Will the REAL Touchdown Jesus Please Stand Up?

This morning the press is reporting on Mother Nature’s destruction of a monumental statue of Jesus which I have always loathed. The 62-foot tall styrofoam and fiberglass sculpture “King of Kings”, located outside the Solid Rock Evangelical Church in Monroe, Ohio, portrayed Christ from the waist up with his arms raised. Last evening it was struck by lightning during a storm, caught fire, and burned. Fortunately no one was injured, and while I am sympathetic to both the symbolic and financial loss suffered by this congregation – and am surprised that they would construct so massive a graven image, given the general tendency among Protestant Evangelicals to eschew such things – it must be said that this is no loss to the world of sacred art.

This figure was popularly known as “Touchdown Jesus”, because with its arms thrown high in the air, it appeared either to be about to catch a football or, in the role of an umpire, to be signaling that a touchdown goal in American football had been achieved. This may be an apt colloquialism given the appearance of the sculpture. However, everyone knows that the REAL “Touchdown Jesus” is at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Located on the south facade of the main Notre Dame library, California artist Millard Sheets’ enormous 1964 composition “The Word of Life” – often referred to, technically incorrectly, as a mural or mosaic – features a gigantic Christ in a 134-foot high composition of colored blocks of various materials. Jesus is shown surrounded by the apostles and by figures whose thought and writing have had a deep influence on the history of Christianity as well as the development of the Western World, including the Old Testament prophets, classical philosophers, and Medieval and Renaissance scholars. Its location along the axis from Notre Dame’s enormous, 80,000+ capacity football stadium means that Jesus can be seen over the north goalpost, his arms raised in a manner indicating that He has called a touchdown. The figure of Christ, because of its appearance and location, quickly became known as “Touchdown Jesus”, and is regularly seen on televised Notre Dame home games.

Truthfully, as beloved as this image is among many of my fellow Domers, it is not a very good piece of sacred art. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it either; though part of this may have to do with the rather bland, puce-toned color scheme against the equally bland, dull ocher color of the unattractive library building itself. Most of the buildings on Notre Dame’s campus are at least partially built of brick made from the local clay deposits, which just so happen to be ocher in color, so at least the architect tried to reference his surroundings in the use of this material.

Certainly “The Word of Life” is better than the tawdry “King of Kings”, which one sincerely hopes will not be reconstructed. Yet because Notre Dame’s “Touchdown Jesus” is a work of Catholic sacred art, and Catholics have a long and glorious history of art upon which to draw, the blame here falls far more squarely on the shoulders of its patrons. This piece is a product of a post-conciliar Church when people like Father Theodore Hesburgh (Notre Dame’s then-President, who commissioned the work) tried to turn Catholicism into something more hip and palatable to non-Catholics, and in the process created, inter alia, all sorts of artistic junk. In this case, the composition is a monumental and, arguably, more competent version of things such as the poorly executed, felt-and-burlap banners which started flapping about on the sanctuary walls of parishes all over the country. It may be said kindly that, at least Jesus is given Jesus status here, in that he is given a powerful presence and not just made another figure in the composition.

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