Recently, the California State Assembly passed a law requiring schools to incorporate media literacy standards throughout multiple subjects in grades K-12. 

The goal? To combat “fake-news” by equipping students “to confront questions about the moral obligations and ethical standards regarding what appears on social media networks and digital platforms.”

With the Advent season upon us, I would add that Christian educators consider the same “moral obligations” in teaching biblical thinking skills to confront the “fake theology” prevalent in the imagery found in so many of our schools. 

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Take, for example, our celebration of Christmas. 

Several years ago, when I was leading a multi-racial school community, I was saddened to discover how erroneous my Christmas decorations were. Preparing to decorate my office with traditional Christian ornaments, I noticed for the first time how my manger scene was not biblically accurate — from Joseph and Mary to the Angel Gabriel, to most importantly, the baby Jesus.

It was humbling to admit this blind spot to my colleagues of color — especially considering that I had been teaching a class for years that addressed these types of unbiblical images. 

And for those who may consider this a woke exercise in critical Christmas theory — it was not.

It was realizing for the first time that my decor was ironically a White Christmas and not biblical at all. As I took out my Nativity books that I had read to my children for years, I was faced with the same reality — images of the holy family in my image — not those of Middle Eastern Jews. 

As our nation grows more culturally and racially diverse, it is important for Christian teens today to understand the impact false images can have on their beliefs and their generation. 

Reformer John Calvin recognized the gravity of this error in his day too: “A true image of God [the Father] is not to be found in all the world; and hence … His glory is defiled, and His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever He is set before our eyes in a visible form.”

While that makes sense for God, the Father, what about the image of God’s Son — “the image of the invisible God” who we celebrate coming into the world at Christmas? 

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Even though Christians recognize Jesus as Immanuel (which means, God with us), the Gospel writers never describe his physical appearance. Furthermore, while unbiblical images of Jesus as a baby may be a stumbling block to some, I have found the depictions of him as an adult to be much more problematic. 

As I share with my students, I never thought twice about the pictures of Jesus that I grew up seeing because they reflected my image — from Renaissance paintings to the ubiquitous “Head of Christ” by Warner Sallman. 

But that view dramatically changed in my early 30s, when I saw the Disney film “Ruby Bridges.” 

The powerful true story of the civil rights icon, Ruby Bridges, was the first African American student to attend her all-White school in New Orleans, La. The film portrays the horrific racism and hatred the 6-year-old Ruby experienced each day from an angry mob of White men, women and children, as she entered her school. 

In a poignant scene where the parents are debating whether to keep Ruby in the school, the camera turns to Sallman’s portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall. When the mother seeks time to pray to God about their decision, the father holds up Sallman’s work and declares, “She’s got it in her head that White folks are better than colored.”

“What’s that got to do with Jesus?”, the mother asks. 

“Ain’t nobody really knows what He looks like,” the father responds. “But when she sees this every day, that tells her God looks more like them White folks outside her school than her.” 

Thankfully, with the help of her parents, Ruby is given a biblical view of Jesus. Her deep faith in Jesus sustains her and allows her to persevere through the horrible treatment she receives from her community — praying for her verbal attackers every day and echoing Jesus’ prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. 

As I seek God’s forgiveness for the times I have not represented His image or that of His Son through my actions, I am reminded of the powerful charge St. Paul gave to the Church of Corinth: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” 

For the power of Jesus transforms us, bringing forgiveness of sin and restoring us back to His original intent of reflecting His image. A much-needed message this Christmas season.