, inviting back the commissioned artist, Kent Twitchell, to do the work. In the summer of 2011, he spent many days meticulously bringing the Jesus mural back to its original luster, reconditioning it from faded distress.

When I made my announcement to restore the Jesus mural in the fall of 2010, I was long on next steps but short on why. This was, in retrospect, a misstep. Now, twenty-eight months since the decision, I owe this community and the historical annals of Biola the reasons why. I understand more today than I did then on the way in which many members of this community heard my decision, people I deeply respect and who hoped I’d decide otherwise.

So why did I decide to restore the Jesus mural? I want to share some of the rationale with the intent to explain why, but I do this neither to open old wounds nor to revisit the debate or my resolution.

  1. I made the decision because I spent time trying to understand the intent of Kent Twitchell, an artist widely known in Los Angeles (and beyond) as one of America’s leading muralists and grand scale artists. Had Kent Twitchell’s mural repertoire or attitudes in life reflected white privilege or racial insensitivities, the mural of Jesus would have come down. Just as we can read literature in the context of the author’s ideas, so I believe an important way to view art is through the intent of the artist. I was influenced by the fact that Kent Twitchell was careful to use a Jewish model for Jesus and that he never intended the complexion of his art to offend or alienate. As I have talked at length with him, he grieved that an unintended perception of his art had caused dissention on our campus.
  2. I made the decision because when I looked at much of how Jesus was portrayed in art over the years — anything from Rafael’s Resurrection of Christ to Batoni’s Sacred Heart of Jesus to the University of Notre Dame’s “Touchdown Jesus” — he was often similar in complexion to Biola’s Jesus. Historically, the Jesus mural was not an anomaly or meant to be a statement. The face of Kent Twitchell’s Jesus, I reasoned, was no different than how artists have painted Jesus throughout the centuries. I came to the conclusion that the answer was not to repaint Jesus with darker skin and hope the issue would go away. That was not a solution.
  3. I made the decision because I knew Kent Twitchell had conceived and painted another Jesus much unlike our mural. The other Kent Twitchell Jesus, a Latino-faced Christ, was wider by nearly twenty feet than Biola’s Jesus was tall. Spanning the corner of Vermont Avenue and 111th Street in Los Angeles is a brown Jesus, arms outstretched, which has become a piece of art that has fostered reconciliation between rivaling gangs. The artist had more than one perspective of the face of a Jesus mural, not just the Caucasian features on Bardwell’s eastward facing wall. I understood more about the artist as I learned the Biola Jesus was only one expression of how he saw Jesus. Over several conversations with Kent Twitchell, I felt no pressure from him to retain the mural. He trusted me with the decision and would not have stood opposed if the mural were removed or painted over, even though he saw this piece as one of his most important works of art.
  4. I made the decision because I struggled with how to articulate the mural’s removal to those in our broader constituency who love and support Biola because we’re unashamed to have a bigger-than-life Jesus mural on our wall. These included alumni, supporters, parents and trustees, among others. The symbolism of the Jesus mural to many was that Biola remained Christ-centered and biblically faithful. I knew that for them, if Jesus came down or were painted over, it could be seen as Biola moving away from its moorings, even though this was not true. I thought then that no matter how hard I tried to explain why I called for the painting to be painted over, it could be seen as the new president’s agenda to erode our deepest convictions, to head down the slippery slope.
  5. I made the decision against some well-intentioned ideas to take pieces of the mural and move them to other parts of campus and thus to change the mural’s context. Those who made these recommendations I deeply respect, but I believed it would be a discredit and a dishonor to the artist to use his work in a way he had not intended. I gave this some thought and sought counsel, though in the end I could not justify the mural’s amputation any more than I could take a poet’s lines and cut and paste them outside of how the poem was wholly written. For me, it would have to be the mural in its entirety or no mural at all. A piecemeal mural was not an option.
  6. I made the decision because I did not believe the best solution was to remove a piece of art that was uncomfortable to some in our community. Art by its very nature, I reasoned, elicits different responses by different beholders. Is the elimination of art — on a campus already devoid of public art — a reasonable solution to help settle the issue? I did not think it was. Neither did I believe painting over a mural that raises conversation about race and art would rid Biola of stereotypes or attitudes unbecoming of followers of Christ when it comes to living wholly and harmoniously in a multi-ethnic world.
  7. I made the decision because I believed that two years of talking and processing and commissioning papers and formal conversations had jump-started one of the most important dialogues on campus, a dialogue that we had not been having about diversity and inclusion at Biola. I believed then that we were modeling and could continue to model healthy conversations that truly gave each of us insight into one another’s perspective. I had delayed in 2008 a restoration decision in order to foster a spirit of openness on diversity. I believe that was a good decision. I delayed primarily because I listened to the wise counsel of my friend and confidant, Dr. Pete Menjares, who implored me to begin a conversation on the Jesus mural that would be campus-wide and extend beyond a few sessions. By 2010, after two years of discussion, I came to believe that a spirit of openness had germinated and would continue to grow, even with the mural still there and perhaps because the mural was still there.
  8. I made the decision because I thought the Jesus mural could become a teaching place for all of us. Honest discussion about painful issues can and should happen within the Christian community. I hoped that the mural could help us learn to listen to one another and prompt us further to grow together as God’s family here on this campus. Maybe this would happen in the classroom as professors led discussions around the diversity papers drafted or the forums recorded and thereby lead to our general education curriculum integrating learning outcomes toward racial sensitivities, theological differences and the role of artistic expressions in community. Maybe it would happen through the work of the Office of Multi-Ethnic Programs. Maybe it would happen as those with different perspectives sat at a cafeteria table together and in the spirit of Christ-honoring listening would hear each other anew.
  9. I made the decision because I wanted to increase and not decrease the number of pieces of public art on our campus. The weight the Jesus mural carried as the single piece of prominent art was far too much for one painting to bear. I wanted art to flourish and reflect the diversity of people and perspectives on our campus and in so doing take the pressure off Bardwell’s Jesus. I wanted our artists and multi-cultural leaders to collaborate on proposals for additional art, permanent and temporary, sculpture and mural, realistic and abstract. Complementing the structural and landscape beauty of our campus, we were incomplete without a plan for how public art would make this community a richer, more thoughtfully diverse place. And we are getting there! We’ve launched an Art Advisory Task Force. We’ve completed in 2012 the Year-of-the-Arts with all of its diverse expressions. We’ve established a Public Arts Committee broadly representative of the Biola community. We have built the Mosaic Cultural Center.

These nine reasons, among others, influenced my decision — a decision I know was gratifying to many people. But it was also a decision some in this community received with pain. It has taken me these past two years to grasp more seriously the despair and even oppression of my sisters and my brothers who ached because of my decision. They felt disappointed and abandoned.

Alain Datcher, then a student chairing the multi-cultural committee of AS and today an intern in Washington, DC, responded to my decision that September 2010 day before the same full audience. Following my decision, he expressed his pain and said that he would, with his wounded spirit, move forward. I love and deeply respect Alain Datcher, and over the last two years I have thought long and hard about his words that day and the honest courage with which he spoke them. His voice has not gone away from my memory, and neither have the voices of others who were hurt by my decision.

The Holy Spirit continues to prompt me about how I need to be more aware and how we need to be more intentional about understanding those in this community who have felt discrimination or those whose families for generations have been overcoming difficult and painful stories.

I have been prompted recently by listening to the Diversity Leadership Committee reflect on how members of the Biola community continue to face challenges since the Jesus mural decision. During that meeting and at other times, I listened attentively to Glen Kinoshita and Deborah Taylor, Ivan Chung and Armida Bustamante, Tamra Malone and Dorothy Alston Calley and Matthew Hooper. These have been educational moments for me. I have been prompted by listening to Dr. Doretha O’Quinn as she patiently unpacks my questions with the insights I do not have and the grace I need. I have been prompted by spending an evening in February under the direction of Biola sociology professor, Dr. Deshonna Collier-Goubil, watching the documentary Slavery by Another Name. I’ve eagerly attended Spoken Word chapels, hearing diverse voices in compelling delivery and knowing that through them the Holy Spirit has spoken to me.

I have been prompted numerous times these past two years sitting in LA restaurants with Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, one-on-one and friend-to-friend, going deep with my African American brother on the challenges of our lives. I have been prompted by Dr. Brad Christerson’s chapel panel challenges for Biola’s administration to ponder more deeply the diversity of this community. I have been prompted by reading this month a moving blog called “The Other” by Biola trustee, Rev. Bryan Lorritts, who stood up against insensitive comments by a Christian leader on the issue of race, telling the poignant story of his great-great grandfather who worked as a slave on the plantations of Asheville, North Carolina. In his compelling words, Bryan expressed his deep sorrow at the extreme insensitivity of Christians — and especially Christian leaders with national platforms — over the injustices done to African Americans under the banner of the Gospel.

I began this essay saying I look at Jesus on Bardwell’s wall through a different lens than I did six years ago. The way I once saw the Jesus mural is not how I see it today. I don’t see Jesus on the side of Bardwell Hall with some passive dismissal as I did when I first arrived. I don’t see the Jesus mural as a necessary statement to our fidelity to Christ-centeredness and Scripture. I see the mural as the source of important conversations on our campus about where we are and how to move forward.

And I don’t look at the mural the way I did when I made a decision in 2010.

Today when I pass the Jesus mural and strain my neck to look up, I feel more of the sorrow of my brothers and sisters who struggled to move on after my decision. I think more about how much these students — many of them students of color — have overcome in their personal lives and the lives of their forefathers because people of power simply didn’t respect their personhood or understand their journey. In this nation, history reminds us that people of power, and even the Christian community, have been terrifically unjust not only in their blatant discrimination but also when they didn’t try to see the world through the eyes of the marginalized and oppressed. We at Biola University have not always done a good job welcoming and celebrating our diversity even while we believe without reservation that the family of God holds us together as sisters and brothers.

At Biola, when intentional discrimination, painful language or passive dismissal of the other has occurred, during my time or prior, I repent and seek forgiveness. I repent for when someone snubbed another’s perspective of the Jesus mural as being overly sensitive or trying to grind a racial axe. The intent of those who find the mural overbearing and repressive is not to make a political point. I repent for when we became defensive and did not listen to the voices in the community who love Biola but were uncomfortable and wished others would know that certain words or images make them feel like they don’t belong here. I repent for when we thought that just because we were not actively discriminating we were doing the right thing. I repent for those of us living comfortably in a community while unaware others were struggling to help us see that true community is far richer and broader and more beautiful than we had thought. For these and other offenses and omissions, I repent and seek forgiveness.

Unlike my brothers and sisters of color, I don’t know what it’s like to see a Jesus that does not look like me on a campus that does not look like me and then ask, “Do I belong here?” Over the past few years I have begun hearing others more clearly, hearing through the stories of those who were hurt by the decision, that this mural — despite its noble intention — is an image of alienation. I know that many moved on after I made my decision, some happily and others determined not to let this derail their commitment to Biola. I am living with my decision as well, living in a more subdued way than I had thought.

On April 15, we are opening the Mosaic Cultural Center at Biola University, a restorative place for diverse conversations. It’s located on the west side of campus, a hundred or so yards from the Jesus mural. Like the Jesus mural, may this center be a place where conversations, education and community-building occur with the aim of living into God’s kingdom priorities. Unlike the Jesus mural, may these conversations be held in a spirit of celebration and not a spirit of opposition. May the Mosaic Cultural Center be a place where all God’s children are welcomed.

I was moved by what Dr. O’Quinn shared with me recently — a sister to whom I turn for clarity, candor and counsel. Graciously and wisely, she gives me all three. This is what she said, in the context of our conversation about the Jesus mural. “We recognize in our doctrine that we believe in the Triune invisible God, and he is the only one who can free us from oppression. He is not to be the symbol of the power of oppression. He is the source of power and freedom from oppression. Therefore the art cannot cause us to succumb to a message that divides us. It can move us to begin the dialogue around ways to leverage our differences and make them opportunities for bridging relationships and strengthening community.”

I invite this community to move forward together, though some of us are still hurting and others are unaware. The hurting need restoration and the unaware need awakening from benign indifference. We need to have new and ongoing conversations about who we are as a community of diversity. I pray that the Mosaic Cultural Center will be a safe place for dialogue, open for all of us to know and respect one another at a deeper and more Christlike way. But I also call this Biola community to engage intentionally in these conversations on diversity beyond the walls of the Mosaic Cultural Center, engaging throughout our curriculum, in special lectures, through chapel programs and in residence life. After all, it is the biblical way of living, and Biola — of all places — should lead this way. And as we do we will be moving to become more than ever a university that reflects the breadth of God’s people.

We are a community with diversity of complexions and sexes, economic standing and family backgrounds, status and abilities, denominations and nationalities. We are all created in the image of God and redeemed to live lives of reconciliation. Though I, Barry Corey, have come a long way, I have a long way to go. As members of one family, we have some work to do, as is true of any family. We need to listen more. We need to invite ourselves into one another’s stories more. We need to embrace each other’s God-given dignity and worth as we live in unity and as we celebrate our diversity. The mosaic of this community is a beautiful thing, and our differences are worth celebrating, not stereotyping or overlooking. We are citizens of God’s kingdom, each unlike the other but all with innate beauty and eternal value.

I want to see these conversations continue formally and informally, in the Mosaic Cultural Center and in other venues, large and small. I cannot shoulder the “burden of initiative” to make these conversations happen. But I promise to join in the dialogue, hoping my presence helps and does not hinder. I do care. I want polarizing attitudes on diversity to end. We must learn to live actively, caring about each other and willingly committing to an ongoing conversation where there is no finish line.

A dear colleague shared with me a simple prayer, knowing that I have struggled through the personal consequences of the Jesus mural decision. “The prayer for us all,” she prayed, is “Lord, let your kingdom come. Your will be done. And may it be accomplished here on earth as it is in heaven…and may the world know that we are your disciples by our love for one another.”

March 19, 2013