By Anthony Casperson
There’s recently been a tendency in storytelling (of all kinds) to focus on having diverse characters. People with different ancestral backgrounds, different perspectives on spirituality, different expressions of sexuality, different socio-economic backgrounds, etc. And if the story can incorporate something of a cultural perspective outside of first-world western culture, it’s considered all the more praiseworthy.
The reasoning that rises to the surface for this tendency is that people need representation. In order for a person to envision themselves in the story, or at least feel as though the story is speaking into their lives, there has to be a character (a touchstone) that is similar enough to them in the story. Thus, it seems that in order for someone to feel understood while interacting with a story, there has to be someone in the story that is somewhat akin to the audience member.
I have no problem with people wanting to be reassured that they’re not alone. After all, I just spent the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas focusing on those who deal with depression, making sure that they understand that their struggle isn’t unique to them. Nor does it remove them from Jesus’ love and atoning work.
But I do have to wonder if we have to hear from someone so like us in order to have a sense of belonging, or even to have a call to growth. Can a story speak to us, can we learn and grow into a better representation of a godly image-bearer, without having to have someone exactly like us? Is racial, cultural, or gender representation necessary before we can even begin to talk about allowing ourselves to participate in the story?
If it is necessary, then followers of Jesus have a real problem when it comes to our Savior. After all, the physical body that the Second Person of the Godhead took on (which we call Jesus) was a Jewish man born in Israel over 2000 years ago. Is the fact that Jesus was a man enough representation for me as an American man in the current year to begin the conversation of whether or not his actions in history can actually speak into my life?
And what about my sisters in Christ? There’s even less similarity for them. Oh, and Jesus never married. Does that mean married people can’t come to learn from him either?
If a representation of similarity is required for us to feel like we’re understood, then the story of Jesus’ life, let alone the rest of the bible, is found lacking. Yet the bible itself tells us that Jesus is able to represent us and understand us precisely because of his taking on human flesh.
Hebrews 2:17 says that the Word had to be made like we humans in every respect so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and the target of God’s wrath for our rebellion against God’s ways. In order for Jesus (God enfleshed in humanity) to be the high priest, the representative of God to humanity and the representative of humanity to God, he had to become as human as any one of us. And likewise, in order for Jesus to take on the just and deserved punishment for our rebellion, he had to become as human as we who rebelled.
And Hebrews 4:15 continues this discussion of Jesus as representative, saying that we don’t have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but has been tempted in every way that we have, and yet was without sin. When it comes our humanness, Jesus is with us on an emotional level. (Sympathy in Greek has the idea of “feeling with” another.) The fact that he took on the flesh of humanity allows him to represent us as human beings. And understand what it is to be tempted to rebel against the ways of God.
But wait. How could Jesus have been tempted to sin in every way that we have? Internet porn wasn’t around when he walked the earth. And since he was never married, he couldn’t have ever been tempted to cheat on his spouse. In his human life, Jesus wasn’t rich, so he couldn’t have been tempted to use his money to step all over the poor.
There are a whole host of specific sins that Jesus couldn’t have been exactly tempted to partake in. And there are a whole lot of people who fall outside of the racial, cultural, and gender background of a Middle Eastern Jewish man from 2000 years ago. Yet the bible speaks of Jesus as being our perfect representative who understands us. Each and every human being who has or does exist, regardless of otherwise-imposed categories.
Maybe we can have representation without having to be exactly like our representative. Maybe there’s something merely in being human that unites us in ways that no form of grouping or tribalism can take away from us.
So, when we come to a story, let’s not ask whether or not there’s a character who looks or acts like we do. Rather, let’s ask if there’s something truly human that speaks into our lives regardless of what that touchstone looks like.
Being human is representation.