Today I fielded a call from a reporter at the student newspaper looking for a religion professor who could help her interpret the “Touchdown Jesus” statue. I hadn’t heard of this until she asked about it; apparently it’s located on the other side of our county. Was located, I should say; it burned down a couple of years ago. The church that erected it has announced plans to build a replacement.
I tried to explain to the student reporter that the question, “What does the statue mean?” presupposes that it has one meaning, whereas it’s in the nature of public art that while the people who put it up may intend it to mean one thing, they can’t control what it will mean to passersby. That problematic is especially relevant in this case, because the church has apparently announced (so the reporter told me) that the replacement statue will have a different design. As she explained it to me, the new statue will show Jesus’ entire figure, and his hands will be outstretched toward the passing highway, not uplifted to heaven. I read that shift as a sign that the church was unhappy with how the old statue ended up being interpreted–i.e., they didn’t appreciate the “Touchdown Jesus” moniker. (Officially, the statue was called “King of Kings.”)
Anyway, with the caveat in place that the statue doesn’t have just one meaning, I offered the student some possible evocations that I thought the church might intend, based on precedents in Christian art and scripture. According to the reporter’s description, the new statue will be standing on pillars in the water; perhaps, I suggested, that was meant to call to mind Jesus walking on the water. The association with water might suggest Jesus as the “waters of life.” (I’ve since learned that the pond serves as a baptismal font.) The old statue, I told her, did strike me as unusual, since I’m more used to seeing Jesus depicted in sculpture with arms stretched out (as if on the cross) or down (displaying the wounds, reaching down to the viewer). The uplifted arms seemed to suggest that Jesus was reaching up to God–perhaps receiving power from God, thus becoming a model for the Spirit-infused believer.
I suspect I told her way more than she’d wanted–I have a way of doing that. She probably just wanted a simple iconographic key: this equals that. One meaning, neatly decoded.