Both hit the street this week, Popular Mechanics with a shadowy figure crowned with thorns, Wired with a crucifix collage. Magazines reflect "the pulse of society at a specific given moment in time," said Samir Husni, the University of Mississippi journalism professor and expert on periodicals who is known as "Mr. Magazine." "Religion and religious figures have always been good sellers on the nation's newsstands," Husni said. "And after Sept. 11, interest in the afterlife and all religious matters has increased."
It's true that many news magazines put Jesus on the cover at least once a year. Only scandal, horrific crime and celebrity death tend to outsell him. But Popular Mechanics and Wired are special-interest publications with a scientific bent. For a century, Popular Mechanics has dispensed do-it-yourself advice on such manly pursuits as hang-gliding, gun-oiling and sidewalk repair, interspersed with articles on UFOs. Wired, founded in 1993, is more upscale, its focus on technology, Moby, game bots and the like. About the only thing the two have in common is a fascination with high-tech weaponry. And now, of course, the man from Nazareth.
Conde-Nast's Wired, circulation 509,000, commissioned artist Kenn Brown to illustrate its special report on religion, science and technology. He fashioned a silver man on a cross decorated with gears, a microscope, a double helix, and other symbols. The image "lets people draw the conclusion that these disciplines are not as far apart as you might think," executive editor Bob Cohn said yesterday. The time is right for the cover, Cohn said. "Post 9/11, post-Wall Street scandals, post-bubble burst in the technology sector, a lot of our readers have had a return to basics. The materialism of the '90s has given way to a new zeitgeist, one that makes more room for spirituality in the pages of Wired."
"The Real Face of Jesus," blares the cover of Hearst-owned Popular Mechanics, a 1.2-million circulation monthly. The lead story is about how forensic anthropology determines what a long-dead person looked like.
Why this cover now? It's because, editor in chief Joe Oldham has said, "if you look at the history of the magazine, we have been explaining how the world works for 100 years." Inside, tucked among the articles on spy codes, woodworking, and extreme video games, is a computer-generated image of Jesus as a dark-skinned, curly-haired man. He stood 5-foot-1 and weighed 110 pounds, if Popular Mechanics is to be believed. This, the article's most startling revelation, could spell trouble. Last year, there was an uproar when the Discovery Channel released a digitized image of Jesus as a swarthy man with a broad nose and tired eyes. Critics said it looked like a New York cabbie.
No matter how you portray him, though, Jesus sells. That's why religion is "one of the favorite cover subjects" of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report, according to a 1999 survey by national media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in New York. It's why Time gave us "What Jesus Saw" last year and "Jesus at 2000" in 1999, why Newsweek said "Jesus Rocks" in 2001 and asked "What Would Jesus Do?" in April, and why the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints was on the cover of U.S. News in 2000.
Newsweek's "Visions of Jesus," with its portrait of a tan and moist-eyed Christ, was its third highest newsstand seller in 2000, beaten only by two covers on the disputed presidential election, according to the Media Industry Newsletter, which tracks sales.The pale, sparsely bearded figure on U.S. News' "Why Jesus Was Killed" propelled the issue to second in 2000 sales, after "Mysteries of History." When Newsweek pondered "2000 Years of Jesus" in 1999, the issue sold 238,500 newsstand copies, almost 25 percent more than the weekly's 191,400 average.
For Wired and Popular Mechanics, religious imagery is rare. Wired used it only once before, putting an angel leaping into an abyss on its December 1999 cover, in reference to Y2K panic. Since 1902, Popular Mechanics has had covers about scientific investigations into mysteries of the Bible, illustrated with arks and whales.
For both magazines, the Jesus covers are unprecedented. But if, as Husni suggests, the popularity of Jesus increases during periods of anxiety, it's perhaps just a matter of time before he makes Vanity Fair.