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Inside NCR

Many faces of Jesus, changing face of church

When NCR launched its search for a contemporary Jesus, two dimensions of the project were uppermost in our minds.

The first was a journalistic question: Considering the resounding lack of emphasis, outside official church circles, on the relevance of Jesus Christ to the upcoming millennium, does this Jesus matter any more?

The short, unscientific answer to that is yes. The reaction in the media, for starters, was as favorable as it was extensive, as if some chord had been struck, some unfamiliar chord, a recognition that many people had been overlooking the essential significance of the millennium.

It is interesting that this outpouring -- approximately 100 newspapers carried the story in a matter of a couple of days -- was overwhelmingly in the secular media, with scarcely a mention in the nation’s Catholic press. This was a surprise.

So the art contest became a topic of conversation, often in what might be described as off our beaten track, from art schools, to prisons, to the homeless on some streets. There are anecdotes to be told but they must wait for another day.

The most important reaction to our challenge, however, took place where artists paint and shoot and sculpt and otherwise imagine and manipulate new concepts into reality.

I confess that at press time I have seen only a fraction of the entries. And even if I had seen them all, I would not be so foolhardy as to comment on their quality.

That takes us to the second dimension of the project: If there still remains interest in the person, the concept of Jesus, what can artists do about it at this pivotal moment in our history?

It may sound easy enough, but to create an artistic image of Jesus 2000 is an immense undertaking. Precisely because Jesus has been, by a landslide, the most popular art subject in history, it’s that much more demanding to reconceive him and give new visual life that can survive and eventually transcend all the usual expectations and win acceptance from a new generation.

Anticipation is already growing. Artists and others have been e-mailing and nudging us at least to disclose the number of entries. They are still being sorted and processed at press time. My own best guess is 1,200 to 1,500 art works from approximately 900 artists.

The entries came from 17 foreign countries as well as the United States, so this truly has been a worldwide search.

At the end of October our preliminary panel of three judges, Patti Wigand Sporrong from Chicago, Cory Stafford from Boulder, Colo., and Sherry Lynn Best from Kansas City, Mo., will meet to select the 10 best works. A week later, Sr. Wendy Beckett, renowned art critic of BBC-TV fame, will pick the winner and three runners-up.

We do not intend to announce the top 10 until everything is revealed on the occasion of our Christmas issue. A supplement will display the winners and as many others of the judges’ favorites as we can manage.

And if I may inject a little commercial here: The Jesus 2000 Christmas art supplement will eventually be available separately at a cost of $5. For those who order it by Dec. 1, however, it will be on sale at the special price of $3.50, which includes handling and postage. But these must be ordered by check or money order only (therefore, no credit cards and no phone calls). The orders should be mailed to NCR, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City MO 64111.

What is a church? What is a Catholic church? Did Jesus have this particular institution, which we now take for granted, in mind when he walked among us? Presumably he intended the church to evolve with time. If not, we have been unfaithful to his wishes as we changed from the year 50 to 100 to 1900 to 2000 -- all A.D., in his name.

The change has been sometimes smooth, sometimes turbulent, it has been gradual or abrupt, but it has been irreversible. Sometimes, when Peter’s barque seems becalmed, as it does, a bit, at the end of this long pontificate, one has to stand back for a fuller perspective.

That’s what the NCR-Gallup survey sets out to do: For the third time, at six-year intervals, a team of scholars has focused its scientific acumen on the U.S. Catholic church. Their findings begin on page 11.

This has been a huge undertaking, and American Catholics owe a great debt of gratitude to those who conceived the project and brought it to completion:

  • William V. D’Antonio, professor emeritus, University of Connecticut, author of many books and articles and lecturer at dozens of colleges and universities around the nation.
  • Katherine Meyer, professor in the department of sociology at Ohio State University, also a widely published author and lecturer.
  • James D. Davidson, professor of sociology at Purdue University, an author who has held many administrative positions in the academic world.
  • Dean R. Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University in Washington, author of 10 books and about 80 articles.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999