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

Looking for God

Written by: on September 11, 2014

The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice

This past year, my father asked me to give him “a picture of God.” As someone who hasn’t shadowed the door of a church for around three decades, I was pleasantly surprised to hear his request. However, I was more surprised that he assumed I somehow knew what God looked like. “What does God look like to him?” I wondered. Being a Catholic from Tipperary, Ireland, which is as Irish as you can get, I figured that for him, God looked like the Jesus with the Sacred heart, just like the Jesus on the front cover of Morgan’s book. So thanks to Amazon, my father now has a picture of Irish Jesus watching over him on his sideboard, and he is comforted.

What does God look like to us? What if I had given my dad a picture of Asian Jesus or Black Jesus? Would that have been any less ‘God’ for him? I have no doubt it would have been. For him, Jesus looks Catholic. The fact is, no matter what country or culture we are from, or what religion we adhere to, many of us have some image or impression of what God looks like, whether that is in the form of a sacred cow, a well-dressed woman with arms dancing by her side, or Jesus Christ with his sacred heart.

In his book, The Sacred Gaze, Morgan’s goal is to show how visual studies can contribute to the scholarly understanding of religion.[1] Referring to religious imagery from all over the world, Morgan believes that objects, whether an image, place, or a person, as carrying spiritual significance. He explains how “People tend to believe what they see, probably because the human neurological system is partial to visual stimuli. As a species, humans rely disproportionately on visual information because our neural network is preponderantly dedicated to processing visual stimuli.”[2] In other words, we are visual beings and are influenced and swayed by what we allow our eyes to see, even though we may subconsciously understand that the image we see is more than likely not exactly accurate or true. Nevertheless, we allow religious images to influence our devotion and appreciation of who or what God is.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to meet with a Christian pastor friend, Cham, in Birmingham, England. Of Indian ethnicity, she shared with me an experienced her mother had while undergoing heart bypass surgery a few years earlier. Prior to the surgery, Cham’s friend had the strong impression during prayer that Jesus would appear to Cham’s mother, and promptly told the family so. Much to the family’s surprise, this is precisely what happened. This elderly woman, a Hindu, who had no previous knowledge or experience of who Jesus is, had a long conversation with Jesus whom, she reported, was dressed in an orange robe with innumerable tassels all around the bottom edge, much like an ancient Indian hero from centuries past who was known for saving people. However, as she continued telling her family and friends about her amazing encounter with Jesus, she began to face persecution and so began to insert a Hindu god into the dream, pushing Jesus into the background. Nonetheless, she has been permanently affected by her encounter with Christ, dressed in the Indian orange robe, whom she knows saves.

As Morgan well explains in his book, how we absorb and process religious imagery contributes to the social, intellectual, and perceptual construction of our reality. He writes, “seeing puts believers in the presence of what they wish to see, what they wish to venerate or adore. The sacred gaze allows images to open iconically to the reality they portray or even to morph into the very thing they represent.”[3] As Morgan describes, religious practice cannot be best understood without considering the power of images in shaping believers. As true as that may be, it is while to remember that religious images are just precisely that, images, created things, and not a replacement for an encounter with God’s Himself, our Creator, whatever his skin colour and dress.

[1] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 27

[2] David Morgan, ibid., 39

[3] David Morgan, ibid., 259

Image of Jesus taken from: http://sathyasaibaba.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/blackjesus.jpg

About the Author

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Liz Linssen

7 responses to “Looking for God”

  1. You speak truth Liz when you say, “The fact is, no matter what country or culture we are from, or what religion we adhere to, many of us have some image or impression of what God looks like.” I remember growing up trying to be a good Catholic boy and having a small crucifix above my bed that I would take down at night, say my prayers with, do the sign of the cross, and then kiss the little crucifix. Yet, even as a boy I wondered how the little man on this blue veneer cross could every help me. It was only in my conversion at age 16 that I discovered that there was more to this “little man” on that little cross. My God was reveled to me in a much more substantial way. He is no longer on that cross, nor in a grave, He is alive and well and living with me. I have not provided any “image” of Jesus to my children hoping that they will discover the power of Jesus in and through a personal relationship with Him. I wonder what my kids would say if I asked them what does God look like to them. Hummmm? I will get back with you on that. Looking forward to visiting with you in Cape Town and then again in November.

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Mitch
      Thanks so much for your interesting feedback. I think it’s amazing how God takes notice of those who are seeking Him. God saw you pray and kiss that cross every night, and enabled you to know Him. Your comment reminded me of how I used to say a short prayer every night as a child, not really knowing God either until later.
      Indeed we are also looking forward to seeing you in November. We must talk about dates when we are all in Cape town as Willy is away quite a bit that month. Look forward to seeing you then.

  2. mm John Woodward says:

    Liz, I absolutely loved your post. Your stories bring to light beautifully the central themes of this book. I think the questions that you bring concerning your father’s idea of God are the very same questions that confronted me in viewing the Lakota Icons. I have also heard many stories of visions that Muslims have had of Jesus. I had never really considered what He would have looked like to them – especially those from a Middle Eastern culture. This will be a question I will ask in the future. I will not be surprised to find something of their social imaginary influencing their image of Jesus. I am coming to see more that we all imagine God somehow – it is how we function as humans — and that we really won’t ever be able to fully separate our culture and community form our constructs. But isn’t the greater point of this is that Jesus can be found in any culture, that He is truly universal in His appeal and presence; not tied to one particular time or place? The same Jesus can touch your father of Irish descent in the same He can touch a Hindu woman! We do worship an amazing God!

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Thank you so much for your feedback John. Yes, isn’t it amazing how God can make Himself known in different means, so they can understand? What is interesting about how Jesus appeared to the Indian woman is that even she didn’t know about that historical indian figure with the tassels. It was only later when the friend who prayed and did some research, that they all learned about that.
      I’ve also heard how Jesus is appearing to Muslims in dreams, and I’ve heard that He appears dressed in white. I wonder if that has any significant meaning to Muslims? Would be interesting to find out!

  3. mm Deve Persad says:

    I appreciate your writing on this topic Liz. One my favourite sayings is, “All roads don’t lead to Jesus, but Jesus appears on all roads.” While the limitations of our humanity prevent us from completely understanding just how God can reveal himself, it’s always sobering to realize that He can and He does. Your questions regarding your father are interesting, and I wonder how you would address this, as a pastor, in your community: knowing how people have preconceived of God, how can you allow them to capture new pictures of Him?

    • Liz Linssen says:

      Hi Deve
      Thanks so much for your feedback. I really like your saying, “All roads don’t lead to Jesus, but Jesus appears on all roads.” Never heard that one before. Fab!
      In answer to your question, I think people’s perceptions of God in Wales tend to be of a figure distanced from people’s lives, old-fashioned, and irrelevant. So it’s not so much a question of what God ‘looks like’ per se, but more of how He is, and learning how to redress that. Good question. Will think more about that! Thank you.

  4. Michael Badriaki says:

    Great post Liz. I believe the your question “What does God look like to us?” is very pertinent to subject matter of visual arts. I personally think about how to respond to that question. I would have liked know what your dad’s response was. 🙂

    You have given more to reflect on.

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