Essay / Misc.

When in Doubt, LOOK

“I’ve made a very conscious effort to train myself in the visual tradition of the church. I’m stocking my head with the symbols that Christian artists have used to portray the mystery visually.”

Jane Redmont is the author of When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Everyday Life (HarperCollins, 1999), a readable and wide-ranging exploration of the practice of prayer in modern lives. Jane is part journalist and part theologian (she is now an assistant professor of religious studies at Guilford College), and her books are always woven together using threads of case studies, life stories, interviews, and reportage. When In Doubt, now out of print, is a little bit like a printed episode of This American Life on the topic of prayer, in which you meet all sorts of people who tell you about their prayer lives.

One of the people you meet in the book is me, because Jane is a friend of mine from grad school days in Berkeley, when (in addition to studying for our doctorates) I was drawing comic books and Jane was working on this book. My wife Susan and I both get nice thank yous in the preface. There were three different topics in the life of prayer that Jane interviewed me about: the use of images, the role of praise, and memorizing Scripture.

Images and prayer make a funny combination for most evangelical Protestants, and that includes me. In the overall flow of the chapter (on “Gazing”), my point of view is introduced fairly late, after a Greek Orthodox historian (hi Jim!), a latina Roman Catholic theologian talking about the virgin of Guadalupe (hi Nancy!), and a scholar whose interdisciplinary work has focused on this exact topic (hi Margaret!). So I show up among all these iconophiles as the Protestant who’s more than a little bit squeamish about the religious use of pictures, but who has properly evangelical reasons for bringing visual experience into the presence of God. Need I add that When in Doubt, Sing is not mainly addressed to an evangelical audience? But Jane’s the best sort of liberal, and gladly made room for my point of view along with the rest.

Here is what I said on the subject of images in Jane’s book, When In Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life, pages 80-83. I start as far back as Nancy’s story to let you see how the chapter moves from an iconic Catholic Mary devotion to my own point of view. The narrator’s voice begins:

Theologically speaking, Mary is not God. But what I found in researching Generous Lives, and again in conversations for this book—those with Orthodox and Catholic Christians especially—is that in prayer she functions as God. “Our Lady of Guadalupe has been important in prayer as an image of a God who cares and is faithful,” Nancy told me.

During her years of work in Seattle, Nancy also earned her first graduate degree in theology. “I was the only Latina in the [degree] program, out of 170 students, and the only person of color as well,” she remembered. “I would often go home at night and weep. And I always had her image in front of me. I remember keeping one credit card so I could leave town on a moment’s notice; I thought of resigning from the program. I would think, ‘This is not the place for me; the religion they express here is not my experience of Catholicism.’ Guadalupe enabled me to hang in there. I also did a lot of scholarly work on her: the history of her apparition, its context, its results.”

Our Lady of Guadalupe is for Nancy “an image of deep consolation. It’s akin to my experience of my grandmother and my mother, whose love was as close to unconditional as one could come: an experience of being loved and cared for, simply because of who you are—because you are.” Guadalupe is also “definitely a Gospel text. There are five Gospels in my life. Her story is a story of death and resurrection—of a people, of one person—on multiple levels. I relate to her, naturally, as a woman of blood both Spanish and Indian, and a woman shaped by the border in multiple ways.” She quoted to me Virgil Elizondo’s words about la Virgen, who moved the people of Mexico “from a death wish into a life wish.”

The theologian Margaret R. Miles, in Image as Insight, advocates “training in image use,” a cultural and spiritual discipline vital to this age of advertising and television. It consists of three sometimes simultaneous steps: (1) becoming aware of the messages one receives from the images with which one lives, (2) beginning to ask questions about media images, and (3) selecting or developing a repertoire of images for oneself. These images, Miles writes, “help one to visualize—to envision—personal and social transformation and thus to focus the energy of attention and affection with more clarity.”

Fred was raised in the Church of the Foursquare Gospel of Aimee Semple McPherson fame, which he describes as one form of “white middle-class pentecostalism. I got to know a lot of really good people and a few real saints.” He drifted away from Christianity, “read Nietzsche in high school and loved it, and got saved around age sixteen when a youth revival swept the local United Methodist church in western Kentucky.” Now an evangelical Christian and theological scholar, Fred majored in art in college, where his spiritual formation included both charismatic and evangelical experiences, many of them communal, all intensely personal; he continues to study art and to draw. “During the last two years,” he told me when I interviewed him in the second year of his doctoral program, “I’ve made a very conscious effort to train myself in the visual tradition of the church. I’m stocking my head with the symbols that Christian artists have used to portray the mystery visually. This is unconnected with the act of prayer itself, but is part of the all-day charging process”—Fred speaks often of “charging the eyes” with images—”and a big part of my spiritual formation in general.”

I am definitely way too Protestant,” Fred later wrote me, ” to bring images into an official time of private prayer. That arena has to stay stripped down or I the heebie-jeebies and my idolatry alarms go off. I could never bring images directly in that moment. Not physical images at least. Mental images are a whole different story, however. Mental images are absolutely unavoidable, especially at that moment when you are consciously trying to quiet yourself for prayer. It’s no good saying, ‘Images begone, I’m trying to pray,’ because my need for images abhors a vacuum. So the only solution is to intentionally choose images that are not distracting, but will in fact spur devotion if they put in an appearance during prayer.

“As a Protestant hooked on images, I’ve developed a defensive use of images in prayer,” Fred continued. “This is probably part of what I meant by ‘keeping my eyes charged.’ If I’ve got ‘Christ in glory’ images taped all over the walls, and have been staring inquisitively at all the odd little devices that artists have used to depict ‘glory,’ then smokin’ Joe Camel isn’t going to be invading my sanctuary, because there’s no room for him. Drive out the unwanted images with desired images.”

He clarified immediately: “Do I need to say that ‘unwanted images’ are not necessarily images of bad or tempting things (‘mmm, fudge brownies…’)? I don’t want to give the impression that my prayer life is a constant struggle to suppress sexual imagery, because that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m just talking about general visual clutter calling ignorantly for mental attention, causing you to lose your focus. Attentiveness is what I’m after.

“My current practice of glutting my imagination on the church’s visual tradition(s) is a good combination of being Mr. actively-in-charge-of-my-spirituality—I choose the images—and passively allowing the images to do their work on me: once I’ve chosen them, I really do open myself up to them and allow them to ‘inform’ me, and who’s to say that they aren’t the ones choosing me, anyway, since it’s hard to account for what rivets your attention on one picture but not another?” He mused, “It occurs to me that psychoanalysis was originally called ‘the talking cure.’ Maybe part of what I’m working on is ‘the looking cure.'” He added: “the affective power of images is one of their main draws for me. I’m pretty intellect-heavy, and my emotional range is probably somewhat stunted. Images help me expand that emotional range; they help me to feel as well as just to think. I use them to soften my heart.”

“When I got saved,” Fred remembered, “the most important development besides a hunger for the word of God taking hold of me was that the natural world took on a vibrancy and magnificence that it had never had for me before. I was getting high just seeing clouds for a period of several years. Give me a steep hillside with a tree on it and it was guaranteed rapture. I just had to go to art school, because I was useless for anything else, incapacitated as I was by the sight of any big rock, or a cluster of leaves. When God opened the eyes of my heart, my optic nerves were not unaffected.”

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