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

Uncomfortable Gazes

Written by: on September 11, 2014

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.

Lakota Jesus

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.

sundance christ

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.

About the Author


John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

7 responses to “Uncomfortable Gazes”

  1. mm Deve Persad says:

    You pose excellent questions, here, John. I appreciate your willingness to bring self-reflection into the equation. There’s a natural tendency to assume that our own perspective is the correct one, but you challenge to be willing to examine, even our long-held preconceptions. You make a statement regarding art that stands out to me: “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.” Art is never neutral. It always has a message. The question that I struggle with (when it comes to “religious” or “christian” art) is, to what extent does the cultural setting influence art over and above the scriptural truth it’s trying to convey? Am I to look at the picture and have a greater appreciation for the culture and it’s view of God? Or am I supposed to consider the truth of God and appreciate the way it’s been captured by the culture? I guess that’s where the Visual Ethnography part is so necessary – to hear the story of the artist. Thanks for inspiring my ramble.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Deve. I think you bring up a central point that we must always keep in mind: Is God the focus or is it culture. And as I mention, there is the constant concern for syncretism here. But another approach might be helpful, and that is to simply ask the question about what do these images tell about a biblical view of God that I might have missed because of my culture and traditions? Am I challenged to think again about my assumptions? Asking the right questions is always of great value. Thanks for your insights!

  2. mm Stefania Tarasut says:

    This is great John! I enjoy religious art that makes me uncomfortable because it always makes me look back at God and wonder if somewhere in my understanding of him I have made him smaller than he should be.
    It’s not the picture itself that draws me in, but rather the majesty of God.
    Good thoughts John!

  3. Liz Linssen says:

    Dear John,
    It was really interesting to see those images of ‘Lakota Jesus’ and also your response to them. I do wonder, how would Jesus react to such paintings? After all, Jesus looked no more European than He did Lakota.
    And what if Jesus chose to appear to someone from among the Lakota people in dreams (as He did to that Indian woman I mentioned in my post)? How would He choose to appear them?
    At the end of the day, whatever image we have of Jesus in our minds is probably wrong. A truer picture is how Revelation shows Him, in all His glory.
    I don’t think it matters too much how we paint Jesus. What is more important is our love and affection for Him.

  4. mm Julie Dodge says:

    John –
    I love your consideration of the Lakota Jesus. When I was initially reading your visceral response to the Lakota Jesus, I had the same thoughts about the European Jesus. On the one hand, I appreciate the indigenous effort to see God as like them – we all seem to do this in different ways. And if we are indeed created in His image it makes sense that we would want to see Him like us. The awareness needs to remain with the idea that the art is a reflection of our own ideas and beliefs, and not necessarily a “true” image of God. I think it’s ok for art to cause us to see that God is relevant to us in our setting and culture, but we must remain wary of not skewing the truth of the Biblical Jesus. I even thought about the Sun Dance Jesus – on the one hand, it depicts His suffering in a manner which the Lakota can identify. On the other hand, it infuses the art with traditional spirituality. That’s where we have to remain cautious. And that is one of the great challenges of cross cultural ministry. How do we communicate in a way that makes sense to people in their understanding and culture without compromising and mixing false teaching and spirituality. And how do we determine the essentials of our faith are adhered to, while honoring the traditions and customs of another culture? Good thoughts, John.

  5. John,
    Having driven across South Dakota I am fascinated with your work and perspectives. It is amazing how our frameworks inform us. Your post is profound and compelling as you reveal your response to the Lakota icons. Reading about it makes me realize that we often view images from our perspective (or experience) and yet you have helped me to think about the challenges of interpretation and communication from the other perspective. Thanks John!

  6. Miriam Mendez says:

    John, I appreciate your personal reflection in your post. Your post got me thinking about how I visualize Jesus – and it’s not as a Latino Jesus or even a white European Jesus– but my image of Jesus is more about his character and attributes. I can look at an image of Jesus but what I focus more on is what are his eyes saying–his expression—or his posture. I suppose the artist can lead us to a particular image of Jesus, but it’s his life more than his look that I see in the images. Hmmm, your post got me really thinking about this…Thanks, John!

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