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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Black & White Photos of Faith

I'm a sucker for Buzzfeed articles. I don't get sucked into cat videos or Reddit, and I don't spend hours continuously checking Facebook or Twitter (outside of my marketing job). But I fall for the Buzzfeed link almost every time, mostly because they have the best headlines in the business.

A couple weeks ago I found myself clicking through to a seductive article with a title close to "These Photos Will Completely Change the Way You See the Past!" I mean, how could I resist?

But believe it or not, the post made good on that promise. They had taken black and white historical photos and artificially added in color. All of a sudden these images no longer seemed so distant. The man with the thick mustache and bowler looked like someone you might pass on the street. The scenes from 1940s life looked like a snapshot of your neighborhood. The retouching with color and thus lifelike aspects closed the distance between the past and present. I felt much more connected to the scenes in the photographs after that. They weren't so foreign or distant. They were right here next to my own experience.

In reflecting on the end of 2013, I think we all take black and white photographs, especially in the area of our faith. There is something very appealing and artistic about deleting color from an image. (Why else would it be so popular even to this day?) Having black and white photos allows contrast and thus a more certain level of understanding. It's easier to deal with images cast in only two colors. The complexity of full-color snapshots is much more difficult for us to process and the duo of black & white seems to help gloss over a lot of imperfections and blemishes. Everything looks better when cast into those two opposite extremes standing side by side in glaring distinction.

In Christianity we are especially susceptible to this. We like to think of our faith history in only two colors, black & white, right & wrong, those like us & those not. It's very convenient for the past to seem simpler, cleaner, or somehow purer - all effects of our black & white-washing. We love to think of golden eras like the early Church period, the high middle ages, the Reformation, or even 1950s America. "That was when men were men, Americans were great, Christians were real Christians and they knew it" and so on.

It's easy to think that the past was simpler with more contrast and stark outlines of morality, ("sure in my day we had problems, but we would never do X like you find now"). And it's easy to think that our current times, with so many complicated colors and hues, must indicate a terrible new height of debauchery, confusion, unfaithfulness, or trouble. You often hear people descrying that the world is now going to 'hell in a hand basket.' Just look at how many Christians reach for 'end times' prophecies and confidently point out their fulfillment today despite our very God decidedly telling us that not one of us would know the hour.

I'm a fan and student of history. And I used to feel some sense of loss about our contemporary culture of faith, as if we must have been screwing it up and the problems of our times were much too severe for reconciliation. But those thoughts are really just illusions (which first-hand accounts of peasants on the coast of France having literally everything they've known destroyed by Viking raiders will make abundantly clear). Think the Middle Ages were a wonderful era where everyone was united by Christianity? Try reading the histories, rife with conflict. Think 1950s America was a time when everyone acted knew right from wrong and acted with propriety? Now we have volumes of stories of what went on in secret, including divorce, forced abortions, and even child sexual abuse.

The good news? We don't have it worse than everyone else did; our problems are just different. Our faith isn't more watered down now then in previous ages. On the contrary, we have a much richer history to learn from than our forbears centuries before. The bad news? We are the ones often finding the complexity of our modern faith culture(s) too mentally difficult to deal with.

But rather than considering the past as a purified beacon or a simplified ideal we can realize, like I did with the color photographs, that there's more relatedness than perhaps we once thought. Our experiences of doubt and complexity are universal and that there's beauty in that shared experience as well. Others have weathered the same storm to their credit and now it's our turn.

The issues of our times may be different than before but that seems to be our task. We get to struggle with the life of faith and the really pressing issues of this age - war, poverty, corporate greed, the emphasis on sexual morality, homosexuality's place in society and the church, combating sexism, Christian disunity, and much more. We get to experience life in a million different colors. Christ didn't divide his reality into black & white, accepted or not, and in fact he condemned those of his time who did just that (See John 8:1-11). Such a task is clearly God's and not ours. We're called to simply be fully present in the here and now.

Our task of living in this full-color time may not be simple or neat but perhaps it holds the potential to be rich beyond anything we could have designed for ourselves, beyond anything we would have preferred. And I think it can give us beauty beyond anything we could have even known we'd always wanted.

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