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.