How Jesus 2000 Grew Wings, Keeps on Flying

By Farrell, Michael J. | National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

How Jesus 2000 Grew Wings, Keeps on Flying


Farrell, Michael J., National Catholic Reporter


The refusal of God, despite all the prophets of doom, to die

Last summer, as we prepared to launch NCR's art search for Jesus 2000, I speculated one pessimistic morning that we might get all of seven entries. I was wrong, as certain people have not allowed me to forget. What threw me off was the unpredictability of the human imagination. And the refusal of God, despite all the prophets of doom, to die.

Jesus 2000 has by now become a household word in a good many households. The winning entry, Janet McKenzie's "Jesus of the People," has been on TV and the Web and in hundreds of newspapers across the country and far beyond. But behind that image was an odyssey, a seat-of-the-pants process, we searchers making it up as we went, like pilgrims with latter-day Canterbury tales, with a few key players and a motley supporting cast that got into the spirit of the thing, and together we all turned Y2K into J2K.

Welcome, then, behind the scenes.

How the search began

It started with an abrupt dawning of awareness that in the transition from one millennium to another there was scarcely a mention of Jesus Christ outside official church circles. So the project in the first place was a test of public opinion, or rather private opinion. Behind the silence did anyone care?

Our reporters could have resorted to the phone and called the usual suspects for comment. Instead, the art contest presented itself. Even the most abstract thinkers rely largely on visual art for their concept of the divine. If no one had ever invented art, perhaps we would know transcendence through our sense of smell or through direct intuition. As it turned out, pictorial art and Jesus have gone hand in hand for centuries. Someone once said that art is the research and development aspect of a culture. If there were no artistic response, this would tell its own tale about Jesus' prospects for the road ahead.

Fr. Michael Coleman of Kansas City, Mo., put the project in perspective: "It is not often -- I can't think of anything similar -- that the religious imagination of the people is explored and documented at a given historical moment, and specifically regarding the person who lies at the heart of the Christian movement."

We invented rules, making it up. We were prepared to put modest money into what now seemed an adventure, until advisers said we should charge an entry fee without which serious artists would not take us seriously. Some begrudgers have accused us of making a bundle -- the word scare was mentioned -- but I'm sorry to tell them that when all was said and done and paid for, it's a modest bundle.

Girded with news releases, we wondered where to send them. We drew up a list of college art departments, but in August all sensible art students are off on golden beaches. We sent stuff to the top 100 papers, but most art editors dropped the artistic ball, except for a few inspired exceptions, especially Christopher Hume of Canada's Toronto Star. The feature included a traditional painting of Jesus, which leaped out from the page in an odd way, presumably because we are unaccustomed to seeing Jesus on Page One.

Other Canadian media followed suit. I spent hours on radio talk shows explaining and defending and figuring it out. But this excitement was slow to trickle south into the United States.

Then, as she made the salad one evening, my wife casually suggested we get Sr. Wendy Beckett, the art historian celebrated for her several BBC series and elegant art books, to judge the contest. It was an inspired idea. Finding the otherwise reclusive Sr. Wendy became a saga. That she agreed to do it seemed little short of a miracle. "This is the only sensible millennium idea I've yet heard," she wrote (she has the most illegible handwriting imaginable, but the entire newsroom went to work on her letter until we figured it out). I tried to make the task easier for her by asking only that she look at the top 10 slides -- never mind that, at the time, we had-no slides at all. …

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