This post is part of my Independent Study in Religious Communication and Digital Life at the University of North Dakota. See a description of the course here, a review other books here, here, here, and here.
Interdisciplinary study is at the heart of digital religion studies. David Morgan’s book, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice is a fine example of how a scholar bridges two scholarly fields with depth and clarity, namely art history and religion.
At the heart of Morgan’s project is the wish to expand our understanding of religion to one that includes the study of images: “I wish to show how visual studies can contribute to the scholarly understanding of religion. The value of theoretical reflection should be measured, finally, by the contribution it makes to illuminating the actual objects of study: the visuality of religion” (27). To set the foundation of his argument, Morgan uses the first three chapters to define and describe basics of visual theory as they intersect religion. For example, Morgan describes how several religious traditions use images to communicate with God, or at least “the unseen, mysterious, and potentially uncontrollable forces that are understood to govern life” (59). In doing so he draws on a wide array of sources including Buddhist pilgrims interacting with statues in Thailand, Eastern Orthodox iconography, and West African masks used to invoke spiritual forces.
Next, Morgan deals at length with iconoclasm and the idolatry some associate with visual culture. His thoroughgoing overview—broad in both history and geography—helps give the reader a wide grasp of iconoclast history and approaches. American readers might particularly enjoy his discussion of the political, legal, and economic implications of patriotic images such as the Iwo Jima memorial, flag images across history, and the relatively recent destruction of Baath party statues during the Iraq war.
The third and final section, “The Social Life of Pictures” particularly considers family and gender issues, as well as national icons. Several images from early American religious tracts and Sunday School programs give the reader an idea how faith and gender were perceived and imaged over the course of American history. Discussion of national icons includes images of ubiquity and use of Jesus portraits, the Bible, and flag images.
Ultimately, Morgan concludes suggesting by what standards his book and other cross-disciplinary ventures might be measured: “Unless scholars are able to show that they learn something more about religion by understanding how it happens visually, the visual culture of religion has little to recommend it as a field or method of study” (257). By the points, however, Morgan has clearly shown that images can help scholars register everything from religious social change to moral discourse, from patriotic stridency to prayer life. Morgan argues persuasively that we cannot understand religious practice in full (both historic and present-day) without considering the power of images in shaping believers. His argument, as well as his interdisciplinary method, has surely convinced this young scholar.