In The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, author David Morgan explores the connections between visual culture and religious practice and feelings. He makes the case that images have real power over people and communities of faith, and are even used to impose power or convince others. Morgan explains that the world is imbued with visual images that show “the powerful and pervasive ways in church the devout see the world, organize and evaluate it, and infuse into the appearance of things the feelings and ideas that make the world intelligible and familiar to them (loc 4276).”
Morgan in particular spends an entire chapter delving into history of sacred images in missions, and how these images have impacted cultures, and even transcended cultures. Images have traditionally been brought in my missionaries trying to communicate religious shift, and often this shift has been led by the visual. The obvious example here is the use of fair-skinned images of Jesus in Africa or Asia, or even the use Western church architecture as the primary mode of communicating the function of a building (I suppose differentiating from local forms of non-Christian religious types). On our recent trip to Korea I was struck by how much Korean Protestant and Catholic churches followed the style and form of Western church architecture. This apparent cultural imperialism has critiqued along the narrative of the “culturally naïve missionaries imposing their harmful cultural forms on the pure native” by many. However, one needs to look closer to see that there is much more in play, and the interplay of sacred culture and images is much more complex.
Certainly, to our eye the shell of the church building looks primarily American, but I do wonder if we looked close would we find images that are particularly Korean, blended into the adopted visual forms? Morgan makes the case that at the heart of missions is the incarnation of Christ, that Christianity is essentially an adaptive religion (incarnating and imbedding itself in the cultural milieu). This is to say that while visual forms brought in by missionaries are often accepted (and even appropriated by non-Christian artists) by nationals, eventually there begins a process of indigenization and nationalization. Eventually, sacred images must also become culturally relevant. What is more, this images often become global and then influence and impact the visual of the culture that originally sent the missionaries.
Here, as in all aspects of missions, we must be cautious not to become cultural imperialists; however, at the same time we must not be afraid of truth, or appropriating new forms of visual culture to communicate truth. At the same time, we cannot be naïve to the reality that cultures are forever mixing, crossing, and butting up against each other, so that forms and images are constantly in flux, and in the global Christian world, there is an every going dance of cultures and images.
European Christendom delineates this reality as well. As Christian Rome crumbled in the fourth century, Christianity sprang to life in barbaric Ireland. There they cobbled together a faith separated from Christendom, highly incarnated in the Irish culture, with some influence from the Desert Father monks who had fled there for safety and mission. As Europe degenerated into spiritual and political chaos, it was the Irish who developed the stable visual markers that would define Christian faith. Using traditional and once pagan forms of art they baptized these art forms into Christian sacred imagery. Then through mission they both revived the Christian images which had been lost again to paganism, and introduced new forms as they re-evangelized Europe over the next couple of centuries. Elaborate Celtic crosses have been found all over Europe, and as far away as Croatia.
I wonder if Korean Christian images (borrowed and altered from American missionaries) are now undergoing a similar nationalization in some remote area of Central Asia?
On one of my nights hiking through the streets of Seoul, I noticed that the skyline was filled with red neon crosses, each indicating a church. In the dark, and glaring light washed metropolis, these crosses stand out as beacons of faith and life. They are of course, an already ancient sacred visual image that communicates devotion, joy, hope, sadness, and passion. What is essentially a Roman symbol of capital punishment, the Korean churches have appropriated with their own twist. In modern Seoul they compete with the millions of other watts of neon calling people to shop and eat. As I passed by one, all alone in the rain, it stood out illuminated against a black sky. Caught in my own sacred gaze, it brought me much joy.