Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: Visual Piety

David Morgan. Visual Piety : A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1998.

In literature I often find this book mentioned alongside Colleen McDannell’s Material Christianity, R. Laurence Moore’s Selling God and Heather Hendershot’s Shaking the World for Jesus as a cornerstone in the field of researching the material reality that helps shape religious practice. Mr. Morgan is a very productive man but this book seems to have been a trailblazing one. Be that true or not at the very least I think it was breathtaking, and even at times unsettling.
            The first thing that makes this book stand out is method. I love both McDannell’s and Moore’s books, but there is still something that lacks. Both perform historic research. That’s fine of course and they do go to great lengths to try and reconstruct what all the material goods actually meant to people living at the time. But testimonies can only tell you so much about what people actually did with all these things (a limit McDannell in her book in a moment of honesty actually laments). This is however something that Morgan actually looks into by means of a modest research. He asked people about their personal experience regarding Sallman’s Head of Christ. This yields some interesting results that go beyond merely looking at the products and the testimony of its users from the past only. In a way one might say it’s even more real, because instead of having to second guess about what people meant when they wrote about their experiences in an unreachable past, you can just ask them. Of course you might still get it wrong, but at least you can go straight(er) to the source. Morgan is the first one I encounter that makes use of sociological method in addition to historical research in trying to understand better the reception of popular religious material culture.
            Another thing that struck me in this book is that it sometimes chilled me. This should really only mean two things: The world is a horrible place and Morgan is a damn good writer. I got the cold shivers running down my spine reading about the way that Christianity is turned from a lovely ideal of how to raise your children teaching them values of kindness, solidarity, forgiveness and compassion to a nazi-esque ideology of exterminating all members of the human race that aren’t “really” Christian. The reasoning goes that what starts as a good idea about raising your kids quickly turns into the idea that you can only make sure people turn out okay if you start from birth. If you don’t, it’s already too late. What does that mean? That you should be born into Christianity and if you aren’t then there is no hope. Therefore, it is reasoned, Christians should focus on raising good families and little by little try and exterminate all other rivaling people that are supposedly beyond redemption. It turns religion into family and tribe and takes away the idea of Christian by choice and turns it into Christian by birth (seemingly a very un-American idea by the way, usually preferring believer’s baptism over infant baptism, emphasizing personal choice over fate). Driving this point home both intellectually and emotionally is not an easy task and certainly in my opinion Morgan managed to do this and it hit me hardest since reading Jon Savage’s Teenage where he talks about the horrible and lonely death of Anne Frank.[1]
            Morgan’s ideas are innovating. His sharp observations, clever use of research results and his ability to tell stories like the one above and others, like that of Muscular Christianity, make this book a standard on the theme of material Christianity in the United States and in fact one of worth in its own right.

[1] Might I add to this that it took a good English writer like Savage to finally break my native Amsterdam shield of cynicism about the fate of Anne Frank, making sure I actually heard it for the first time after having heard it already told uninspired by bad teachers a thousand times before.

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