Last spring, I traveled to Porcupine, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation to work with my Lakota friends. On this trip, I had the opportunity to visit a Catholic school where I wandered the halls till I came across a display case that held several icons of Jesus and Mary. Enjoying sacred art, I had to stop and take a closer look.
The first one, Jesus with Children, to be honest, cause a visceral response in me. I was taken back by what I saw. Jesus here is clearly a Lakota Sioux, dressed in native costume and situated comfortably in the Lakota culture.
The second icon even more disturbed me. It displayed Jesus with the markings of the Sun Dance, the traditional worship ceremony for the Lakota men that resulted in scaring on the chest. Here, not only was Jesus represented as a Lakota, but was also a true Lakota who had experienced the painful suffering of the Sun Dance. My initial response was horror. This was not the Jesus of the Bible, the Jewish man from Palestine; nor was this the universal Jesus not tied to any one particular culture. This was just not right!
Both my reaction and the very existence of these Lakota Icons are the focus of The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, by David Morgan. This book looks at the power of images. Coming at visual culture from the perspective of the art-historian, Morgan explains that there is much to be learned from examining images in light of their historical setting, while comparing them with other images and other forms of media. In many ways, images provide a window into understanding more deeply the actual beliefs and practices of people, giving a truer picture than what they might say about what they believe. He suggests that “one gets much further in understanding religion by examining how people combine what they say with what they do and see.”[i] This particular view is reflected in the recent work of James K.A. Smith on worship, who writes, “what’s at stake here is not just how we think about the world but how we inhabit the world—how we act. We are what we love precisely because we do what we love.”[ii] Morgan would agree. He states that “practice is far more constitutive of belief than creedal affirmation…”[iii] because “(b)elief is an embodied practice no less than a cerebral one”[iv] By looking closely at the visual practices (both in ceremony and in art), one gains a truer picture of an individual or community’s actual beliefs. Therefore, images are rarely neutral. They come loaded with information and intentions; they are covenanted within communities that give them authority and influence; and they resonate on a visceral level.
I think it is important to understand that this does not only apply to religious images. We are surrounded by visual images with little awareness of their power, or with little understanding that images are infused with messages that preach, teach and influence us on a deeper level then our intellect. In fact, the power images is found in “their capacity to frighten, seduce, deceive, influence, and inspire…”[v] If nothing else, this study should cause one to stop and reflect on what images are actually saying to us and how they might influence us, our community and our society.
After reading this book, I couldn’t help but think about how I personally visualize Jesus and how comfortable I am with a white, European Jesus. I also considered how uncomfortable and foreign would be the Head of Christ by Warner Sallman to someone of the Lakota culture? And really, hasn’t my culture done the same thing to Jesus as the Native American artist did in his creation of the Lakota Icons? Why should my European Jesus be ok but a Lakota Jesus not? And why did a Lakota Jesus make me so uncomfortable, except that he doesn’t look more like me or most people I know? Maybe what I was experiencing was conviction, that I was not without fault in finding a Jesus that fit comfortably into my culture and thinking, while not allowing the same for another culture. Morgan suggests that religious images are often “the site of cultural engagement between or among groups, as visual means for interpreting and representing one another, and as a medium for a group’s self-understanding.”[vi] As Christianity spreads, “indigenous culture makes the Christian symbol its own by transforming its features (often reacting to the cultural biases of the missionizing society) but affirming its Christian identity as universal.”[vii] In every new culture and community to which Christianity spreads, there will be mixture of faith and culture with the very real danger of syncretism, along with the very important need to find ways to make Jesus real to a people where they are at. How important is it that the Lakota people know that Jesus is for them and to understand that He did suffer in His incarnate body in a way that Lakota people can relate? Because an image doesn’t speak to me does not lessen its power to speak to others. Maybe a more appropriate response would be, as Morgan suggests, to “celebrate indigenous Christian art for its varied responses to the Gospel’s inspiration.”[viii]
[i] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 8.
[ii] James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2013), 12.
[iii] Ibid., 7.
[iv] Ibid., 21.
[v] Ibid., 258.
[vi] Ibid., 186.
[vii] Ibid., 157.
[viii] Ibid., 177.