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Fixing Our Gaze: The Optics of Worship in a Polarized Age
By Steve Yeagley

The following is an excerpt from a keynote address given at the 2017 Music and Worship Conference at Andrews University, focused on the theology of seeing and worship in the Gospel of John. 

As I reflect on the story of the Samaritan woman —with its territories, border crossings, and revealing moments—I think about my two decades of leading short-term mission trips. More often than not, volunteers arrived in-country with their cameras, eager to capture their adventure. Over time, I learned about something social theorists call “the gaze.” It refers to how a person looks at something or someone and what that point of view reveals. 

Mission trip volunteers often exhibited what John Urry called the “tourist gaze.” As tourists they placed certain expectations on local populations—whether it was to be poor, or to be friendly, or to be exotic— as part of their search for having an “authentic” mission experience. Local populations even catered to these expectations, if they thought it would be to their benefit.

I’ll never forget our visit to the floating islands of Lake Titicaca in Peru. We were taken out to the islands by a local tour company. There we were greeted in a well-choreographed fashion by members of the Uros tribe, dressed in traditional garb. The women were selling small handicrafts they had made, while the men ferried us about in their reed boats. It felt like a real mission experience. 

However, we soon learned that the future of the tribe was uncertain. Many of their young people were leaving the islands for a more promising life in the city. And much of what remained of tribe’s traditional way of life was largely for the benefit of tourists. As it turns out, our search for “authenticity” was a bit of a mirage. 

While often well-meaning, the tourist gaze has been rightly criticized for the way that it objectifies and stereotypes local populations and reinforces the egocentric and ethnocentric attitudes of the tourist. In fact, it often reveals more about the one who gazes than the one captured by the gaze.

I’ve come to believe that there is also something called the “worshiper gaze.” This gaze comes loaded with expectations that worshipers place on local congregations in their search for having an “authentic” or “relevant” encounter with God. In the worshiper gaze, God—as mediated through the sights and sounds of the worship “experience”—is positioned as the fulfillment of the worshiper’s wants and needs. 

Congregations, fearing the loss of their young people and facing an uncertain future, learn to cater to the gaze of worshiper, turning worship styles and productions into commodities to be marketed and consumed by eager spiritual tourists. This marketplace mentality is how today’s mountains of worship are built. And you could argue that it’s one of the reasons why worship is more polarized than ever. Each of us gaze upon our own preferred “peak” experiences, which really have become reflections of us just as much as they are of God.

Yet, when it comes right down to it, our gaze is not reliable—it devours, it dominates, it distorts, and it divides. John says in chapter two that “many people saw the signs Jesus was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people” (2:24). He knew how self-centered and self-seeking the human gaze can be.

The only path to fixing our gaze is to be found in the gaze of Jesus. The gaze that looked into the Samaritan woman’s life and saw her history of broken desires. The gaze that saw Nathaniel in secret from afar and read his honest heart. The gaze that looked down from the cross at Mary and the beloved disciple and said, “Look, here is your son! Look, here is your mother!” It is the gaze of Jesus—the Savior of the World—that transforms our own seeing and asks us to look upon one another as members of the same spiritual family.