Have you ever been reading a novel and you come to a passage that is riveting? It seems like the protagonist is on the verge of connecting the dots, having the breakthrough that the reader had only a few pages before. Your eyes dart over the pages and you turn them with authority, compelling the narrative forward to see if the heroine will have that “A-HA!” moment. I have an experience like that when I read the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel.
The passage opens with Jesus teaching to another large, hungry crowd. Just a couple chapters before, Mark recorded Jesus feeding 5,000 people. In both stories, the people become hungry and Jesus miraculously multiplies loaves of bread and fish, producing enough to feed everyone present, plus some leftovers for the disciples. In the chapter eight instance, the crowd is 4,000 and the number of leftover baskets of food is 7 instead of 12.
After everyone was full, Jesus got into a boat with his disciples and went to Dalmanutha (scholars aren’t sure exactly where this is, but some guess it is close to Magada or Magdala). The Pharisees there wanted him to perform a sign so they could test to see if he was all he was cracked up to be. I can imagine Jesus rolling his eyes and sighing. I mean, he’d just miraculously fed a huge crowd of people on only a few loaves and a couple fish. Again. He gives them no “sign” and just gets back in the boat. As the reader, we feel like the insiders at this point, like his disciples. We’ve witnessed the miracles that the Pharisees demand to see. We’re feeling pretty good about this Jesus guy.
Back in the boat, the disciples freak out a little. It must have been lunchtime or something, because all of the sudden they’re lamenting about how they only have one loaf of bread. As the reader, we are ready for the disciples to present that loaf to Jesus and have him miraculously make it into 12 sub sandwiches. Bada-bing, bada-boom, lunch is served. But instead, the disciples start arguing with one another and trying to see who dropped the ball by not bringing enough bread. Then Jesus drops this on them:
“Why are you arguing about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Have your hearts been hardened? Though you have eyes, don’t you see? And though you have ears, can’t you hear? Don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you pick up?” They replied, “Twelve.” “When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you pick up?” They replied, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
Mark doesn’t record their answer directly. Instead, he jumps to a story about Jesus healing a blind man. Jesus spit on the dude’s eyes and asked him if he could see anything. The guy said he could see people and they looked like trees walking around. The Jesus put his hands over the guy’s eyes again and asked him to look once more. This time he said he saw everything clearly. As the reader, this is a transition point for us and for the disciples. We have been placed in the role of the blind man partially healed. We see stuff, but not clearly yet.
Then Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is. They throw back a variety of answers. Jesus looks right at Peter and asks him who HE thinks Jesus is. Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Bam. We have a winner. Peter is the first to see everything clearly. Mark then illustrates the significance of this revelation by writing about Jesus’ foreshadowing his own death and resurrection, and instructing his followers in the cost of actually following him. I’m telling you, it’s a great chapter.
So, what does any of this have to do with anything? Great question, dear reader. I’ve just finished up several weeks of reading on visual ethnography and visual methodology. The most recent book was David Morgan’s The Sacred Gaze. Like Sarah Pink’s text on visual ethnography, Morgan argues that there is much more to seeing than goes into the physical act of observing things visually. Jesus’ question, “Though you have eyes, don’t you see?” has resonated throughout my reading of Pink and Morgan.
Morgan’s main argument in the books is that seeing encompasses that which is seen as well as all the cultural assumptions, habits, inklings, and historical associations that surround what is being seen and who is doing the seeing. Add a spiritual component into the mix, usually vested there by the viewer, and he calls this the “sacred gaze.”
For him, any study of religious art (or artifact, for that matter) is best undertaken through examining this “seeing” component, above and beyond the piece itself. Belief is situated not in proposition, but in practice. He writes, “Practice is far more constitutive of belief than creedal affirmation is” (Kindle location 181). That idea isn’t as contested as Morgan seems to think. What is contested throughout Judeo-Christian history is the proper role of the sacred gaze in the faith community. For the Orthodox Christians, icons are windows into the Kingdom of God. For the Churches of Christ, any image is a potential idol.
The take away for me is the need for any given faith community to understand the power of the visual aspect of our faith. From the architecture of our worship spaces, to the lighting within them, to the accoutrements we adorn our homes with, images and symbols surround us and they mean something. Our values, our beliefs are practiced in the images and symbols we put around us and how we arrange our “things” to reflect those values and beliefs.
So, take a look around the space you’re in right now. What things do you see? How do they make you feel? How does their arrangement and their proximity to you reflect the purpose of the space? What can you deduce about the space based on what you see from your vantage point? The next time you enter into a space for worship, ask the same questions. You may be surprised (perhaps pleasantly so, perhaps not) by what you find.Jesus’ disciples weren’t blind. Their eyes worked just fine. But for a long time, they sure couldn’t see.