DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

It is All in the Gaze

Written by: on September 12, 2014

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;”[1] it is able to do so as the practice of visual faith lifts “the soul toward the contemplation of God…”[2] 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.”[3]    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.”[4]

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.”[5]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.”[6] 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.”[7] 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.”[8] 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:[9]

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.”[10] He makes what I perceive to be a profound statement, “One must presume much in order to see something meaningful.”[11]


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.”[12] 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.”[13] 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.”


[1] William A. Dryness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2001) Kindle, 370-372.

[2] Ibid., 607.

[3] Ibid., 92.

[4] Ibid., 316.

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

[6] Ibid., 115.

[7] Ibid., 147.

[8] Ibid., 26

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 2, (emphases original).

[11] Ibid., 77.

[12] Ibid., 5.

[13] Ibid., 95-96.

About the Author



12 responses to “It is All in the Gaze”

  1. Hey Ron, great review and comparison of our last two authors. “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.” As a missionary I truly identify with Morgan’s statement that we are “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.” Unfortunately, as I brought out in my post, the newcomers always assume they have the “higher knowledge” in all things and cannot believe nor understand the indigenous ways and often force their culture and civilization upon the inhabitants. We would do well to receive the words that we are groping along the fault lines separating our two world. Thanks for brining that out Ron. Looking forward to seeing everyone in Cape Town soon!

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      I encountered this perspective of “superiority” and “higher knowledge” well serving in East Africa. What impacted me was the posture of the early missionaries from my tribe who first arrived in Tanzania in the fifties. I listened to many stories told by Tanzanians of the first missionaries who came over from Kenya in the 1930s. Unfortunately the stories often told of how the emissaries tried to change the culture – bringing bales of used clothing to “dress” the people or portending a “higher” standard of family life.

      On one occasion in a language and local culture class in Arusha, Tanzania, I listened as two white new-comers argued over interfering in local culture. My instructor, a young Masai women intervened as the discussion became heated. The argument centered on the polygamous practice of the Masai tribe. Her comments related to family values in Masai culture – many that we have lost in our western culture – there was much we could learn and accept from the humble, caring and hard working people in Tanzania. Then, she asked a revealing question of the group, “What about the things in Masai culture that need to change?” She was referring to the low status of women and the often torturous conditions of children. The gospel does transform; the problem arises with the imposition of cultural nuances and mores rather than allowing the transforming grace of God to make the old pass and all things to become new – within the context of people groups. I have a lot to learn – I believe most important is to learn to love people with God’s vision.

  2. mm Stefania Tarasut says:

    Thanks for the summary Ron! I have a question for you… after reading both Dyrness and now Morgan, do you feel more comfortable incorporating images in your worship… has anything changed?

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      I do feel comfortable – but perhaps I never had an aversion to art, relics or others visuals; more important, I have a greater appreciation and I am more aware of visual image. Some time ago, I had a parishioner comment that we needed more “pictures” on the walls at our church. At the time, it went over my head – I was not particularly impressed nor cognizant of the visual. Last evening, I attended the funeral service for the pastor in a sister congregation – when I walked into the sanctuary, I was immediately intrigued by the art, murals, and artifacts on the walls, used in the worship center, and cross the front of the sanctuary. As I quietly mediated I reflected on the visuals around me and on the culture of the congregation and Brother Len who had been pastor of the congregation for over twenty years. It was all enriching – more than I anticipated.

  3. mm John Woodward says:

    Ron, you captured these books well, especially Morgan’s book. I too found his academic approach interesting and insightful, coming at art from a sociological and historical approach. I have a strong love for history (which I have studied extensively) and a great love for art (which I have only studied in bits and pieces), but have always understood that the two must go together to understand what is going on in art. I am still a novice in art, but appreciate helpful texts as Morgan’s book that helps me understand just a little bit more how to look and interpret art! Glad you are also enjoying the broadening understanding of the visual arts. I too am interested in Stefania’s question: Has anything change in our ideas on images in worship? As always, a wonderful post, Ron.

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Your love of history often comes through in your posts. I share that love. For me, it is not just about dates, places and events; it is more heritage and antiquity, that is, I tend to value the things that created my present. In that respect, I am a liminal person who wants to carry the past beliefs and practices into the future. I am learning the value and the hazard of liminality in a post-Christian era.

  4. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Ron! Such a great combo post, intermingling the two texts! The photo you posted… I had to look very closely, as it looked like Lloyds of London with the escalators crossing throughout the middle of the building. I remember riding up the staircases and marveling at the beauty of the criss-crosses and patterns! Where do you find yourself gazing with this new perspective from Morgan? 🙂

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      I have to admit, as others have posted elsewhere, to looking through Morgan’s “Sacred Gaze” at the “pictures” before engaging the text. This was possibly motivated from having just read Dyrness’ book. I think this was uncharacteristic for me – I usually am one who does not dwell long on “art.” As a post noted last week, I usually move quite unperceptively through art museums. I really do “try” to see meaning but usually fail to go beyond the surface. I distinctly remember having this experience in London.

      Morgan is challenging from different perspectives and at different levels. One of his intriguing concepts is that “seeing,” as he defines the concept of gaze, “constitutes a social act of looking.” It is not possible to suspend gaze as an independent, uninfluenced act or even practice; gazing is a corporate experience. It involves, as Morgan outlines and spends the whole book fleshing out, the “viewer, fellow viewers, the subject of their viewing, the context or setting if the subject, and the rules that govern the particular relationship between viewer and subject” (3). Seeing is a cultural experience. There is a wonder about this that I am only beginning to discover.

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      There was one other thought I meant to include in response to your question of my new perspective in gazing: I am somewhat captivated by the concept that the sacred gaze “is the manner in which a way of seeing invests in an image…” Powerful! “Seeing” as an investment!

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