Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Lure of Images: Interview with Author David Morgan on Religion and Visual Media

Dr. David Morgan currently serves as Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Professor of Christianity and the Arts, and Professor of Humanities and Art History in Christ College, the undergraduate humanities honors college of Valparaiso University in Indiana. After this academic year he will be moving to Duke University, where he will join the Department of Religion with a joint appointment in Art History. His area of research interests and expertise are the history of religious visual and print culture and American religious and cultural history.

Given the significance of art and visual imagery to religion, the shift in the West from text to image, and Dr. Morgan's forthcoming book on the topic as part of a series of new and interesting volumes on religion, film, and media from Routledge, I thought an interview would on visual imagery as it relates to religion would be worth exploring.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Morgan, thank you for agreeing to share the results of your research on religion and visual imagery with us. How did you develop an interest in this area, and how did it become your area of academic expertise?

David Morgan: My parents packed me off to college to become a Lutheran pastor, but it didn’t work. It took far more piety than I could muster. And Greek and Hebrew. So I became an art major and then went to get an MFA in sculpture. Half way through that program I decided that I’d rather write about art than try to make it. It was a prudent decision (I wasn’t very good as an artist) and the transition to art history was happy. I did a PhD at the University of Chicago, originally hoping to write a dissertation on some aspect of art history and religion, but became very interested in the history of art theory and focused on that. I took several courses in the Divinity School on the history of Christianity, intending eventually to find my way back to the study of religious imagery. That happened, quite by accident, in the fall of my first year as an assistant professor, in 1990, when I was invited to a small conference on art and religion at Anderson University in Indiana. There I was shown the recently acquired collection of images by the Protestant artist, Warner Sallman, in particular, his well-known “Head of Christ.” I was so astonished that there was actually an original painting behind all the lithographed copies of this image that I began on the spot to think about how one might study this image. That was the beginning of my interest in popular religious imagery.

Morehead's Musings: In one of your books, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (University of California Press, 2005), I know you've got a whole chapter in that book devoted to defining visual culture, but could you summarize some of that for us as the foundation and background of our conversation?

David Morgan: If culture is the full range of thoughts, feelings, objects, words, and practices that human beings use to construct and maintain the life-worlds in which they exist, visual culture is any aspect of that world-making activity that takes visual form. That includes dreams, fantasies, and apparitions as well as pictures, but also the ideas, values, fears, and obsessions that inform one’s understanding and use of images. As I understand it, the study of visual culture gives special attention to the scrutiny of visual practices, that is, what people do with images. As a field of inquiry, visual culture assumes that meaning does not inhere in images, but is activated by them. Some images seem to function only as denotations of codes. Like traffic signs: once you know the code, the visual signifier is devoid of interest. The sign tells you to stop or go, nothing more. But most images aren’t so ancillary to meaning-making. They enter into it much more integrally, messily. Most images acquire their meaning through engagement with viewers and through the interaction of viewers with one another. Consequently, it’s much more productive to study the reception of images in order to determine what they mean to people. Meaning is not simply abstract, but embodied and interactive. Religious visual culture is a great way to understand how religion works since many scholars have come to regard belief as a set of practices, as what people do rather than only or primarily the creeds or doctrines to which they assent. Even when some believers castigate, proscribe, or destroy images we have the opportunity to see visual culture at work.

Morehead's Musings: As you noted in an article you wrote as a Ph.D. student, Protestantism has long struggled with the use of imagery and has defined itself around the word and text. Why is this, and how does that compare with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy?

David Morgan: Words are incredibly powerful ways of building models of the world because they operate so transparently. What believers want their dominant form of representation to do is shine, to beam forth effulgently, to flood their lives with luminosity. You might call this translucence: representations that convey the divine light into the life-worlds of believers. The translucence of their words is what Protestants (but also Jews and Muslims) like about them as cultural constructions because the translucence suggests they aren’t culturally constructed, but trustworthy and compelling forms of revelation. One way to keep one’s prized mode of representation translucent is to make a rival form opaque, dark, empty of trust, devoid of authority and the capacity to compel belief. This is what some versions of the so-called "religions of the book" do with the notion of idols as dumb, empty blocks of wood or stone, utterly incapable of anything but fooling people, indulging what the biblical writers and many since polemically tag stupidity or vanity. As the Psalmist says, “Those who make them [idols] are like them,” that is, stupid and vain (Ps. 115: 8). The denigration of images is a strategy for bolstering the authority and reliability of words, in particular the words of the Bible as revealed, but, by extension, also the words of official teaching and theological discourse. It does not do much good to have a divinely inspired book that tells you about God if you can’t extend that talk to talk about God, that is, theology. So many (though hardly all) Protestant theologians have expressed anxiety about images. John Calvin insisted that “everything respecting God which is learned from images is futile and false” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, chap. 11, tr. Henry Beveridge). That’s quite remarkable when you consider how many children learn about their religion by reading illustrated books or hanging pictures of Jesus in their bedrooms. There is simply no doubt that the image of God in their minds and bodies is deeply shaped and colored by those images. Calvin may have been exaggerating in the grip of polemical fervor, but he has a deeper point to make: the human mind is not capable of thinking about God on its own imaginative terms without misrepresenting God, appropriating the deity to human needs. Calvin’s project pivoted on the absolute sovereignty of God. So he regarded images, the medium of imagination, as lies, as accommodation of the divine to human uses and desires. “God himself,” Calvin claimed, is “the only fit witness to himself.” What does that mean? For Calvin it meant God’s self-revelation in the words of scripture. But there is a big problem with this. As soon as the holy commits itself to a medium—visual, verbal, musical, scriptural—it becomes very fluid and slippery. It can’t be easily restricted. Where does the holy word end and human thought about the word begin? That is one reason why only men may preach in some traditions or why only priests can enact the sacraments in Catholicism. Fundamentalists try to solve the problem by Biblicism—everything in the Bible is "literally" true, whatever that means. Evangelicals steep themselves in Jesus-piety, insisting not so much on the exact truth of every word as the medium of the holy as much as one’s personal relationship to Jesus. Calvinists churn out iron-clad theologies, Euclidean proofs whose axioms are lapidary dogmas. Catholics rely on official teachings and canon law and the authority of priests and bishops and the ex-cathedra pronouncements of the pope. All of these are ways of investing the holy in a regimen of words and word-mongering institutions, whose rigidity is often assisted by contrasting word to image, or by colonizing images so that they act like words—illustrations whose principal function is to endorse the iconicity of texts. In this regard, there’s hardly a whit of difference between Protestants and Catholics.

Morehead's Musings: Has there been any shift in Protestant Evangelicalism in this area with Western culture becoming more focused around image and visual media?

David Morgan: Most Protestant churches and organizations still use images as devices to extend or bolster the work of words. Words are the primary medium and images enable it. It is in fact a powerful and very effective coupling. Images have been used to great advantage by Protestants to get their message out, to teach children and converts, to compete in the cultural marketplace, and to underscore the authority and clarity of the Bible as it is interpreted by Protestants. But if you leave the domain of official policy, theology, and institutional efforts and look at both popular culture and fine art, you will find very different visual behavior. For example, look at the way Evangelicals in the U.S. responded to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Those I interviewed told me that the film was true—true to the Bible, but not merely in terms of accurately portraying the events narrated in the Gospels. They meant true to the Jesus-piety they nurture in prayer, praise, and devotion. That was their Jesus on the screen, the guy who died for them. When I asked them about the Catholic iconography of the film, they had no idea what I was talking about. I asked them where Veronica’s Veil appears in the New Testament. They didn’t see it, even though Mel Gibson made a big point of putting it there. But Evangelicals did not simply project their own beliefs on the film. What they saw was more interesting than that. They saw a fascinating combination of what they brought and what Gibson gave them and what they experienced together in theatres crowded with Evangelicals. A visual culture approach to the film won’t assume its significance resides statically and wholly in the film itself, but in the engagement of it by viewers gathered together, creating a community of seeing. You have something of the same dynamic at work in “Christians in the Visual Arts,” a largely Evangelical Protestant association of artists who gather regularly to show their art to one another. They are well-trained, professional artists and art teachers who form a community that does not regard art as illustrational, at least not all of them. More and more, it should be said, Protestant congregations in the United States are becoming interested in the visual arts as the work of artists, that is, as the work celebrating an autonomy that the artists and growing numbers of congregants believe is important for the church to encounter. Sociologists like Mark Chaves and Robert Wuthnow have been studying the life of the arts in contemporary American churches and synagogues. And there is more work to be done. It’s a fascinating area for research. William Dyrness at Fuller Theological Seminary is actively engaged in incorporating ethnographic with visual analysis of contemporary Christian, Jewish, and Muslim worship spaces.

Morehead's Musings: With the history and legacy of Protestantism in the U.S. is the study of the visual culture of religions still a somewhat neglected aspect of study or is this beginning to change academically?

David Morgan: Given the massive momentum of traditional ways of thinking that still prevail among Protestants, even as Protestantism is taking new and global directions away from its long-established center of gravity, there is much more work to be done. The visual and material dimensions of many Protestant traditions have not been studied yet. The idea that Protestants don’t have images is still out there in great force. I hear it all the time, even from academics who study religion and ought to know better. It’s a legacy of the Protestant anti-visual polemic. Scholars simply take Protestant apologists at their word. Big mistake. The more people say they don’t have any images in their world of belief, the more suspicious I am that they are blinded by their ideology. I ask myself—why is it so important that they think their tradition has no images? Sometimes it’s because Protestants work with a stereotype of Roman Catholicism: altars covered by "idolatrous" images of Mary and the saints. Some Protestants appear to need this straw image to prop up their understanding of their distinctiveness: “we’re not like them.” Some Protestants use Hinduism or Buddhism or Neo-Paganism in the same way. This sort of ‘othering’ is quite common, and images often serve as the occasion for accomplishing it. But to understand where the visual enters Protestant life a powerful way, one needs to look elsewhere than the formal worship space. The home, the street, the school, the work place, the hospital, orphanage, the YMCA, the billboard, film, television, Internet—there is where you’ll find Protestant pictures. Protestants often work with a different idea of sacred space than traditional forms of Catholicism. I think some conservative Protestants like to stick so stubbornly to altar spaces as the epitome of idolatry in part because that allows them to turn a blind idea to the powerful icons that populate their everyday worlds. And I use the word ‘icons’ deliberately. By Protestant ‘icons’ I mean the pictures that tell them who they are by connecting them with their past and promising them their future, the pictures through which they see their worlds.

Morehead's Musings: In your new book, The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007), you discuss a variety of religious cultures and how they use imagery. How has imagery informed the perceptions and practices of the New Spirituality ("New Age"), Mormonism, and Occultism or Western esotericism in contrast to Protestantism?

David Morgan: New Age and Esotericism have tended to use images as deliberately polysemous, suggestive devices for generating free association. Tarot cards, for example are a marvelous visual technology. They are an interactive medium in which a person divines his or her narrative in conversation with a reader who knows how to use the rich and evocative imagery of the cards. Actually, Protestants do this all the time with the way they read the Bible. "Sortilege" is the technical term for it: you open the Bible and randomly point to a passage, which you then read as God’s special message for you. It’s a deft way of crafting intentionality from sheer chance. New Age and Esoteric practices are sponge-like in their appropriation of world religious lore. Practitioners fashion a sort of matrix of connections by culling from Native American, Egyptian, Occult, Masonic, Catholic, and other religions what may be called ‘symbols.’ A symbol of this kind is a modern invention. People may believe it’s ancient and venerable because that makes it a kind of iconic window on the past, another world of belief to which the practitioner seeks access in the quest to re-infuse her life with religious meaning. It is a project of re-enchantment that has made Esotericism especially appealing to many people today. Images or symbols play a very significant role in this effort. The symbols are rather like fragments extracted from their original setting and invested with a self-standing or autonomous meaning such that just having them, wearing them, displaying them, and exchanging them is powerful. Combining them in one’s own narrative directs their power in talismanic fashion to the events or unfinished plot of one’s life. Labyrinths have become an important site for making this happen. Yoga and meditation, feasts, magic circles, workshops, retreats, pow-wows, sweat lodges, Wiccan spirit gatherings—all these kinds of ritual events are among those that enable people to put symbols of various kinds to work, and usually in communal circumstances, as Sarah Pike has studied so well in her work on contemporary Paganism. These symbols are deployed within ritual settings, activated by incantations or personal narratives, linked to words, we see, though in a way that many Protestants find menacing. Why? One reason may be that the symbols of Neo-Pagan practice exert more power in the rituals of meaning-making than images are allowed in Protestantism. Neo-Pagan symbols wield as much weight as words—and the words aren’t the circumscribed, scriptural words bearing the authority of church institutions, creeds, and theologies. It’s a fascinating comparison that sheds like on how representation works.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Morgan, thank you again for taking time out of your academic schedule to address this important topic. I wish you the best with the latest book.

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

Wow, as you'd know from the plethora of Christian art and commentary on my blog, the conjunction of image, word and spirituality is a key interest area for me. This post covers so much , it has given me lots to ponder. Thanks.