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. 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.” 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.” 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.
 David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze, 27
 David Morgan, ibid., 39
 David Morgan, ibid., 259
Image of Jesus taken from: http://sathyasaibaba.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/blackjesus.jpg