Many things that carry great weight in Christian thought are eventually challenged by a surge in a contrary view. In The Sacred Gaze, David Morgan argues that the study of images has been undervalued in our understanding of religion. (By “religion” he means all major religions but focuses mostly on Christianity, which is his own expertise.) In his view, images are undervalued when compared with sacred texts. He outlines his purpose as follows: “I wish to show how visual studies can contribute to the scholarly understanding of religion. The value of theoretical reflection should be measured, finally, by the contribution it makes in illuminating the actual objects of study: the visuality of religion”. Morgan’s work does what he sets out to do—bring understanding to religion by considering how people engage the visual, the tangible, as a part of their faith. For example, it’s a powerful spiritual experience to stand alongside a 150 foot-long reclining Buddha or step into the cave that was most likely Christ’s burial tomb. I have no doubt that such experiences enhance the faith of those who gaze upon such sacred places or objects.
As we finished our last cohort chat, I mentioned that I was a bit concerned—our conversation was about the Spirit moving in different ways in different cultures. It was also stated that the Spirit uses culture, and our faith is formed within culture. And I agree with those thoughts. But what concerns me is the difference between what the Spirit uses for our growth and inspiration, and what the Spirit is bound to, or more technically, what the Spirit breathes. God can use anything to inspire and become spiritually formative – my youngest daughter is inspired by a sunset. My friend Tim loves Russian artists and authors and has grown tremendously in his faith because of them. Visual imagery can be profoundly religious or spiritual, but Morgan implies it carries the same weight as the sacred text. I would argue that the biblical text has an authority that the visual image, creation, or action does not have. To be clear: the Spirit uses all sorts of beauty to teach, inspire, convict; the Spirit is not limited in His working but the Spirit’s authority isn’t in an icon, a masterpiece, a concert, or even a sunset.
Morgan came at his study from the perspective that Protestants have wrongly put a greater emphasis on creedism over ritualism, “conveying information, constructing ‘belief’ as assent to doctrines or official teachings, and therefore lay greater emphasis on creed or content as definitive of belief.” He goes on to say “The creedalist notion of belief argues that speaking is more powerful as an expression of faith than seeing.” He puts these statements out there to show how Protestant faith has overemphasized orthodoxy over orthopraxy; while he makes a good point about the emphasis of words over images, he doesn’t say why evangelical Protestants do that, such as a fundamental belief in special revelation. Morgan criticizes Calvin’s hermeneutic as an overemphasis on scriptural text over images, and argues against Calvin’s view of scripture. “Calvin’s assumption that the biblical text enjoys a direct relation to its divine referent is not only critically dubious but also ideologically charged with an important task.”
In this brief post I’d be hard pressed to do justice to the difference between general and special revelation; evangelicals hold that the inspiration of scripture (special revelation) is authoritative, and general revelation is inspiring but not authoritative. Let me offer the C&MA’s faith statement as an example “The Old and New Testaments, inerrant as originally given, were verbally inspired by God and are a complete revelation of His will for the salvation of men. They constitute the divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice.” This is a typical Protestant statement, based soundly on scripture (2 Peter 1:20-21; 2 Timothy 3:15-16), and my point in offering it is the clarity that scripture has an authority that general revelation does not. Special revelation, Scripture, is the “divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice.” God’s creation, creative artists and authors, musicians, mechanics and ministers can all inspire faith. They can be used to crystalize our belief in God and I’m thankful for them; my faith would be dry and smaller without them. Yes, my faith is formed within culture, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that only God’s Word rules!
So while my post is a bit critical of Morgan’s ideology, the actual book offers a really good survey of the visual nature of religion, and how engaging in the visual makes for a much more holistic approach to the development of faith.
 David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 27.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 13.
 “The Alliance Stand,” Christian and Missionary Alliance, accessed November 2, 2015,http://www.cmalliance.org/about/beliefs/doctrine.
8 responses to “God breathed”
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Dave, you mentioned that Morgan “doesn’t say why evangelical Protestants do that,” with “that” being to assign a heavily weighted priority to words over images. My post will work on much of that same question but I can tip my hand here a little.
When we read and commented on Dyrness – “Visual Faith” – I had the beginnings of a line of thinking that was re-engaged here this week… The subjugation of the arts in general may, to some degree, be connected to the overall “reform” subjugation of women in church leadership… If, in general, you assign the arts to the realm of “softer”, “weaker”, “effeminate” and only men are allowed to lead in the church then it follows that manly things will be given the higher priority. Thus – the spoken word becomes primary and other expressions of The Word are systematically diminished.
I agree with you the Word has to be primary, that “God’s Word rules!” But he question for me is, are there other, equally valid means by which God’s Word is communicated (not JUST referenced or pointed to…) than mere spoken/written language? Is communication to be understood as vocabulary?
Jon, thanks for your comment. I didn’t focus on the point that there are equally valid ways that the Word is communicated that is non-verbal, non-vocabulary. Thanks for pointing that out. My reaction had more to do with his desire to elevate Art as inspired as the Word. They are both inspiring but not both inspired. Which I know you know.
David, Great critical thinking and great job using the text to highlight your thoughts/questions. You bring up a great question when you said, “Morgan implies it carries the same weight as the sacred text.” While Morgan puts great emphasis on visual images, I wonder if he really would equate these visual images to the sacred text? While I agree with you that it’s somewhat implied, I do wonder if that’s what Morgan would actually say. For me the big takeaway revolved around our need to use these visual issues to help us better understand/surrender to the Word. And without these images we can’t understand the Word as much as if we just used the sacred text.
Nick, your take on his focus might be more accurate. I focused on a few comments where he raised the value of image by challenging the supremacy of sacred text. You might also have a better feel because I really spent only a few hours digesting this book – whereas I normally spend a lot more time.
Beautiful as always David and really on point with my critical view of some of the points and theory that Morgan has. I too believe as you do regarding scripture being superior and above anything else that might come from it. As you stated all of the art, musicians, artifacts, and myriad of spiritual things that come from Christianity has made it bright and beautiful. But the Bible is not every going to be dependent on a sacred image first. Hopefully the sacred image came from the Bible. But is full agree with your stand and the sandwich you put it in. Thanks
I appreciate your description about special vs. general revelation, especially in relationship to authority. Your handling of acknowledging and validating how the Spirit uses visual art gives you a Socratic argument for how it doesn’t hold up to scripture as God’s authoritative word.
Yet, I would have to say I agree with Morgan that we’ve gotten so creedal that we’ve lost the ability to discern God’s presence in the liturgy, surroundings, and/or art. Calvin’s reaction to the Catholic’s use of icons and other non-scriptural sources drives much of his focus on sola scriptura. But now swinging the pendulum back, could it be that God could be present to us, speaking truth and love, if we’re not reading directly out of scripture?
Can I just say that I’m so grateful for these conversations? Your willingness to weigh in with what you hold to be true forces me to consider what I really think. At the same time, I find myself willing to consider another point of view. Thank you, Dave.
Dave, Very interesting thought here … “I would argue that the biblical text has an authority that the visual image, creation, or action does not have.” I tend to think the truth is true no matter where you find it. We know that we know it is true from God’s word, but truth found in art is truly true as much as it is when discovered in the bible. What do you think there? Not 100% sold myself, but this is what i think I think.
Philip, the issue isn’t that one is more true and one is less true – I was making the point that one is authoritative truth. Only the Word is the final authority on my faith. aka “divine and only rule”. So that’s why I’d give it greater weight than other avenues of truth.