“Why is Jesus winking at me?” I wondered uneasily.
I had just run a Google search to find an image of Christ I needed for a design project. Among the thousands of results was a picture of Jesus grinning broadly, pointing at the viewer with his right hand and giving a one-eyed thumbs-up of slick approval with his left.
And then I remembered — this was “Buddy Christ,” the pop icon introduced by director Kevin Smith in his controversial 1999 film “Dogma.” In the movie, the Buddy Christ statue is unveiled by Cardinal Glick (comedian George Carlin) as the face of “Catholicism WOW,” a public relations effort to reinvent the church. Cardinal Glick announces that the Church has decided to retire the crucifix, “a wholly depressing image of Our Lord,” and replace it with the “more inspiring” Buddy Christ. Proudly pointing to the statue, he exclaims, “Look at it; doesn’t it pop?”
For this and other reasons, Smith’s film ruffled feathers. Miramax Pictures dropped the movie before its release, leaving a more adventurous firm to distribute the feature. But Smith insisted that his offbeat film was about “the importance of faith, rather than an attempt to ridicule it.” He described Buddy Christ as the “Happy Savior,” adding, “Seriously — doesn’t this beat seeing him nailed up? This is how I like to think of Christ — as a buddy.”
Smith’s vision, though unconventional, was sincere, and his desire to lighten the mood is understandable. Until about 40 years ago, most depictions of the adult Christ were solemn, projecting divine majesty, agonized humanity, or a combination thereof. One notable exception is a 13th-century crucifix from the Castle of St. Francis Xavier in Navarre, Spain. Named the “Smiling Christ,” the carving portrays Jesus as serene, even joyous, in the midst of his suffering.
Yet Christ largely remained unsmiling for another seven centuries, when Willis Wheatley, a United Church of Canada employee, sketched a guffawing savior titled “Jesus Christ, Liberator,” which quickly became known as “Laughing Jesus.” Wheatley’s 1973 picture spawned a genre of smiling Christs that circulate widely in both print and digital form.
We’re now accustomed to “kinder, gentler Jesus” in Christian art. We like to remind ourselves that he ate and drank with sinners and tax collectors. We say that he preached tolerance and seemed like an all-around nice guy. And maybe if we focus on Buddy Christ, rather than on the “dour” and certainly confounding cross, we can draw others to Jesus. This wounded world needs a good laugh. Maybe Cardinal Glick is right.
Or maybe not, and deep down we know it. Even a well-established film distributor like Miramax Pictures balked at Smith’s chummy treatment of the savior. More than a decade after “Dogma” hit the screen, the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Agency banned a British retailer from using a promotion in which Buddy Christ touted “miraculous deals” on Samsung phones. Hollywood still finds Jesus’ suffering relevant; since 2004, Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” has gripped audiences with its graphic portrayal of the Lord’s torture and execution.
So how do we reconcile the joy of the Gospel with the horror of the cross? Kevin Smith concludes that we can’t, and as a result, he struggles in presenting what he calls a “comedy parable.”
That’s because Smith’s definition of comedy is far too narrow. In his article “The Laughing Jesus,” Dominican Brother Gabriel Torretta points out that true comedy is more than “a matter of cracking jokes.” Instead, comedy is “the dynamic realization of freedom and love, especially as they emerge from slavery or hatred.”
Toretta asserts that Christ’s death and resurrection are therefore the “perfect and final comedy,” since they release us from the bondage of sin.
By downplaying Jesus’ passion, we lose sight of Jesus’ true smile and his authentically joyous nature. An uncrucified Christ cannot be the “Happy Savior” that Kevin Smith seeks. Despite the wink and the thumbs-up, death remains unconquered, ready to turn our grins into grimaces of despair.
To answer Cardinal Glick’s question, the 13th-century Smiling Christ “pops” more than Buddy Christ ever could. The savior’s lips are lifted because he fully embraces his redemptive suffering, and “because of his anguish, he shall see the light; because of his knowledge, he shall be content” (Isaiah 53:11).
In the final frame, Buddy Christ is a poor substitute, one whose smile may work a few short-term public relations wonders for a “passé” church, but little else. The true buddy that Kevin Smith and all mankind seek is the one who laid down his life for his friends that they might share eternal life — and laughter — with him.