Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Sacred Visual Ethnography

Written by: on November 5, 2015

Sacred Visual Ethnography

David Morgan is a Professor of Religious Studies with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media.[1] With such a background, from my naïve posture, I was initially suspect of this reading, for concern of the lack of value it could contribute to “Leadership and Global Perspectives.” After all, art is art, but leadership … well … everything rises and falls on leadership … not art.  This book however, remaining par for the course of this course, has contributed much to open my eyes and most importantly my leadership thought and the depth to which I live, see, and comprehend culture through the icons, images, symbols and art of a society.

Morgan in his book “Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture In Theory and Practice” defines his title as follows:

“Sacred gaze is a term that designates the particular configuration of ideas, attitudes, and customs that informs a religious act of seeing as it occurs within a given cultural and    historical setting. A sacred gaze is the manner in which a     way of seeing invests an image, a viewer, or an act of          viewing with spiritual significance.”[2]

I was particularly captured by the second sentence and the thought of how we “invest” images into a memory-building, moment-capturing, and future-casting database. Morgan goes on to explain “sacred gaze” “encompasses the image, the viewer, and the act of viewing, establishing a broader framework for the understanding of how images operate.”[3]

As a read and began to understand Morgan’s concept and depth of thought provoked, I couldn’t help but think of the ethnography and especially visual ethnography and loved how Morgan framed an ultimate end for an ethnographic journey on the sacred, spiritual and religious framework and influence.

In chapter seven entitled, “National Icons: Bibles, Flags, and Jesus in American Civil Religion,” Morgan focuses on this framework and influence in the shaping “America.” Morgan points out the process of “nation-shaping” that occurs through what he describes as, “Apologists of modern nationhood are often fond of regarding their nations as expressions of divine will, natural law, or the destiny of a particular people.”[4] It is these “divine wills,” “natural laws” and imagined “destinies” that are used to create, form, and sculpt a culture and society of a people becoming. Morgan writes,

“American civil religion, especially after the Civil War, that   stressed the importance of ritualized formation provided by     public ceremony, holiday commemoration, and the public    schools as the crucial moments for the public making of a          loyal citizenry. Anything less that vigilance in this matter       neglected virtue and spawned vice, which inevitably          produced moral degeneration followed by the decay of        institutions and the rise of social disorder.”[5]

Who knew that visual culture, religious visual culture, had such ultimate power in nation-shaping? For me it is easy to see the visual culture as a result of history and a memory aid, but to have my eyes opened to the reality of the forward thinking, leading, shaping, manipulating of individuals and societies … suddenly art just isn’t art … and leadership isn’t something separate that everything real actually rises and falls on, but art (visual culture) and its understanding is leadership and a perspective needed for individuals and societies in our world.

[1] David Morgan, “Department of Religious Studies,” Duke University, accessed November 3, 2015, http://religiousstudies.duke.edu/people?Gurl=&Uil=11110&subpage=profile.

[2] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 3.

[3] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 5.

[4] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 221.

[5] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 221.

About the Author

Phillip Struckmeyer

8 responses to “Sacred Visual Ethnography”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Phil, Loved how you brought leadership into the conversation and shared how Art isn’t just Art. So how can the local church use Art to lead? How does someone like myself, with no artist/musical ability, use Art to lead? It must just start with our eyes being opened to what we see and how we explain it to others and share it with others. Right? It’s easier for me to look back at the Civil War and see how Art shaped what we believe but what about our current time?

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Nick, I wonder if our worship services are visual art that expresses theology. From the wall colors, decor, seating, screens, crosses etc… I wonder if we say or see much more than we think. I wonder if intentionally visually create our worship spaces if we could lead people to the sacred. Just my initial thoughts to your good questions.

  3. Travis Biglow says:

    God bless you Phil,

    This is a good understanding of how images can shape your belief system. And to people who were subjugated to images of Religion and deceived by them those images proved untrue. I think when images are over emphasized its easy to deceive people by only what a person or nation is trying to convey through those images. Many images of Christianity were distorted in the building of this nation. The Indians have been deceived and African were deceived by supposed Christian ideas and images. Its always different how you see things!

  4. Dave Young says:

    Phil, Makes me think. What comes first Art as reflection on beauty … or Art creating beauty. Of it’s all just a result of being created in Him image. :-). Thanks for a thought provoking post

    • Phillip Struckmeyer says:

      Dave, Also, which comes first the beauty or the message trying to be created. I got the feeling of there is unintentionally or many times intentional propaganda in art? Definitely thinking and viewing things differently is important.

  5. Mary Pandiani says:

    Phil, you picked up on a point that I didn’t have the room to explore as much. I was so taken by the influence religion had on the education system, from immigrants learning the pledge of allegiance to having the Ten Commandments in the classroom. While I’ve known that influence, it wasn’t until it was captured within the visual images that it became real to me. Something happened to my understanding because of art, not because I read the words using only my head’s capacity (limited as it is). Again, a reminder, just as you bring in leadership and art, that cross-disciplines give us a greater receptivity to understanding something.
    Oh, one more thing, I love your honesty about your first impressions. And even more than that, your willingness to still engage and learn something.

  6. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, I like your “cross-discipline” term. I wasn’t thinking that but that is definitely the connection between art and leadership that I am making. The awareness of one can lead to greater impact of the other. Nice add on:)!

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