Saint me, Saint you…


Well, I’m back from holiday travels and ready for full-steam ahead 2007.

To kick things off, here’s an article written by a friend of ours, Christi Foist.

She sent me this to help with my research for the Jesus Portraits.

I thought it was an interesting piece and would be great to share with the millions logging onto the wayne-o-shere.

I’ve pasted the entire article here, but if you have any problems, this is a link to the original.



“Saints” as the body of God

The Iconic Nature of Family Portraiture for Evangelical Christians
Presenter: Christi A. Foist
My first visit to New York City came in May 2002 when I was privileged to participate in a symposium here on the intersection of art and religion. At the time, I was struck by two things. First of all, the under-representation of scholars from my discipline, religious studies. Secondly, and perhaps related to that, I was struck by the awkwardness of even the group assembled here in discussing the difference between “the religious” and “the secular.” Even within religious studies, this can be a burning question. Scholars in my field are often at pains to distinguish what we do from theology. Sometimes it can be an issue of legitimacy similar to the struggle for photography to be included in the canon of “Art.”
How to examine religious images is often a question equally as difficult as what constitute religious images. In that both art history and religious studies consider themselves secular disciplines, sometimes what we define as “religious” is different than what the practitioners themselves, i.e., the insiders, would define as such. While the scholarly distance of our “outsider’s” perspective is important, I think there is generally a desire to balance that with the insiders’ self-understanding. How ideal, then, to focus on those objects and images whose importance both insider and outsider would probably concede: images and objects with explicitly religious themes, iconography or symbolism: Jesus, Mary, the nature of religious community, etc. David Morgan, here in this audience today, has done fine work on the importance of Jesus images in American Protestantism. Likewise, Colleen McDannell in her book Material Christianity, focuses on such topics as Christian retailing and the cooption of popular slogans in clever religious T-shirts, the prominence of Bibles, shrines, and pictures of Jesus or saints in homes documented by the FSA photography project, and so on. For almost none of the images she includes in the book does one require extensive caption information to grasp why these objects are included in a book about religious material culture. Why is that? Because of certain visual cues that make the “religious” nature of the objects readily apparent.

However, as we all know, the ontology of material objects is difficult to define in that it is dependent on context and the community of interpretation. Patrick Henry in his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion has a fine gloss on the much-maligned Piss Christ in which he argues that work could be taken as religious and not the heretical, sacrilegious piece so many deemed it.

What might we say about this object for sale at most Urban Outfitter stores — is it religious? Secular? Reverent? Ironic? Or what about this T-shirt?

Likewise, the intention and reception of Mel Gibson’s recent The Passion is a striking contrast to Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Both are concerned with the same religious figures and much of the same story, yet their reception has been remarkably different.

I realize not all these examples are taken from the world of art, per se, and some are indeed controversial, but I select them because they demonstrate objects whose seeming ease of categorization, religious, secular, can be challenged on closer inspection. My point is this: from one standpoint, images of a religious figure such as Jesus that have been created in a certain way may straightforwardly seem to be themselves “religious.” But as I have suggested, defining images of even Jesus as “religious” or “secular” can be difficult.

How would your interpretation of this image change if I told you it came from a restaurant in Mexico, rather than a Mexican restaurant in New York? Would it vary depending on which borough or neighborhood of New York it came from?

If the class of “religious” images, broadly construed, occasionally includes objects we would generally regard as “secular,” such as the Jesus action figure I showed, what about the class of “secular” objects? Today I would like to explore a body of religious images that have, to my knowledge, been almost completely overlooked by scholars. While this paper is certainly a work in progress, hopefully it will give you some idea of the fruitful and interesting work yet to be done, and which becomes possible when we push the distinction between “the religious” and “the secular.”

Just a few moments ago, I spoke of the distance between an observer and his or her object of study. I find it a positive step for scholarship that in recent years we have become more comfortable with discussing the personal stake we have in our research, and the ways it often derives in some form from personal biography. The case study I wish to discuss today is perhaps an extreme example of this, in that it involves my immediate and extended family. While this intimacy with the subject undoubtedly involves a particular myopia, it also grants a unique perspective into the practice of religion and use of material objects within the home that might not be possible for a normal outsider. Because of my training in religious studies, it is possible to elucidate my relatives’ use of images in a way that mere biography could not. Indeed, I will argue that their use of images sheds light on broader trends within evangelical Protestantism and Christianity at large.

Those relatives of whom I speak constitute three family groups within my mother’s clan, the Deffinbaughs. I begin with my grandparents, Byron and Evalyn, because their use of images and construction of personal space undoubtedly influenced the way each of their children would follow suit as adults. One of the main rooms in Byron and Evalyn’s current home, despite its comparatively small size, is the study. Indeed, the main entryway leads almost directly to the study door. As long as I can recall, the room has been a nexus for three things: Evalyn’s sewing, Byron’s books, and the family portraits. Illuminated by the windows opposite, the wall between the bookshelves and the sewing table is hung with an impressive collection of picture frames. At two 11×14” frames per child, most of the available wall space is filled in that my grandparents produced four children. More pictures line the walls in my grandparents’ bedroom and other spaces, but the study is the main place for visually tracing the expansion of their progeny.

And why not? One of the earliest commandments in the Bible, repeated to both Adam and Noah, is to be fruitful and multiply. Whether my grandparents recognize the significance or not, the wall serves among other things to document their obedience to this injunction.

On its own, their family-portrait collection might seem rather unexceptional. The prominence of family photos within the home is very American and by no means specifically religious. But consider that, aside from various pictures that map—literally—the location of their property in Mason County and the state of Washington, and the occasional embroidered wall-hanging, my grandparents have almost no pictures in their home aside from the portraits of loved ones. The decorative tendencies of my own parents, Rod and Jean Foist, are even more Spartan.

I can remember only one occasion when they purchased formal artwork, and I would not be surprised if those images, originally bought in Arizona, were left behind on their recent move from Singapore to Vancouver.

Aside from the occasional gift of a friend, or more recently my own art photography, the only pictures my parents have in their home are photographs of friends and family, many of whom are fellow Christians.

The third family group I will consider from this clan is Bob and Jeannette Deffinbaugh, who have lived since the ‘60s in Dallas, where Bob attended seminary and has been a minister for many years. The home of the Texas Deffinbaughs is a sprawling ranch house frequently in a state of cheerful disorganization. The spine of this abode is a lengthy hallway devoted to extensive groupings of the various nuclear families within the Deffinbaugh and Ross clans — a genealogical map that rivals Evalyn’s collection on the walls of their study. Unlike Evalyn, Jeannette has included not just their five daughters and their families, but pictures of their siblings’ and in-laws’ families, nieces and nephews. (Visiting there once, I think was rather horrified to find a frightening picture of myself in awkward mid-adolescence.)

But the pictures don’t stop with the hallway. When one enters the kitchen, it is almost difficult to locate the refrigerator because of the proliferation of snapshots that cover it.

Most are of families, and a few, presumably, are missionaries living abroad, whom my aunt and uncle know through the church. In other words, most of the images lining their home depict people who are part of Bob and Jeannette’s spiritual community, immediate and abroad. To understand why the significance of these images goes beyond the American penchant for private display of candid and photo-studio pictures, we must consider one of the basic doctrines in Christianity.

Presumably learned shortly after one’s conversion, that doctrine is the idea that the church is the body of Christ, with Christ being the head. In Foundations of the Christian Faith, theologian James Boice writes, “All true believers become identified with Christ as members of his mystical body.” This belief is generally derived from a few passages from the New Testament, all attributed to the apostle Paul. Boice notes that the strongest statement of this idea comes in 1 Cor. 12, where Paul develops an extended analogy of the church as a body that concludes, “Now you [meaning the church] are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” Paul refers in Colossians to doing his “share on behalf of His body (which is the church).” Thus, while Paul never develops an elaborate doctrine of this as he does with other issues like the nature of God’s grace, the idea that the church is the body of God on earth appears throughout his writings. For believers who accept this theological positions, one’s photographs of other believers and one’s local church therefore depict the body of God as one knows it on this earth.

Boice points out that the “union” with Christ as part of his body entails union with the other body parts as well. “We are all members of the body, but it is his body. He is the head.” Boice explains, “…The union is not established by the act of joining some external organization, even a true church. Rather it is established only when Christ himself takes up residence within the individual.” What makes this mystical body possible? Some of you may recognize Boice’s allusion to the Holy Spirit, which Christians believe first came down on the day of Pentecost, fulfilling Jesus’ promise that when he left the earth for good, he would leave his followers “another comforter.” Probably the most powerful metaphor Christians use to describe the community that results from their joint membership in God’s mystical, earthly body is that of family. A church I regularly attended in Phoenix for many years emphasized strongly that the church is “a family of families,” in contrast to such social models as a business, an army, and so forth. In Galatians Paul writes that God sent Jesus “in order that He might redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” If all who become Christians are not only members of God’s body, but adopted as sons and daughters of God, they therefore acquire a familial relationship with each other, at least in a spiritual sense. Therefore, my relatives’ images of family members who share their faith stand both as a representation of the loved ones who are absent, and an affirmation of their identity in a community both familial and spiritual.

To briefly recap, Protestant evangelicals like my family believe that the community of believers constitutes the body of God on earth, and that this spiritual community is bonded to one another in familial ties because of their common daughter- and sonship with God. Therefore I argue that their use of photographs depicting Christian relatives and other believing families they know is not just a manifestation of American photographic habits. Those images are a kind of Protestant icon that can both affirm and inspire piety and reinforce one’s communal bonds with that spiritual community in the absence of those depicted. Such images affirm piety in the case of those like my grandparents, for whom pictures of their children demonstrate Byron and Evalyn’s faithfulness to be fruitful and multiply, and furthermore that all of those children independently committed themselves to God and the community of believers. To some degree, such commitments indicate, the success of their parenting in transmitting the legacy of the faith to the next generation. Images of Christian families can inspire piety when they come in the form of missionary prayer cards that remind those working in secular jobs to pray for the brave souls who have made the supposedly ultimate commitment of going into full-time ministry or even moving overseas.

Finally, I want to talk a little about the way family portraits of other Christians, whether bonded through blood kinship or not, play a role in the affirmation and creation of community. In her book On Photography, Susan Sontag writes: “Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself — a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. … Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives.” For this reason, Protestant churches that may otherwise display almost no figurative images in their sanctuary, frequently have a wall of missionary photos in the church foyer.

Just as a family keeps photos of its absent members on the walls of home, a church keeps photos of its absent members on the walls of its building. Those images are both a trace of the absent relatives, and an affirmation of their membership in the church, family community.

In the case of the Deffinbaughs , I think this has been particularly true. Although I did not talk about them today, Byron and Evalyn’s oldest daughter, Ruth, and her husband Dave, have spent most of their married life in various parts of Asia, working as missionaries. My own parents lived in Singapore for seven-and-a-half years as so-called “tent-making” missionaries. Even though Texas is at least on the same continent, the distance of Bob and Jeannette and their children has greatly reduced the number of visits and my grandparents’ ability to attend weddings.

In recent years, my grandparents have had a reduced ability to attend weekly church services because of caring for my great-grandmother Mary, who will turn 105 on Tuesday. Given this burden of care, affirmation that they are still part of a spiritual community is particularly important on such days. Every week their youngest son Dan and his family come down for the “Saturday night sing,” a lively hour of hymn-singing with Grammy D. When Bob is up for a visit, he often leads the gathered family in a short devotional — prayer and a discussion of the morning’s Bible passage.

Probably few extended families these days are as close-knit as the Deffinbaughs, or bonded with ties of such spiritual depth. But the importance of their family photographs in affirming and maintaining their familial and spiritual kinship points to an important trend in the church at large. That trend is the photo church directory. My first exposure to it happened in the early 1990s when our family’s local church launched a project to have each family or member of the church photographed in a professional studio-like setting established in one of the Sunday School classrooms. The result was a uniform, yearbook-style directory that would help people match names with faces after the church service.

Subsequent directories in that church returned to the photo-less phone-book style directory, but photo church directories are big business.

A recent survey of websites for companies in the photo-directory business turned up three U.S. companies (including Olan Mills and Lifetouch) and two Canadian-based businesses. Other companies sell photo-directory software, one called A Church Without A Stranger. Comments on the “Reference Letters” page of on Canadian company, IPC included the following: “Since we received the directory, many people have been able to identify someone in church by looking for the picture… Some have said, I have often wondered who so and so was, never knew their name, but now I do.” Church photo directories are evidently so common that the major evangelical publication Christianity Today reprints on its website two articles on “doing directories right” published in the last three years. In the more recent of these, one pastor was described as “us[ing] his directory as a family album.”

I hope it is becoming clear how much work remains to be done in this area. This paper has focused primarily on the use of family portraiture among evangelical Christians, and the importance of these images in affirming and encouraging piety and community. Undeniably, the type of pictures discussed first and foremost stand in for loved ones, but when those loved ones are also fellow believers, the pictures indirectly become a part of one’s relationship with God, and indeed one of the only ways for evangelicals to ever image the divine. When one extends this notion of the photograph-as-icon to church photo directories, I think the work remaining to be done would be rich indeed. I focused on image-use among evangelical Christians in part because Protestants have tended to so vehemently eschew all depictions of God. However, I found discussion of photo directories linked to Protestant and Catholic parishes alike, and even the Orthodox Church in America, one project that might emerge from this work-in-progress might be a comparative study of photo directories in religious communities that explores the relationship between their theology of God and the use of images within the tradition. If nothing else, I hope I have persuaded you of the possibilities for research that remain to be explored when we venture into the gray territory bounded by the categories “religious” and “secular.”


Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, expanded edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Boice, James Montgomery. Foundations of the Christian Faith, revised ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

English, Jim. “Photo Op: Getting the most out of your church’s picture directory.” Your Church. 2003., accessed Feb. 20, 2004.

Freedberg, David. The Power of Images. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Hoover, Stewart. “Visual Religion in Media Culture,” in The Visual Culture of American Religion ed. David Morgan and Sally M. Promey. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. 146-159.

IPC Company Web site., accessed Feb. 20, 2004.

“The Material History of American Religion Project.”, accessed Dec. 15, 2001.

McDannell, Colleen. “Creating the Christian Home: Home Schooling in Contemporary America,” for American Sacred Space ed. David Chidester and Edward Linenthal, Indiana University Press, 1995.

Material Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Morgan, David. Protestants and Pictures. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Shimchick, Fr. John. “‘Say Cheese!’: Creating a Parish Photo Directory.” Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries., accessed Feb. 20, 2004.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1977.

Throop, John R. “Pictorial Directory” It’s a Snap!” Your Church Jan/Feb 2001., accessed Feb. 20, 2004.

Timberdoodle Co. Catalog. Fall 2001 edition.

Van Ess, Josef. “The Youthful God: Anthropomorphism in Early Islam.” The University Lecture in Religion at Arizona State University, March 8, 1988.

Wells, Liz, ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1997.
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Filed under religious propaganda, The Art World

2 responses to “Saint me, Saint you…

  1. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  2. Hi Sandra,

    Thanks for the good word!

    Are you an artist?


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