Just when I was getting used to the notion of cyber-confessions and
electronic communion from the hip, with-it, now Catholic Church,
I learn an American Roman Catholic newspaper has launched “JESUS 2000,”
a global visual art competition seeking “a face, a persona, an image
that best represents Jesus at 2000.” And they are NOT interested in
bearded Jesus lookalikes, but rather “a Christ consistent with our
times,” for which the
winner will receive $2,000 in prize money.

Yes, a contemporary image of Christ for the millennium. This is
little over a month after the pope challenged artists everywhere to
create more and better religious art by brushing up on the Divine.

What do they have in mind, Jesus in a three-piece suit from Today’s
Man, with a laptop?

They don’t know what they’re getting into, do they? Any idea what
“Art” is like lately? Or artists? Simply put, you can’t trust them. You
can’t control them. They paint what they want to paint. Here’s what I
mean: Like, once, dead famous artist Alice Neel painted a man with three
penises, when he only had one. What a betrayal that was! You just can’t
depend on art to stick to the subject, can you? Current famous artists
Komar and Melamid would probably do Christ as “Burger King of the Jews”
behind the counter of McDonalds, dispensing his body and his blood to
the masses in a sacramental McMeal. You’ll get a Benetton ad crossed
with an Apple computer testimonial. Laptops of the Gods! Don’t
say I didn’t warn you.

Dare I utter the words “irreverent” and “ironic”? In this year’s
Venice Biennale exhibition, for example, Britain’s Gary Hume —
doubtlessly a hubristic, blood-thinned descendant of rationalist
philosopher David Hume — produced several paintings of Mary and the
Baby Jesus using Dulux paint. And the even more self-consciously
outrageous Damien Hirst’s appropriation of “The Last Supper” is a garish
and actionable deliberate mistranslation featuring 13 screen-prints
which reproduce packets of medical pills stamped with the names of menu
items “Omelet,” “Cornish Pasty,” “Sausage,” and “Steak and Kidney”
instead of complex chemical terms. So far, no one has dared to breathe
the title of Andres Serrano’s certainly tasteless and some say
sacrilegious piece, “Piss Christ,” which plunged a Crucifix into a
beaker of bodily fluid, and unleashed a raging controversy about
government-funded art which has yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

And who is this heavily opinionated European artist-dude Andre
Durand, so self-consciously seeking a re-flowering of religious art and
a recapturing of the “great genius” of Michelangelo and Raphael? “The
question is, why is religious painting nowadays so insipid?”
pontificates Durand, who painted John Paul II in 1982 and claims he is
the only artist for whom the pontiff ever sat for a portrait. Moreover,
Durand boasts the pope has invited him back for a further private Papal
audience. Dude!

Judging the National Catholic Reporter’s contest will be,
according to the London Telegraph, none other than Sister Wendy Beckett.
Yes, that Sister Wendy, the British nun and renowned art historian. No
hint of Sister Wendy’s aesthetic tastes, except, according to my
journalist friend Bruce who writes about art for a Philadelphia
newspaper, “She’s amazingly salacious for a nun. She sees sex in
everything, even the blandest painting.”

“Don’t you? And isn’t it?” says Debra, a clever Philadelphia
sculptor. We’ll see, won’t we?

Apparently, Sister Wendy Beckett is an excellent choice for judge.
People love her, and so does PBS, which broadcast her multi-part series
on the history of Western art, “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting.”
Subsequently, Bill Moyers was inspired to engage her in one of those
deep and meaningful discussions he does so well.

But the member of the Notre Dame teaching order of nuns makes for an
unlikely celebrity, doesn’t she. Ever since she began the serious study
of art, in 1980, she
has written a number of books on the subject and hosted other popular
PBS series: “Sister Wendy’s Odyssey” and “Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour.”
Sister Wendy has also written books about meditation, saints, the
nativity, peace, love, and joy. Clearly, she knows much about many

But does Sister Wendy know about the Laughing Jesus? Check it out,
Sis. That was one of the nearly 500 images of Jesus Christ collected by
Greg Webb of Baltimore on his
website. Standouts are
nearly unthinkable paintings of Jesus on a TV console as a televangelist
and also as apocalyptic Road Warrior, or is that Road Worrier? Even more
spellbinding is Clay Fugitte’s free Jesus Christ screen-saver, which has to be the
contemporary equivalent of those compelling paintings on velvet where
the eyes followed you across the room.

Seemingly a sincere soul, Greg Webb brings up some interesting things
about Jesus’ face: “While Jesus lived, no one made a record of His face.
No sketch. No painting. No photograph. The look of Jesus has been
created by man. The face of every Jesus you see was made by someone’s
mind and hand. Famous artists and unknown artists. From different places
and different ages. For almost 2,000 years, the mysteries of
Christianity have inspired artists of every generation. The look of
Jesus emerges from the history of art.” According to Webb’s website,
however, “the
Laughing Jesus image has been removed
from this site as per the copyright holder’s request.”

Recently, several other current artists, including Ann Gertano, have
painted Jesus laughing or
smiling. Finally. For
a change.

“Clearly, Jesus was a man of sorrow,” says my Philadelphia journalist
friend Bruce, who claims to know his Bible and has pored over Scripture
to calculate a 37:1 ratio of the Savior’s sadness to smiles. He had his

There’s a reason for everything, and interestingly enough, the “JESUS
2000” art contest has its origins in Y2K. “When Y2K is raised in
conversation, most people seem to think of computer glitches or parties.
There is little or no mention of what the millennium is fundamentally
about — the arrival, 2,000 years ago, of Jesus Christ among us,” the
National Catholic Reporter’s eloquent Editor Michael Farrell states in
his paper’s announcement of the search for ”
JESUS 2000.”

“In our century,” Farrell writes, “many artists competed to grab
Christianity’s imagination, from the dramatic but pallid works of
Salvador Dali to the intense, brooding art of Georges Roualt. But
finally, at century’s close, no image has been created, or re-created,
to catch the spirit of the age dawning ahead of us. Can it be that the
spirit of the age excludes messiahs and saviors? Or that mainline
churches, wrestling with their various demons, have smothered the
founder? Perhaps that is why our world fails to link the millennium to
the person of Jesus Christ.”

And so, entrants are urged to submit slides
of their “art works
in any and all visual media, including painting, drawing, watercolor,
mixed media, sculpture, photography, stained glass, computer art, silk
screen, ceramic, or other” before the contest’s October 18 deadline.
Information will be posted online in that newspaper
about the contest’s progress. There is, it should
be noted, a $20 entry fee. The newspaper is non-profit.

This call to modernize Jesus’ image seems part of the Church’s larger
millennial upgrade efforts which also included the Vatican going online,
and even the pope calling for a kinder, gentler Satan last winter, and
none too soon, I might add.

So, whether you know it or not, the pope, il papa, has come to
a website near you! Rising, like the Savior, originally on an Easter
Sunday! Such symbolism! To me, this definitely was iron-clad
confirmation that the Internet HAS TO BE not just a CIA plot, but the
work of the Devil. Finally, absolute proof of the existence of Good and
Evil! Boy, was I all agog when the Vatican’s Holy See first unveiled
its own website, powered and guided by
three host computers named after, what else, the angels Raphael,
Michael, and Gabriel. Though Satan was not immediately available for
comment, he was expected by some to reply soon. And has. With one
disaster or another.

The Vatican’s interactive website, I find — to my peril — once I
get there, is divided into several parts. Or am I imagining this?
Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and This Bleeped-Up World of Ours, which is
further subdivided into Missing Sox, Bad Marital Sex, Unpleasant
Shopping Mall Experiences, Lost E-Mail, Puppies with Poo Problems, True
Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion, Waiters with Attitude, Courtships
Thwarted by AOL Glitches, Screen-Frozen Transcripts of Great On-Line
Conversations with Geniuses and Maniacs, AND Budding Cyber-Saints (“VOTE
IN THE CYBER-POLL”!!), besides the usual other cliché bad stuff you
might expect to find the Holy See obsessing about as it navigates its
lane on the information superhighway.

Kind of an anomaly, or is it an anachronism, since apparently the
pope still writes out his speeches in longhand. But now every word he
utters, in public as well as in his sleep, and even his more private
mutterings (“the apocryphal papal ramblings”), plus more than
290,000 boring, droning Church documents and briskly inspirational papal
speeches will be preserved in an electronic vault one wag dubbed “The
Cyber-John.” Just go. You’ll see.

So I did. And wouldn’t you know it, I get stuck there for hours in a
window frozen halfway between Heaven and Purgatory, regretting I hadn’t
told my friends where I was going. Some things never change. There I
was, trapped previewing the pope’s homepage, late for dinner, wishing
and hoping they would be able to figure out what happened to me before
our cyber-supper gets burned! One hour, two hours, three hours elapse.
I count the minutes of my neo-Babylonian captivity. … Finally I
realize this must be an ingenious new millennial church technique to get
techno-converts, or else, and that all I have to do… is turn off my
computer and re-boot.

But I just can’t get out of my mind those images of Jesus laughing.
What a relief. Maybe the world isn’t going to end this year or next,
after all.

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