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

What Image Has Shaped Your Faith?

Written by: on September 13, 2014

Jesus and children

Growing up I could remember having this painting hanging on the wall across from my bed. And every night, my mother reminded me that Jesus will always protect me. I can remember gazing at this picture until I fell asleep. I was comforted knowing that if at any time during the night I was afraid, Jesus was holding me. I was able to fall asleep in peace with the assurance that no “boogey man” was going to hide under the bed or in the closet.

David Morgan, in The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, writes that a sacred gaze is a manner in which a way of seeing invests an image, a viewer, or an act of viewing with spiritual significance.[1] Certainly, seeing this image every night of Jesus embracing the children provided spiritual meaning for me. This was the beginning of my learning about a God who protects, a God who watches over me and a God who loves the little children. This constant gazing at the picture of Jesus with the children contributed to my believing in Jesus and my own spiritual formation.

As I see this image today it continues to contribute to my spiritual formation. However, my “gaze” or vision of this portrait has changed. No longer is it through the eyes of a child, but through the eyes of one who has developed a new way of seeing.

David Morgan uses the term visual culture which he defines as a fundamental shift in the study of images – from an object – an artist-centered to a practice-centered discourse.[2] Visual culture is what images, acts of seeing, and attendant intellectual, emotional, and perceptual sensibilities do to build, maintain, or transform the worlds in which people live.[3]

Now, when I gaze at the painting of Jesus and children, I don’t merely think about my protection, but I can see the most vulnerable, the voiceless, the powerless and the weak needing and receiving God’s protection. As Morgan states, a sacred gaze applies itself directly to the task of belief.

So how does belief happen visually? How is belief a visual practice? Morgan writes that “belief happens in what people say, but also in what they do. It is embodied in various practices and actions, in the stories and testaments people tell…in the way people treat children, one another and strangers.”[4]

In this book, Morgan also describes how several faith/religious traditions use images to communicate with God, “with the unseen, mysterious, and potentially uncontrollable forces that are understood to govern life.”[5] For example, Buddhist pilgrims interact with statues in Thailand, Eastern Orthodox In doing so he draws on a wide range of sources including Buddhist pilgrims visit shrines in Thailand, Eastern Orthodox use icons to visualize the holy figure, and West African use masks to invoke spiritual forces. Although images are not a wide part of the Muslim worship many of the mosques may be decorated with “highly crafted, intricate designs and calligraphy.”[6] In sum, Morgan claims that we cannot understand religious practice fully without considering the power of images in shaping believers. What images have shaped your faith?                                                                                                                                                     

[1] David Morgan, A Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 3.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 33

4 Ibid., 8.

[5] Ibid., 59

[6] Ibid., 64.

About the Author

Miriam Mendez

6 responses to “What Image Has Shaped Your Faith?”

  1. Ashley Goad says:

    Miriam!! 🙂 I, too, love a piece very similar to this. (I tried an internet search, but couldn’t find the 1970s print that hung in our elementary Sunday school room!) When I was younger, and going through especially difficult times, I was encouraged to close my eyes and imagine crawling up into Jesus’ lap, and then to say my prayers. Years later, I saw this piece, and it illustrated the protection and the comfort I felt. Even today, as I close my eyes before bed, I imagine crawling into Jesus’ lap and going in for a big hug. This is how I see my own father, too… When in times of strife, I snuggle up beside him for a big hug and hold on tight. There I feel safe and comfort, just as Jesus gives. I love how you have taken this a step further and now view from an additional perspective. With maturity, education, context, etc. etc., our gazes certainly do change over time!

  2. Miriam Mendez says:

    Ashley, the reading continues to surprise me. It is interesting the things we remember. It looks like this image was also a powerful one for you too . And yes, I agree our “gazes” change over time. Thanks!

  3. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Miriam, thank you for sharing how image has shaped your faith. I didn’t grew up with images but the only two visuals I grew up seeing in my church are the wooden cross and the painting of Jesus on the cross. These visual always remind me God’s sacrificial love for me. Whenever I see the image of Jesus on the cross, it reminds how lovable and worth human beings are. It is interesting how Morgan points our out the use of images in different religions including Islam, that forbids the drawing of images. I too agree with your last statement from Morgan, “we cannot understand religious practice fully without considering the power of images in shaping believers.” Thanks again for insights!

    • Miriam Mendez says:

      Telile, It’s interesting that whenever you see the image of Jesus on the cross, it reminds you how lovable and worth human beings are. And this so right on! Yet, I was brought up believing that the cross should now be empty—since Jesus resurrected. So now seeing an image of Jesus on the cross or not on the cross – like you — both reminds me of the love, the grace, the power, and forgiveness of Christ! Thanks, Telile for your observation.

  4. Clint Baldwin says:

    Miriam, I appreciate your love of this picture that you describe and use as an entry point into considering the depth of how the visual develops belief.
    Particularly, I find it refreshing — if even for just the short moment of this reflection — that you celebrate the goodness of this portrait without critiquing it’s limitations.
    I think critiques that showcase limit in things are often important for us to best be able to appreciate what is portrayed well. However, sometimes critiques can be overdone and we need to simply share the good that something evokes in us. Sometimes critiques — while normally being helpful and healthy — can actually steal our ability to revel in the joy of something.
    I’m thankful that in this post you have shared the deep gladness this piece brings you. Particularly, I appreciate how you showcase that your appreciation for the piece has both remained AND evolved as you have journeyed from childhood to adulthood. A childhood “Sunday School” picture need not remain ONLY such; it can transform into a life-long spiritual icon of ongoing, significant formative value.

    • Miriam Mendez says:

      Clint, I have to confess that it was a little difficult to keep from critiquing this image. Yet, I decided to gaze at image with my childhood eyes. I realize that I could have easily begin to point out the exclusivity in the picture. Just as the appreciation for the piece has evolved in a positive way–it could have also evolved in a critical manner. Your comment challenged me to think about the eyes I use to see—childhood or adulthood? Thanks, Clint.

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