Popular culture plays an important role when young Swedes interpret the figure of Jesus in new ways. This is the conclusion of a new thesis in religious studies from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
In recent decades, images of Jesus that differ markedly from traditional images have created debate and stirred up strong feelings among both Christian groups and individuals. One example of this is Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin's "Ecce Homo" images. Muslims also distanced themselves from Ohlson Wallin's images.
Marie Fahlén has interviewed sixteen high-school pupils from a variety of faith backgrounds (Christian, Muslim and non-believer) regarding their interpretations of nine images of Christ.
"The images were chosen in an attempt to reflect the contemporary breadth of interpretation, taking in both traditional images and those that could be perceived as provocative," says Marie Fahlén.
The study illustrates how young people interpret the images on the basis of differing understandings of the Jesus figure: Jesus as Christ, prophet or historical personage. The young people provide a broad spectrum of various interpretations. The symbolic interpretation interacts with the literal interpretation. A literal interpretation refers to the historical identity of Jesus. One example of this is an image in which the face of Jesus is blended into Alberto Korda's famous Che Guevara image.
"Many young people perceive this image as an attempt to popularise Christianity or as a criticism of religion. It shows that people often expect a traditional image of Jesus."
In their interpretations, the young people often refer to expressions in popular culture such as films and TV series, primarily films such as Mel Gibson's "The Passion Of The Christ" (2004), but also to images in other media and to social debates concerning religion and issues of authority.
While interpretations are broadening in relation to a Christian theological interpretation, the young people express clear expectations of what Jesus ought to look like in line with a more traditional interpretation. Expressions of popular culture often seem to reinforce this kind of traditional understanding. At the same time, the symbolism has new implications when Jesus is perceived as a hero or champion for good in the fight against evil.
"An important conclusion is that the authoritative church interpretation is being challenged in the present day by new applications of Christian symbolism, and this is also revealed in my study," Maria says.