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

The Sacred Haze

Written by: on November 5, 2015

“Why is it that the contemplation of images exerts the power to arrest the mind and deliver it from the anxieties that fragment the consciousness and bind it to such invented torments as frustration, rage, jealousy, or obsession?”1 Images provoke a reaction. But what reaction to they provoke? In his book The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, David Morgan explores the significance of how we look at images. Sacred gaze is about more than simply what is seen, it is about what it means to the person. As we think in terms of understanding religion, discovering what an image means within the framework of a particular religion gives insight into that religion. “The concept of gaze offers to scholars of religion a way of studying the consciousness social and cultural embeddedness of seeing… the projection of rules and the arrangement of the viewer and subject that constitute a gaze contribute to the social and historical construction of the sacred.”2 For some, the American flag creates a warmness within. For others, it creates a great sense of pride and responsibility. For others, it creates a sense of rage. How can colors on a cloth insight such different responses. While there can be many factors, one key is history or past experiences of each person. As we gaze, the past informs our interpretation of the present. 3 In fact, sometimes the past can even overshadow the current context.

Several year ago I was staying with my nephew and his wife Sylvia in Birmingham, Alabama. Sylvia asked me, “Why does your church have a burning cross as a logo?” I looked at our logo and saw a cross with a flame on it with the world as a background. To me, the meaning was clear, the cross represented Christ, the flame represented Holy Spirit, and the world represented our mission field. It made sense to me, a white person from Michigan with a church head-quartered in Indiana. Sylvia was black and lived in Birmingham, which has been nick-named bombingham do to the racial violence of the past. Sylvia, who was born in the 60’s, responded very differently to a burning cross. Even though see understood the imagery as I explained it to her, she still could not believe we would choose such an offensive image. Over the next few days, I noticed that I din’t see many Free Methodist Churches in Birmingham. I asked her if the United Methodist logo bothered her. She said that she thought they had a flag on the cross, not a flame.
I tell this story because I am reminded that we not only learn about culture and religion by studying images and symbols held sacred by others, but that if we must also discover how our sacred images are interpreted by others. Without know it, the sacred gaze becomes a sacred haze.
1 David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 1.
2 Ibid., 260.
3 Ibid., 3

About the Author

Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

7 responses to “The Sacred Haze”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Brian, Nice job using two great illustrations to share your central point of, “Images provoke a reaction.” Raising my two black boys has made me much more sensitive to art/images of race and I’ve even asked some good black friends to point out to me images that inspire them and their friends. The importance of trying to understand how, as you stated, “we must also discover how our sacred images are interpreted by others” is such an important thing. How exactly have you seen that done well? Directly asking people, reading books…any other ideas you have? Thanks Brian.

    • Brian Yost says:

      For me, it has helped to have friends that will tell me what they think even if it offends me. One problem we had in Latin America was that people were often too polite and did not want to offend me. In time, I was able to develop a few friendships with people who felt comfortable telling me things that others would not or asking me questions. If my niece had not asked me (and felt comfortable doing it) she would have still felt the same about our logo, but I would not have known. I also like to watch body language and people’s eyes. I’m sure I will continue to make mistakes, but hopefully I can get better as time goes by.

  2. Travis Biglow says:

    Brian, good point and that is what I kind of got the same jest of things too. In America an African American or an Indian can look at some of the images in the United States and look at them from an historical standpoint that is offensive. So images have different meanings dependent on how and who is looking at them. Excellent observation!

  3. Mary Pandiani says:

    Powerful story about images while visiting your nephew and his wife. Until we actually put ourselves in a culturally different environment, we can’t know what something would mean. It’s kind of like the swastica, and the emotion it draws, even tho’ it’s original intend was “well being.”
    It makes me wonder…when do we hold onto an image even when it offends? Kind of the like the whole argument about the confederate flag right now.
    I also wonder about tatoos…the meaning one has now may change later.

    • Brian Yost says:

      Funny you should mention the swastika because I almost went with that in my post. I am also perturbed that the “Charlie Chaplain” mustache became know as the Hitler Mustache. I tell you, that guy ruined everything he got his hands on.

  4. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, Very insightful thoughts on the controversy of your logo. In one sense that is hard to believe that such different views and emotions can be evoked by a logo, in another it is a great awakening to some of the sensitivity we need to have in thinking about visual imagery. I also liked the learning emphasis you put on understanding not just what we communicate but how we communicate with our trending “branding” approach to our church and denominational “marketing.” Not a bad post for being crazy busy on the magical mystery Multiplication Summit bus tour:)!

  5. Brian Yost says:

    I don’t remember what speaker it was that said that we all try to protect and preserve something and that many times those things become the obstacles to reaching others.
    Kudos on the Summit, it was very impactful.

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