“Why is it that the contemplation of images exerts the power to arrest the mind and deliver it from the anxieties that fragment the consciousness and bind it to such invented torments as frustration, rage, jealousy, or obsession?”1 Images provoke a reaction. But what reaction to they provoke? In his book The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, David Morgan explores the significance of how we look at images. Sacred gaze is about more than simply what is seen, it is about what it means to the person. As we think in terms of understanding religion, discovering what an image means within the framework of a particular religion gives insight into that religion. “The concept of gaze offers to scholars of religion a way of studying the consciousness social and cultural embeddedness of seeing… the projection of rules and the arrangement of the viewer and subject that constitute a gaze contribute to the social and historical construction of the sacred.”2 For some, the American flag creates a warmness within. For others, it creates a great sense of pride and responsibility. For others, it creates a sense of rage. How can colors on a cloth insight such different responses. While there can be many factors, one key is history or past experiences of each person. As we gaze, the past informs our interpretation of the present. 3 In fact, sometimes the past can even overshadow the current context.
Several year ago I was staying with my nephew and his wife Sylvia in Birmingham, Alabama. Sylvia asked me, “Why does your church have a burning cross as a logo?” I looked at our logo and saw a cross with a flame on it with the world as a background. To me, the meaning was clear, the cross represented Christ, the flame represented Holy Spirit, and the world represented our mission field. It made sense to me, a white person from Michigan with a church head-quartered in Indiana. Sylvia was black and lived in Birmingham, which has been nick-named bombingham do to the racial violence of the past. Sylvia, who was born in the 60’s, responded very differently to a burning cross. Even though see understood the imagery as I explained it to her, she still could not believe we would choose such an offensive image. Over the next few days, I noticed that I din’t see many Free Methodist Churches in Birmingham. I asked her if the United Methodist logo bothered her. She said that she thought they had a flag on the cross, not a flame.
I tell this story because I am reminded that we not only learn about culture and religion by studying images and symbols held sacred by others, but that if we must also discover how our sacred images are interpreted by others. Without know it, the sacred gaze becomes a sacred haze.
1 David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 1.
2 Ibid., 260.
3 Ibid., 3