Diana Eck, “Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India” (1998 edition)

Diana Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, (1998 ed.)

Eck’s essay examines the practices of “holy seeing” among Hindus in India and America. Darshan simply means seeing, but it holds much richer valences. According to Eck, seeing the divine image with one’s own eyes—and in turn being seen by the divine image—constitutes “the central act of Hindu worship” for laypeople (3). In the visual image, the deity “gives” darshan and the people “take” darshan. Seeing acts as a kind of touch between the human and the divine—the worshipper reaches out with the eyes and the eyes of the deity reach back (9). But the act of holy seeing involves more than just the eyes. Worshippers engage the divine image with their whole bodies: touching it with the hands, hearing mantras near it, eating consecrated food in its presence, and smelling oil lamp offerings. Presence proves a key concept for this work—and connects it to the broader study of visuality in religions. Eck argues that, at bottom, darshan works because “God is present in the image, whether for a moment, a week, or forever. People come to see because there is something very powerful there to see” (51).

Though its argument now feels somewhat dated (it was originally published in 1981), darshan still provides a great text on visuality in religion. I think it would work especially well in a gateway course: it expands students’ understanding of what vision and images can be/do, but it does so without the heavy theory of more recent works. It’s also short and very readable. Eck’s account of the Sri Lakshmi temple in Ashland, MA “eye-opening ceremony” (in the afterword) and her brief discussion of mass-produced images (43-44) provide especially healthy food for discussion. In the former, elaborate rituals help to tame the awesome power that emits from the image when the deity becomes present and opens its eyes. Shown first to a cow, then a group of young girls, then others, worshippers must all look at the deity in a mirror before turning to the image itself. The section on mass-produced images deals with a completely different set of issues: cheap, readily available images of temple images that occupy people’s home shrines. These, writes Eck, allow worshippers to “have darshan not only of the image, but, of the picture of the image as well!” (44). In other words, divine presence remains even in reproductions of the divine image. Take that, Walter Benjamin?

Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Reformation of the Image” (2008)

Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (U Chicago, 2008)

Ostensibly, Koerner’s enormous book is “about” an altarpiece painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder for Martin Luther’s parish in Wittenberg (1547). But this book offers far, far more than a history of one painting. Koerner offers a thorough examination of how images changed during the Reformation, how what people thought about images and did with images changed during the Reformation, and how the Reformation happened in images. He begins by noting that art historians have given short shrift to Protestant painting during the Reformation. If Protestants appear at all in histories of this period, they do so as iconoclastic villains. Cranach, whose career straddled the crucial years of Luther’s reforms, is said to have “declined” in genius when making his Protestant paintings—their clear messages and inclusion of texts too didactic to be great art. Rather than join the chorus of detractors, Koerner follows his sources carefully. He not only discovers that Protestants made images as much as they destroyed them, but that the question of images stood at the center of the Reformation. Early Protestants made images to demonstrate the impotence of images; they made images to show the power of the word, the invisibility of the true church, and the transcendence of God. While some radical reformers wanted to abolish images altogether, Martin Luther realized that doing so actually acknowledged the power of images. After all, if images don’t pose a threat, there’s no reason to destroy them. Instead, Luther thought that images could become vehicles to show the power of the Word alone, to reveal the inadequacy of mediations of the Word. By creating images to convey these ideas, Koerner argues, Protestants actually helped to create a recognizably modern understanding of “art”—in particular, the “art” of art historians, who will write endlessly about the meaning of an image, simultaneously declaring that the best works do not convey obvious meanings.

There’s far too much in this book to treat in a short blog post—one reviewer calls it “biblical” in length. So take my comments for what they are and read the thing yourself: it’s worth the effort. Koerner sheds important light on the material processes by which “religious belief” took shape in the modern world. Iconoclastic Protestants radically “linguistified” the sacred, which was “formerly manifested objectively, in special elevated things, places, persons and institutions” (151-152). Where before the actions of the church and her officers held efficacy by divine right, individuals now had to believe, to reveal understanding of the saving Word. The site of sacred action moved from objects to the subjects, to “the language-based activity of understanding and being understood” (152). For Luther, the preacher reads the Word, which reveals the image of Christ crucified, which brings saving grace to the listener who understands (see image above). Even in the most extreme cases, such as Karlstadt’s iconoclasm, “belief” did not just play out on the level of minds and spirits. Things, images, buildings, practices, techniques of the body allowed “belief” to emerge.

By A.T. Coates

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter”

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion: How Things Matter” in Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality, ed. Meyer and Houtman(2012).

In their concise introduction to Things, Meyer and Houtman offer a very useful overview of the state of the field in material religion. If you are curious about what people mean by the supposed “material turn” in religious studies or if you just are looking to introduce the topic to an undergrad class, this essay lights the path well.

The essay begins with a justification for the project of studying religion by studying things. Like most of those committed to materializing the study of religion, Meyer and Houtman insist that the terms “religion” and “things” need not be conceived in antagonistic terms. Though some scholars want to eschew the term “religion” altogether, Meyer and Houtman think it can still serve useful functions if properly qualified. The historically contingent term “religion” is part of our public and scholarly discourse, like it or not, and it may yet have something to teach us. For the study of religious material culture, this especially means not privileging immaterial “beliefs” in our scholarly work. By turning our attention to things, we might learn new things about how “religion” operates in public discourse, in the academy, and in people’s lives. Like “religion,” things seem to be all around us, like it or not. But far from just inserting “things” into established scholarly paradigms (e.g. throwing a few pictures into a church history book), Meyer and Houtman insist on interrogating, situating, and historicizing “things”: “rematerialization [of the study of religion] is not simply a question of bringing ‘things’ back in, but requires a critical, reflexive endeavor that rescripts the meaning of materiality itself on the basis of detailed historical and ethnographic research” (8). In other words, we ought not take for granted what “things” are, what they can/can’t do, what people can/can’t do with them, for them, to them, etc. The study of religion proves an especially rich ground for investigating things because it contains so many examples of “bad objecthood”: totem, idol, and fetish to name just a few. Such “bad objects” reveal people’s assumptions about materiality and immateriality, about the “proper” spheres and relationships between “the spiritual” and “the material.”

Review by A.T. Coates

Paul Gutjahr, “An American Bible”

Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford Press, 1999).

Review by A.T. Coates

Gutjahr’s groundbreaking work An American Bible examines the Bible’s history as an American book. That is, Gutjahr illuminates the Bible’s changing role in 19th-century American print culture by focusing on its qualities qua book—especially how its changing contents and packaging changed its role in American life. While once the good book stood at the center of American print culture, by the 1880s Americans had become a people of the good books. The mass-production of cheap scriptures, proliferating “accurate” translations, ornately illustrated commoditized Bibles, “life of Jesus” adaptations, and non-biblical school textbooks dislodged the Bible from its once-dominant position. The Bible’s cultural role changed as its material qualities as a book changed.

Chapter 2, which traces the history of Bible illustration, offers the most interesting arguments for students of visual or material culture. As the century progressed, publishers seemed to add more and more detailed illustrations to larger and larger Bibles. Commercial concerns mingled with sentimentalist education strategies, the Common Sense philosophical impulse to verify the Bible’s stories led publishers to include maps, charts, and detailed (even fanciful) pictures that would bring interpretive insight. Publishers claimed that their illustrations helped readers interpret the Bible more accurately, which brought the convenient side effect of higher sales.

 

Martin Kemp, “Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon” (2012)

Martin Kemp, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (2012) – Review by A.T. Coates

Kemp’s lavishly illustrated art history text grapples with an important question for studies of religious visual cultures: what makes an image an icon? Though he offers a definition of “icon” near the beginning of the book, Kemp chooses his materials idiosyncratically and avoids analytical precision intentionally. There is no one definite criterion, no single necessary cause, that makes a “merely famous” image into an icon—but we all know an icon when we see one. He writes, “an iconic image is one that has achieved wholly exceptional levels of widespread recognizability and has come to carry a rich series of varied associations… across time and cultures, such that it has… transgressed the parameters of its initial making, function, context, and meaning” (3). So, what kinds of images does Kemp consider icons? He examines 11 varied examples: Jesus, the cross, the heart shape, the lion, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the head of Che Guevara, Nick Ut’s photograph “Villagers Fleeing Along Route 1” (napalmed and naked), the American flag, the Coca-Cola bottle shape, the double-helix shape of DNA, and the formula e=mc2.

If this seems like a motley crew, it’s supposed to. The book reads like an extended thought experiment: Are Jesus, the Mona Lisa, and e=mc2 all icons? If so, are they icons in the same way? If the medium, type of image, time period, and original function/purpose/intent of the image can vary dramatically from icon to icon, what makes one image iconic and another simply famous? In the conclusion, Kemp proposes that the term “icon” refers to a fuzzy set: much like “too hot” and “too cold,” no single set of characteristics defines the term “icon.” Nonetheless, some characteristics do seem to cluster around icons, and some images are much more likely to be counted as icons than others. Not all icons share a given set of characteristics, but we do seem to know an icon when we see it.

This is a beautiful, highly readable book with much interesting food for thought—but its “fuzzy” approach often seems to beg for more rigorous analysis from religious studies scholars. If I were to assign this to a class, I would have them read only the chapters on Mona Lisa, Che, the American flag, and the Coke bottle. In these chapters, the author’s art historical method proves quite illuminating—if somewhat lacking. Mona Lisa’s life as an icon has been quite different than the Coke bottle’s, but both demonstrate superb design and execution. But even in the chapter on Mona Lisa, the only icon from Kemp’s area of specialization as an art historian, his analysis practically begged for the input of a religious studies scholar like David Morgan. My favorite moment came when Kemp described his first private, close-up encounter with the Mona Lisa—outside its usual prison of extra-durable glass, velvet ropes, and pushy tourists. Having been specially invited to view the painting during its annual cleaning/inspection, the Oxford professor resorts to language that sounds frankly religious to describe the encounter with “the real thing.” He describes it as “spine-tingling in a way that is difficult to describe without sounding pretentious. Great art encountered in the flesh can produce sensations that go beyond visual stimulation” (142). After regaining his composure and talking about Da Vinci’s application of paint, the use of “incident and reflected light,” and his own process of viewing the image, he concludes in the worshipful mode: “And, of course, there is always her (Lisa’s) uncanny presence. I have never experienced a stronger feeling of presence in a work of art. . . . she is not just looking. She is overtly reacting, smiling, with a knowingness that is perpetually engaging and even disconcerting” (145). Here, the esteemed art historian sounds more like a religious devotee. Though he mentions the notion of presence (see 342), we do not get a good sense of what “presence” entails. More troublingly, this book tells us very little about how people encounter and negotiate the “presence” of their icons. The image of an ancestor demands food and acts of obeisance. The presence of Jesus in a doorway offers protection over the home. The presence of Our Lady in a statue heals the sick. The cross pendant around an evangelical’s neck reminds of Jesus’ presence in daily life and serves as a reminder to avoid sin. Each of these instances could be considered encounters with an “icon.” But they are also very different kinds of religious activities. Some of these “icons” seem more like amulets, apotropaic symbols, power objects, or tutelaries. Most importantly, people engage them in very different ways. Though he offers superb readings of the making of icons, Kemp’s analysis would have benefitted from more attention to their reception. By exploring the subtleties of how people engage with icons, Kemp’s fuzzy category might have come into sharper focus.

 

Scene from the Duke-UNC rivalry, 1939

Like any good cultural historian, I spent part of my Sunday evening poking around the Library of Congress digital archive. I came across this 1939 photo by Marion Post Wolcott entitled “Spectators standing outside the gate of the Duke University Stadium because there were no more seating accomodations. Duke University-North Carolina game. Durham, North Carolina.” I suspect this is for a football game, but I haven’t confirmed that. I love that this captures the fact that people wore dresses and suits to college sporting events. I’d like to meet the person who finally said, “I’m sick of wearing this goddam vest to basketball games–I’m going with the giant foam finger!”

Christian Advertising’s lighter side… a Revolution in Corsets.

People often talk about Christian advertising as if it is something new, a sign of secularism’s “takeover” of Christianity. But images like this one from 1877 suggest that the lines between church and commerce have been blurred for over a century. This image comes from the Sunday-School Times, vol. XIX, page 849.

Sunday-School Times Corset Ad

Sunday-School Times. Vol. XIX, p. 849.

I’m guessing that this was a failed revolution. Perhaps cork wasn’t quite the life-changing corset material it was made out to be? Cooley’s Cork Corsets… gone but not forgotten.

Find A.T. Coates all over the internet…

I’m A.T. Coates, a Duke PhD student in American Religion.

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Ways of Seeing: On the Role of Images in “Religious” Violence (repost)

Haven’t we seen this before? When the so-called “Danish Cartoon Controversy” sparked protests around the world in 2005, American media outlets spoke vaguely and often about how the image offended “Muslim beliefs.” Seven years later, and again a mocking image of Muhammad—this time a Youtube video called “Innocence of Muslims”—has received a lion’s share of the blame for a complex and varied series of protests around the world. News reports revel in the details of the film, almost always mentioning its “amateurish” production quality in the same breath as its “offensive” content. Tony Blair expressed this perspective in a BBC interview, saying the film was “wrong and offensive but also laughable as a piece of filmmaking.” According to Blair, the reaction to the video has been “absurd.” Other commentators have taken this position a step further, stating that living in the modern world means being offended sometimes, so anyone who got upset about the video should just get over it. Here we have a familiar view of Middle Eastern affairs: there’s the “modern” West on one side, “fundamentalist” Islam on the other (or “fundamentalism” West vs. “fundamentalism” East). While people are happy to blame the protests on a video that upset fundamentalists, practically no one bothers to examine how images work in the lives of the people who have protested. We’re left to ponder why anyone would take to the streets over a low-budget Youtube video. Like Tony Blair, we’re encouraged to view the response as “absurd.”

As someone who thinks seriously about how images work in religions, I’m not surprised that a video (or a cartoon) might contribute to protests or violence. This has nothing to do with the “nature” of Islam. Nor does it have anything to do with clashes between “fundamentalist” and “modern” worldviews. Rather, my statement stems from an acknowledgement that images play important roles in people’s lives—as many recent scholars of “material religion” have suggested. Even in supposedly “aniconic” traditions like Islam or Protestantism, images are far from trivial.

Images have power. Sometimes, we might best describe this as affective power: images can revolt us, arouse us, terrify us, and shock us. They provoke strong responses from our bodies. They can help us to remember lost loved ones or to imagine spiritual places. Images also have effective power: they can do things in the world. Our Lady of Guadalupe works miracles. Russian icons demand to be touched and kissed. The images a little boy saw while on an operating table proved to many evangelicals that Heaven is real. When considering images in religious contexts, we’re often looking at the places where Heaven and earth meet, where embodied individuals encounter supernatural powers. So it’s no wonder that many religious communities try to sequester, circumscribe, ignore, or control images. The wrong kinds of images can cause supernatural harm. Images can lure people away from a “proper” understanding of an abstract, distant, or indescribable deity precisely because they are so powerful.

Religiously offensive images don’t just insult people’s abstract beliefs. In an important article in Critical Inquiry, Saba Mahmood invoked Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus to describe how the Danish cartoons hurt many Muslims: “the offense the cartoons committed was not against a moral interdiction (thou shalt not make images of Muhammed) but against a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded” (35.4, p. 849). According to Mahmood, Muhammad serves as an image of the ideal Muslim for many people. His moral conduct, speech, even his bodily habits are worthy of emulation in daily life. The (usually) mental image of his experience in the world shows pious Muslims what to do with their bodies and helps them to make sense of their own lives. By attacking their image of the Prophet, Mahmood contends, the cartoons didn’t just offend a legal principle like “blasphemy”—they hurt a whole way of experiencing the world.

Images also help to foster collective identities. When we belong to a community, we share ways of seeing certain images. For example, many Catholics can discern a genuine apparition of Mary on a tortilla, in a dream, or at a shrine. Knowing the difference between dark spots and a genuine appearance of Our Lady marks the boundary of the group. Communities that share ways of seeing also share ways of feeling about what they see. Many evangelicals wept together when they watched The Passion of the Christ because they saw Romans whipping their Jesus. In evangelical communities, Jesus serves as an image of ideal moral conduct (WWJD?) and friendship (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus…”). They wept when they saw that Jesus brutally beaten in Mel Gibson’s movie. Such shared emotions and experiences aren’t trivial. They help to hold communities together.

I don’t know if a Youtube video catalyzed this week’s protests. But it wouldn’t surprise me. If indeed the video did contribute to this week’s events, we can do far more than to dismiss people’s reactions as trivial or absurd, the product of “fundamentalist” reluctance to embrace the modern world. Before we make diagnoses about what role the images played in the protest, we need to develop robust understandings of how images work in the particular contexts where protests happened.

THIS IS A REPOST OF A PIECE I WROTE FOR RELIGION BULLETIN, 18 SEPT 2012. Check out the original post here: http://www.equinoxpub.com/blog/2012/09/ways-of-seeing-on-the-role-of-images-in-religious-violence/