I have enjoyed a new experience in our reading the last two weeks. In Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue, William Dyrness awakened a sense of the richness of the visual in worship. Dyrness presented a two-fold stimulus for engaging the visual arts: on the one hand, art enhances the worship experience providing a direct and intentional means to connect with God and to renew and refresh the worship experience. Engaging art in a cultural context provides “unique opportunities for Christian witness and spirituality;” it is able to do so as the practice of visual faith lifts “the soul toward the contemplation of God…” On the other hand, incorporating art in worship leads to a dialogue on the appropriateness and urgency of worship in Christian living and faith; precipitating a revival in worship. According to Dyrness, the use of the visual in worship “is forcing Christians to rethink the shape and patterns of our corporate life before God.” In other words, art praxis in worship stimulates faith and belief in Christian living. Visual Faith opens up a vista of thinking and new possibility in personal and corporate worship: “A carefully wrought and intelligent object or painting,” Dyrness notes, “when it is patiently observed, opens up windows on the human situation in a way that other cultural products cannot.”
David Morgan in the “Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice approaches the visual in religion from an entirely different perspective. While Dyrness approached the visual through the eyes of beauty as seen in the artistic, Morgan approaches the visual through the eyes of culture and how culture shapes the way we see the image; visual faith juxtaposed with visual culture.
There are some things I would like to note about Morgan: the writing is from the perspective of a scholar and teacher and written with the desire to present “an accessible account of one way of making images and visual practices part of the scholarly study of religion.”What does this imply and how accessible is Morgan’s writing?
First: Despite the high academics, I find The Sacred Gaze to be very approachable and accessible. The book is nicely divided into main sections that are very logically comprehensible by the titles and subtitles. Because of the depth of the material, I only read chapters one, two and five, and perused the rest of the book. The first section covers the definitions, scope and function of visual imagery in the context of culture. Morgan addresses the use of written text contrasted to visual imagery in religion studies. The second section deals with issued raised by image and icons, specifically iconoclasm. In this context, he notes that the “history of religion is in no small way a history of cultural rivalries.” Morgan presents a model of the “range of visual operations” as he characterizes Christian missionaries as “Emissaries from a strange land, newcomers in a society they do not understand or even fully recognize … grope [ing] along the fault lines separating two worlds.” Morgan portrays imagery in the context of iconoclasm and the “trafficking in images” as the darker side or downside of interpreting the sacred gaze. The third section covers the societal use of images and the significance of imagery in creating identity.
Additional helps: I found the index to be an excellent aid in studying the book. The table of contents list seventy-two illustrations which were helpful in scanning the books content. One aspect of the novelty of the study for me was as I reviewed the extensive bibliography, I did not discover a single author or publication that I was familiar with.
Second: I have already alluded to the writing as a high academic genre aimed specific for the student in undergraduate and research studies. As such, the writing is necessarily at a high degree of theory, which Morgan acknowledges. He states, however, that his “approach to [the study of] visual culture is to keep images within view, to offer fresh ways of thinking about what one sees.” It is not, therefore, the study of the beauty in visual art, inclusive of a myriad of different art forms, or the implication/application of visual art in living, such as Dyrness’ application to worship, but rather, it is a study of how we study art form or more specific how we study image. So, the practice for Morgan is the practice involved in how we research and study imagery. It was helpful for me to think of this in terms of hermeneutics, it is not the interpretation but the study of how we interpret. Morgan states it best when he says, “A significant aspect of any kind of scholarship is scholars studying themselves studying:
Third: Morgan’s perspective of what we see is illuminating and instructive in the use of image. He indicates that seeing involves “visual practices … seeing is an operation that relies on an apparatus of assumptions and inclinations, habits and routines, historical associations and cultural practices.” He makes what I perceive to be a profound statement, “One must presume much in order to see something meaningful.”
I found, in the context of “seeing,” Morgan’s discussion on “The Sacred Gaze” as an illuminating concept that is applicable to more than the study of the visual in religion or Christianity. It is instructive across all disciplines of study and awakens one to the potential fallacy and verity to what we see or think we “see.” To gaze, says Morgan, is to engage in “a social act of looking. A gaze consists of several parts: a viewer, fellow viewers, the subject of their viewing, the context or setting of the subject, and the rules that govern the particular relationship between viewers and subject.” Viewing Morgan’s use of the images from the perspective “gaze” adds significant breadth and depth to what ones sees. There are numerous examples throughout the book. One that stood out for me was the juxtaposition of M.C. Escher’s Relativity with an American Bible Society titled, “Where are you going.” Here we see the viewer, the subject and the context results in seeing to visually similar objects as diametrically opposed yet, individually coherent concepts of reality. It is a matter of “The Gaze.”
 William A. Dryness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2001) Kindle, 370-372.
 Ibid., 607.
 Ibid., 92.
 Ibid., 316.
 David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), xii.
 Ibid., 115.
 Ibid., 147.
 Ibid., 26
 Ibid., 2, (emphases original).
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 95-96.